Duncan policies should encourage artistic expression

By Paul Fletcher – Cowichan News Leader Pictorial

I can’t help but wade into the community mural controversy.

It is just too attractive to pass up, especially since the mural proponents have put Duncan city council against the wall, essentially forcing them to condemn the mural, its creator and the voice behind the mural.

Now council is so fired up, they will likely order the mural removed. Anarchy just cannot be tolerated in the “democratic” process.

Council’s forthcoming decision is dependent on whether the mural is illegal, as defined by the graffiti policy, or whether it ignored the archaic painting guidelines that require a painting permit to proceed.

Either way, the proponent did not obtain a permit and therefore the guillotine.

What is the purpose of the permit process anyway? Is it simply a means where a select few can justify their own design tastes to others?

I say, better to beautify by any means rather than be restricted into nothing done. Many beautification opportunities are missed, discouraged or not moved forward due to restrictive guidelines, costs and permitting processes. Most new businesses have no way of knowing that a permitting process even exists until the official letter arrives from the city explaining the error of its ways.

Perhaps council is treading its feet in waters that it doesn’t belong in. There are no professional artists or design professionals on council or staff. Yet one councillor has suggested folksy murals are more appropriate than graffiti art despite each style being well-recognized within the “formal” arts community.

The city’s draft mural policy was solicited from the arts council, but was it a committee of professional artists, or a few people with good intentions, who drafted the heard-but-not-seen mural policy?

The city needs to lighten the lead on its cultural and aesthetic control of the city. This management style is holding the city back from economic growth. Culture is people in consensus driven processes, not bylaws that control and inhibit cultural growth.

It cannot be managed or controlled by traditional processes.

Perhaps art, murals, painting colours, and other cultural bric-a-brac decision-making should not be a city staff and council task.

If the city had a volunteer art-and-design committee to lead the cultural process, advise council in cultural matters and expedite the city’s decision-making process, then maybe we would not be on the doorstep of another art controversy.

When someone improves their downtown space they should be applauded rather than being served a form letter to remove the “offending” paint or art.

The mural in question is more than a piece of “nice” graffiti. It is a cultural statement, a way to brighten a dismal corner, a canvas on a large scale.

To compare graffiti tags with modern artistic stylization is akin to suggesting Picasso not paint in the style that he is recognized for.

The cultural city is a complex moving document of the life and times of the people that reside, work and play within its boundaries.

Culture is the personal statement that extends itself in the way we live and affect our surroundings.

Whether it is red paint on the exterior walls, a purple door or a picnic bench on the city sidewalk, cultural change deserves to be looked at as a way to personify and improve the downtown environment.

Perhaps the issue will fade away with time as many other issues before it — like the illegal paint colour on my own gallery exterior, the graffiti-like mural on the Arbutus Café wall and the promised trees and landscaping that businesses committed to do but never completed.

Paul Fletcher is former Duncan city councillor who writes monthly in the News Leader Pictorial.