Friday, July 25, 2014

TOP STORY >> Traffic-box art starts dialogue

Leader staff writer

The painting of a traffic box at First and Martin streets has attracted more positive than negative attention if a closed Facebook group called “Jacksonville Ar News” is any indication.

Reactions of the group’s members came after a slew of coverage by local television stations that reported people were calling the work of art “too ethnic.”

At least one media outlet went as far as to repeat an assertion that the painting was reminiscent of the “ghetto.”

But Mayor Gary Fletcher said just one of the residents who called his office used the latter term, and that person was one of about six complainers. He added, “99 to 1 approve.”

Fletcher also said there are no plans to remove the painting from the box.

The mayor didn’t tell The Leader who the naysayers were, explaining that residents who call his office expect confidentiality.

A reposted link to one of television station’s stories garnered more than 40 responses from 15 people.

An overwhelming majority of another 40 comments posted in response to that station’s request for feedback were positive reactions to the painting.

Ron Newport, the former executive director of Keep Jacksonville Beautiful, who is white, selected Theresa Cates’ painting of black ladies dancing on a piano in church and praising God.

All of the comments in the Jacksonville Ar News group supported the painting and expressed shock that anyone would call it “ghetto” or “too ethnic.”

Also, according to the 2010 census, Jacksonville is 32.7 percent black — more than double the state average of 15.4 percent.

Michael Wallace wrote, “I live on Martin St. I think it is a beautiful addition to my neighborhood! She can paint my mailbox if she would like!”

Debbie Sullivan Fulton wrote that she saw nothing wrong with it and that the artist could paint her mailbox too.

Colida Holder wrote that the painting was beautiful and that she loved it.

Mary Morgan Strickland wrote, “Folks, get a life. It is POSITIVE, REFRESHING, and EXPRESSIVE. Embrace the fact that it isn’t graffiti!”

Kay Phillips wrote, “It amazes me what people find to complain about! The painting is not my cup of tea but it doesn’t affect me. Let it go people and move on to important things!”

Julann Carney wrote, “I think it’s terribly sad that someone can’t understand or appreciate art. To throw the word ‘ghetto’ around is just plain ignorant. I, for one, appreciate it. We should embrace the diversity in this town.”

Laurie Cross Staver wrote, “This town needs a lot more paintings to brighten up a lot of the buildings. I would love to see one on the end of the B&M flea market building, or even the end of Kroger facing North First. Bright colors and good themes help revive people’s spirit, which is what this town needs.”

And Sandy Smith suggested painting murals on the other side depicting different races would solve the problem. But, she also wrote, “I enjoyed seeing it.”

Rebecca Sessions wrote, “The box looks better than it did gray. There are a few more that should have gotten painted. Jacksonville has people from many ethnicities, cultures, and/or races. It shouldn’t be a problem to show that.”

A poll question posted on the same group reads, “It’s sad that we (the people of Jacksonville) have to be on the news for negative crap. The box that was painted. Do you have a problem with this? Check yes or no. If you do please tell us why?”

Sixteen checked no, they didn’t have a problem with it. One person responded that the television coverage was ripped off from an Arkansas Times story. One person, who checked that he or she did have a problem with the painting, didn’t comment further.

Cates agreed to spend 12 hours in the sun putting the artwork that Newport selected on the traffic box. She donated the painting to the city.

Her paintings have been displayed at the Red Door Gallery on JFK Boulevard in North Little Rock for eight years. She has also done traffic boxes in the Argenta district and Park Hill neighborhood in North Little Rock.

But Cates faced criticism there with one of the traffic boxes at the busy JFK and I-40 exit intersection being painting over and replaced with the “Perfectly Park Hill” logo.

The artist told The Leader she felt good about her work because it serves a greater purpose. Cates explained, “Some underprivileged kids will never go to a gallery, a showing, a museum. So, outside, original art composed on a traffic box will give them the opportunity to experience and see something that a real artist created and touched. And it’s free.

“They may be walking to school, waiting for their school bus or on their way inside of a church, because there is a church across the street, or going to the grocery store with their parents. They get a chance to experience something that’s real.”

Cates relates to underprivileged kids because she “came from a battered home, so domestic violence was everywhere. We were really, really poor.”

She believes it’s important for kids to see art so “they can think outside of the box, so they can dream big, so that they can know that, you know, it could be them. It could happen to anybody. Everybody has a gift. Feel free to look at it and dream, expand upon your gift or dig for your gift.

“Through stressful times, you don’t have to drink…You don’t have to do anything that’s will hurt someone. You can dig from within. That gift was from within,” Cates said.

The artist also told The Leader before the television coverage, “It seems like there may be some controversy with the art (in Jacksonville), but I feel I’m paving the way for other artists to come out throughout the city.”

She also paints, with her pastor’s blessing, during services at Evangelistic Ministries in Jacksonville.

Cates recently participated in a Make-A-Wish Foundation event that allowed terminally ill children to paint on tiles that will be sold at a gala on Nov. 6 at the governor’s mansion.

The artist also supports Women and Children First, an organization that helps battered women and children escape from broken homes.

Cates donates art to several charities. She paints baseball home plates to raise money for the Thea Foundation, which provides scholarships to students who excel in fine arts.

The artist also explained the Jacksonville painting. She said, “Everybody has a different response, a different move, a different way of praising and worshipping God. And it just shows the different positions and movements. Some people are barely hanging on to pray and the keys, and some people are barely hanging on in life. But they’re hanging on. Some are really into it...Music bypasses the intellect and goes straight to the soul.”

The bright orange used in the painting is one of her trademarks, as are spiritual or vintage themes and blank faces.

Cates was asked to paint a second box but said it is “up in the air” whether she does that.

“I don’t want them to be vandalized. I don’t want to risk the chance of that. So I’m kind of iffy about whether I’ll do anything else,” the artist told The Leader.

About Cates’ traffic box painting, the mayor said, “Personally, I like it. Everyone in my office likes it.”

If the artist paints more traffic boxes, Fletcher wants them to emphasize positive themes related to Jacksonville — the fact that the Joint Education Center houses six college and universities, that the Boys and Girls Club provides a safe- haven for underprivileged kids to play and that the city has a world-class Museum of Military History.

But, he said, “Right now, I want this issue to die down. I want us to celebrate the arts in our community. I want us to promote the arts in our communities and (traffic boxes are) a good way to do it.”