Overland Park council grants exemption needed for downtown mural project to move forward

An early rendering of the four-panel mural planned for the plaza area adjacent to the Overland Park Farmers Market. Image credit Downtown Overland Park Art Project.

Saying artwork will create new interest in its downtown, the Overland Park City Council unanimously voted to allow colorful painted murals on four buildings.

Approval came over the objection of opponents, some of whom took issue with the way the multicultural message of the art was depicted. Others described them as garish, gaudy and more apropos of a run-down urban core than the historic suburban town center of Overland Park.

“I can guarantee you’ll never see this in Mission Hills, Prairie Village, Leawood or anyplace else.” said Peggy Squibbs of Overland Park.

At issue was whether four murals should be granted an exception to the downtown building code that requires a masonry exterior finish. The murals are at 7937 and 7947 Santa Fe Drive, 7522 West 80th Street and 8001 Newton Street.

The InterUrban Art House non-profit conceived the project, which is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Some of the work will be done by artists from the county’s programs for the developmentally disabled.

Since the murals are all on private property, the city role was limited to code questions about whether the painted surfaces were appropriate and would stand up to weather. Council members were advised by their legal department not to make the artistic content – a First Amendment issue — part of their decision.

Nevertheless, much of the almost two hours spent on the issue was devoted to hearing objections about the content.

The mural that got the most discussion was one on the back of the Ten Thousand Villages store depicting women of different ethnicities making crafts. Since the non-profit sells crafts from around the world made by villagers, some said the mural amounted to a big advertisement. The mural also includes a sign for the store, which would be considered separately by the city under its sign ordinance.

A mock up of the mural planned for a wall on the 10,000 Villages building. The headscarves worn by the women drew protest from some residents.

But others took issue with the depiction of women in headscarves. “I think it’s discriminatory,” said Peggy Hellings. “There’s six people with Muslim headdresses on. I’m sorry. Where’s the Star of David, where’s the crucifixes? Are we encompassing or are we trying to focus another agenda on everybody?”

Hellings said afterward she has friends and family members of different ethnicities, but was concerned that so many women depicted on the mural appeared to be from a single religion.

Residents share views on mural designs — both in favor and against

A mural designed by by Donald “Scribe” Ross depicting a western meadowlark, the Kansas state bird, is planned for the wall of a building fronting 80th Street.

Monica Gfoeller said the murals resembled the artistic whimsy of a college town. The multicultural aspect also could have been done better, she said. “If multiculturalism in Overland Park is so important, why don’t we have some murals that reflect our actual multicultural population, which teems with persons of European, African, Mexican, Central American, Indian subcontinent descent? Instead it looks like we’ve imported somebody else’s multicultural experience.”

Susan Sappenfield told council members that art should create unity rather than division. She reminded them that the Overland Park was built by names like Metcalf, Strang, Conser and Marty and urged artists not to lose sight of the city’s past.

Ralph Beck said the issue isn’t multiculturalism. The city should be concerned about control over what goes on the wall. Without some city oversight over the content, people can put anything they want on a mural, he said. “That scares me.”

There were some supporters of the murals on hand, however. Jim Farnen told council members the murals will present more diversity and appeal to younger people coming downtown. “We need to replenish the population with a younger group and that will include a more diverse group,” he said.

There are other walls to paint, he said. “If I wanted to spend $10,000 to paint a Conestoga wagon, there’s nothing that would stop me from doing that,” he said. “The better plan is for people who want different murals to figure out how to raise their own funds and pay for the dang murals.”

Jay McKell also supported the murals because of the cultural diversity. “I’m just an old white guy but I’m excited to see this mural because it depicts the heritage of my neighbors and because it sends a message to the world: Overland Park is a welcoming, hospitable, forward-looking community,” he said.

Nicole Emanuel, founder of the InterUrban Art House, later clarified that the headscarves did not necessarily denote Muslim women. “There are all kinds of people in the murals. I’m not sure what people are seeing when they see scarves on heads but we are not promulgating a religious perspective,” she said, noting that she is Jewish herself. “It saddens me, the fear saddens me.”

Council members said the murals would be a nice addition to a changing downtown.”I don’t know if this is art,” said Councilmember Rick Collins. “Whether you dislike these murals, I don’t think you can argue that at least it’s provoking thought, it’s provoking discussion and that’s what art is supposed to do.”