The mural that’s caused so much controversy over the past couple of weeks is now completed – a freshly painted American flag with a magnolia drawn into it and the word “Manchester” running along the star-spangled side can be seen on the side of Wheeler’s Construction and Restoration, Inc., 121 S. Spring St. The painting may be dry, but the fuss around it is still waiting to settle.
Tarabella Aversa of Murfreesboro is the artist behind the painting. She’s a Nashville-based artist who has done murals in city, which is what originally caught the eye of Scott van Velsor. Through fundraisers and a generous donation from First National Bank of Manchester, van Velsor commissioned the art at no cost to the city.
The Historic Zoning Commission (HZC), where van Velsor is a member, approved of his request (on behalf of business owner and member John Mancini) to paint and replace the awning outside of the building in question, but the commission allegedly asked them to wait on the mural project so they and the Board of the Mayor and Aldermen could create guidelines for putting murals in the downtown historic zone. This ask has been disputed by van Velsor, who claims this discussion did not take place, but his word was overshadowed by a majority of the committee.Alderman Cheryl Swan, who represents the HZC, explained during Board of Mayor and Alderman June 5 workshop that she was given permission by a majority vote to give a positive recommendation to BOMA to support murals in general, and after that, the commission asked for time to draw up guidelines pertaining to murals before any were painted.
Van Velsor went ahead with the mural anyway; the move that ignited the spark of controversy.
BOMA was not impressed
The HZC sought action from BOMA during their workshop meeting on Tuesday, June 5. They didn’t ask for the mural to be removed – they asked for BOMA to remove van Velsor and John Mancini.
“It seems to me that this whole thing is a, and I’m not belittling things by any means, but an argument over power,” said Alderman Bob Bellamy. “You got guidelines and those guidelines should be followed. If you’ve got members that don’t want to follow this guidelines, then I would think the historic commission would have some authority to reel them in and say ‘you’re not playing by the rules.’”
Alderman Ryan French took it a step further and said he would like to see the group disbanded, as they have brought too much controversy to their attention.
Zoning Commission members were allowed to speak briefly. Commission member Pat Berges explained to French that a zoning commission is required for historic registry listings to continue to be on the national list and carries weight when applying for grants.
Historic Zoning Commission President Ray Amos expressed his concerns about keeping people like van Velsor in the group, as Amos believes others are likely to follow suit and go around the commission’s authority.
Van Velsor explained that he believed he had permission to paint the mural. He apologized if his actions offended anyone and followed up by saying he had showed the mural concept art to the commission and to people around town and had received a positive response.
“We got approval from all the exterior…we also established there are no guidelines for art on the square,” he said. “That to me, was the end of the discussion. Immediately afterwards, we got the unanimous endorsement that murals were positive.”
Mayor Lonnie Norman stopped the discussion and told Swan and Bellamy to attend the next HZC meeting to determine “how to make everybody happy,” he said.
“We have the mural up there,” Norman said. “What I want to do is talk to you all later, get a vote or two, to see what we have to do to work it out so everyone can be satisfied.”
BOMA does not have the authority to remove members from the zoning commission — that must be done by majority vote within the commission.
HZC looks to move on
Members of the HZC did not act on their threat – Van Velsor and Mancini remained on the board and did not face a vote to remove them. Instead, the commission presented their preliminary draft of mural guidelines, drafted by Berges and Amos.
The commission struck out a majority of the guidelines after discussing how they could not be enforced or how they conflicted with the First Amendment and rules of subjectivity.
The few points that did make it through the initial cuts where sent on to City Attorney Gerald Ewell. This included disallowing murals from featuring obscene, pornographic and images depicting incitement. They also asked Ewell to look into if they could regulate the size of the murals, as van Velsor argued it would conflict with the artist’s freedom of expression.
At the end of the meeting, van Velsor asked for a public apology from the HZC for slandering his character and saying that he, a Navy veteran, disrespected the American Flag. Instead, HZC member Gary Trail fired back that van Velsor owed them one as he disrespected their authority by going ahead with the mural.
Berges mentioned that she believed the mural was against the flag code, thus it was disrespectful.
Van Velsor shot back and said it wasn’t right for them to call the police on Aversa while she was painting the mural.
Swan quickly intervened said while disagreements and compromise “make the world go round,” this type of debate was not healthy. She also told van Velsor that the unknown HZC member was acting on the suggestion of a city official when authorities were called on Aversa.
Amos adjourned the meeting before things got more heated.
Bellamy did not attend.
One of the points used against the mural is the Flag Code. The United States has a set of Federal guidelines on how, when and where to display the American Flag. The Flag Code does not impose penalties for misuse of the United States flag.
It states, “The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.”
The code is also against clothing with the American flag printed on it, carrying the flag flat, drawing on the flag such as Manchester’s mural, disposable products with the flag on it, like paper plates and napkins, using the flag as a part of an advertisement or uniform and more.
For a full reading of what the code allows and disallows, visit usflag.org/uscode36.html.