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Muralist at odds with community groups over Beechview painting

Murals by Kyle Holbrook have become easy to spot over the years: bright pieces incorporating people, stories and a sense of the neighborhood the murals strive to brighten up.

But among some Beechview residents, there's a sense that Holbrook barreled ahead and painted what he wanted, not necessarily what the community was interested in. And while the mural -- located beneath the Port Authority "T" overpass at Wenzell Avenue and Broadway -- is nearly finished, it's not clear Holbrook had the permission he needed to start it at all.

The mural, on either side of the overpass, features paintings based on photos from Beechview of old: an old-fashioned baseball team in knickers, a family in porkpie and cloche hats, a baby in a white gown; and more modern Beechview scenes: a Latino family, a trolley bound for Dormont, a towheaded blue-eyed boy on a slide. The representations are on a background of bright green with orange, motifs you can see only if you look close: mermaids, grinning heads, a ship at sail in a storm, a church scene.

"People in the community didn't like what looked like overblown graffiti," says Don Bell, president of the Beechview Merchants' Association and the umbrella group Community Leaders United for Beechview. "I'm not sure his style of mural fit in with our community... I get the feeling that Kyle feels he's become the world's most important muralist and you'd better get out of his way."

While Bell allows he's "not an art critic," he says the bold mural hasn't gone over well. But an informal straw poll of neighbors within view of the mural didn't bear that out.

"It's all right by me," says David Siebert, whose front porch faces a side of the mural. "At least they're not writing graffiti."

"I think it's beautiful," says Debbie Phillips, who lives less than a block away. "I probably talked to the kids who were doing it three times a week. They couldn't have been any more polite than what they were. I hope they get to finish it."

Chuck Pecora was tidying his mother's rose garden a few houses down from the mural. "It's OK," he said of the mural. "It's better than looking at a white wall. I wouldn't want it hanging over my couch. I like it; it isn't what I expected."

None of those neighbors had attended any planning meetings or contributed ideas for the mural.

"We were led to believe there would be a series of meetings," Bell says. "There were a few -- they were kind of sketchy, done in a kind of haphazard way. It seemed like the personnel kept changing. The meetings were with different people, different groups," he says.

After the mural began going up in June, state Rep. Chelsa Wagner's office began receiving roughly five calls a week, says staffer Desiree VanTassell. Constituents "didn't know what was happening and they were nervous," VanTassell says. "In the end it was a lack of communication between [Holbrook] and the community about what was actually going to happen. What's on the wall is not quite what they thought was going to be there."

That's not Holbrook's recollection of the community-input process. "We did a series of community mural-project meetings starting in March," he says. "We brought sketches, they wanted to see other sketches, one got voted on, and we took it to the [city Public] Art Commission."

Therein seems to lie the source of the conflict: Holbrook didn't get a refusal from the Art Commission, and he took that as an approval. Port Authority took his word that he had the necessary permission.

Holbrook has done numerous murals over the years under the auspices of his MLK Mural Project, which elicits participation from youths in the areas where the murals go up. The murals, which rely heavily on foundation funding, are generally popular with neighbors and those passing through. As Holbrook pointed out repeatedly at a Sept. 24 Art Commission where he was seeking approval for a separate mural proposed for Larimer, last year's mural of local faces along the Martin Luther King Jr. Busway at Shady Avenue won Best Public Artwork in City Paper's annual readers' poll.

The Beechview mural is on Port Authority property, which means it doesn't require approval from the city's Art Commission. But the Port Authority told Holbrook to get the agency's approval anyway.

Holbrook says he did. The commission says he didn't. He says it's personal. They say it's paperwork.

"Kyle never really got full approval from the Art Commission," says Shelly Martz, interim public arts manager. "The Art Commission gave approval pending review."

The reason things were left pending, all sides agree, is that Holbrook didn't have a finalized design. He often doesn't when he begins work. He sends the kids who work with him out into the community with disposable cameras to capture images that represent the area, and then those images are worked into the design. The designs aren't finalized until two weeks into what's generally a five-week painting process, he says.

"It's a process, it's not a TV where you turn it on and it's on," Holbrook says. But that very approach caused him trouble at the Sept. 24 meeting, where he was seeking approval for the Larimer mural with no sketches or mockups at all, just the assurance that it would be highly similar to the award-winning one on the busway.

"So we're being asked to approve something we can't see right now?" Art Commission member Lareese Hall asked at that meeting.

"Yes," Holbrook answered.

"There is precedence for us, that we see the final pieces before we approve them," said commission member Dennis Astorino.

Approval of that mural was tabled until Holbrook could present a finalized sketch.

"Just part of the game," Holbrook said after the meeting.

The sketches for the Beechview mural, he allows, weren't exactly the same as what's on the walls -- and that's because, he says, mural creation is a process, with young artists gathering images from the community as the painting progresses.

"I don't believe anyone did anything intentional to him," Martz says of the commission review. "The main reason there was an issue is he did not get formal approval. ... The design he initially showed was not what he painted. The Beechview community was very upset. From their understanding, it was our fault."

"The only thing the Art Commission requested is the color scheme," Holbrook says. "We changed the color scheme up. We told them at the meeting we were planning on starting in July," he adds. "June 25 was the Art Commission [giving] approval with the stipulation we get the paperwork of the new color scheme and budget. We brought it the very next day. I never got a call back." So, without formal approval but without being shot down, painting began. "August 25, two months later, I got a letter saying we needed to stop the mural.

"It's a lot of crabs in a bucket," adds Holbrook. "That's why people leave this city."

The question now is what to do next. Martz says that the Art Commission is deferring to the Port Authority, but authority spokesperson Judi McNeil says, "We cannot be in the business of approving or not approving public art because of free speech. ... It's up to the artist to get approval from the Arts Commission or any overarching beautification agency or the residents. [Holbrook] assured us he got that ... If not, the shame is on Kyle and he needs to come forward and admit that he slipped up in that regard."

In the meantime, even County Executive Dan Onorato -- who rarely shies from a fight -- is staying out of the fray.

"[W]hat we've always told Kyle is that he needs to get community buy-in and engage the community and comply with any local ordinances or zoning laws," says Onorato spokesman Kevin Evanto. "Whatever entity he needs to engage with, he needs to get that approval. As far as we know, Kyle has always done that."

click to enlarge Muralist Kyle Holbrook with some of his Beechview creations. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Muralist Kyle Holbrook with some of his Beechview creations.

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