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SeeSAW sets new precedent for public art
Early in the week, the mural takes shape at 34th and Habersham

This is a story about two brick walls.

The first one is an actual wall. It’s made of cinder blocks and sits on the back of a vacant lot on Habersham and 34th Streets.

The second brick wall is a figurative one, made of the fear and doubt that come when people tell you “no.” It occupies space inside people’s heads and keeps them apart from their dreams.

Artists Matt Hebermehl and James “Dr. Z” Zdaniewski have had their noses very close to both as of late.

After a year of meeting with city planners, the founders of See Savannah Art Walls (SeeSAW for short) have succeeded in organizing the first–ever public mural project to be sanctioned by the City of Savannah. Deemed a “revolving art wall,” the spot will feature the Savannah–themed work of a different artist every three to fourth months.

The pair wielded brushes last week as they helped artist Katherine Sandoz create the first installation, a deeply–hued marsh landscape on that real wall at the edge of the Thomas Square neighborhood.

An illustrator and former SCAD professor also known for her abstract depictions of the Lowcountry’s natural beauty, Sandoz (the “z” is silent) chose a bucolic scene of Turtle Island, a straight shot east from this spot and the last land mass before the sea.

“I wanted to create a feeling of the land’s history, before the buildings and the people,” explained Sandoz as she mixed together greens and blues in an old coffee can. “I see it as bringing the ocean back to this neighborhood.”

Before anyone could place a single dab of paint, however, there was that other metaphorical brick wall to surmount.
Inspired by Miami’s Wynwood district and its vibrant swath of permanent outdoor murals, longtime collaborators Hebermehl and Zdaniewski (they met their first day as SCAD freshmen) attempted a similar project on a smaller scale as part of 2010’s Savannah Urban Arts Festival (SUAF).

The pair and others in the creative community painted murals in their respective urban styles around the city, careful to choose private property with sympathetic owners, including the wall on Habersham and 34th Street owned by Alex Grikitis.
Perhaps because it too closely resembled street graffiti and definitely because it violated the city’s sign ordinance, Hebermehl and Zdaniewski’s mural was whitewashed three days later by police.

Property owners of the other sites were cited in violation of various ordinances.

No matter how pure the intention, the paint couldn’t stay.

“We wanted to set an example of ‘responsible muraling,’ as an example of public art,” said Hebermehl. “I know that people are scared of graffiti, that kind of rogue mentality that goes out and just covers everything in paint, which isn’t what we want to do.”

Although frustrated in the face of this brick wall, Hebermehl and Zdaniewski refused to let it go. Committed to their creative community and the vision of bringing public wall art to Savannah., they resolved to find a way to get the city’s blessing.

“This was our first time making a stand for something we believe in,” said Zdaniewski.

“We kept trying to do it the right way. When we hit a roadblock, we couldn’t think about giving up because we knew it was worth fighting for.”

To gain support, they consulted community leaders like Thomas Square Neighborhood grande dame Virginia Mobley and Citizens Advocacy director Tom Kohler, who has for years collected images of local vintage signs as examples of public art.

Perhaps the person who gave them the biggest leg–up over the wall was Ellen Harris, Cultural Resource and Urban Planning Manager for the Metropolitan Planning Commission.

Enthusiastic about the project (“gung–ho from day one” is how Hebermehl put it), Harris wanted to guide the pair through the city’s labyrinthine approval process.

The only problem was, such a process didn’t exist.

“Though it had been in discussion, the city didn’t have a clear mural policy before Matt and James came to us with their proposal,” said Harris.

“There was a process in place for public art like fountains and sculptures, but the city was struggling with the distinctions of when is it a sign, when is it graffiti and when is it mural? When is it art?”

The MPC spent a year developing those standards. It went through the Site Monument Commission, the review body that oversees Savannah’s many monuments, markers and public sculptures, and revised the master planning guidelines to include wall paintings that are Savannah–centric and positive in theme. The revision is now known as “The Mural Policy.”

Finally, SeeSAW was over the second wall. More importantly, it left the ladder up for others:

The MPC sent a policy recommendation to City Council that allows anyone to submit a proposal for a public mural. The commission must review the proposal, public hearings may be held and a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) has to be issued, but due to everyone’s tenacity, there is now a process for legal mural art in Savannah.

“We’re about providing a process for public participation,” said Harris. “We don’t want to make it so difficult for people to do creative things.”

Approval was granted to SeeSAW last November, and the long–awaited project has been lofted by the community:
A Kickstarter fund launched in December garnered more than $7000 for a first year of supplies, artist compensation and documentation. Lonnie Byrd of B&B paint sold them the paint at cost. The band KidSyc@Brandywine is composing an original song for a film documenting the mural. The Creative Coast has offered its space for an accompanying artists’ lecture series, kicking off April 16 as part of SUAF.

“Now we can tell the story of this and engage outside communities to say, ‘This is what’s going on here in Savannah,’” reveled Hebermehl.

It’s just the beginning for SeeSAW, who has slated portraitist Troy Wandzel to paint the next installment.

And it’s a happy ending for both brick walls: One now beautifully painted, the other overcome.