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Saving Nina
Portrait of Nina Simone, by Panhandle Slim

THE CHEERFUL rebels of the world love to say how it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission. But those people have clearly never waded into Savannah’s public art debate.

Around these parts, if you want to add an exciting design or a pop of color to the exterior of any property—public or private—that can be seen from the street, there are signatures to secure and a bureaucratic process to follow. Should you skip the red tape, you can expect a visit—or at least a strongly-worded certified letter—from the heavies at Code Enforcement, who will ask you to remove your creation or they will be happy to do it for you.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the same such ordinances are what obligate slumlords to clean up crappy tags from untalented vandals and keep your nutbag neighbor from fingerpainting his favorite American Ninja Warrior on his garage.

But submitting stacks of paperwork and attending long meetings in the middle of the day can also suck all the juice out of a legit creative vision—if you were even aware of the requirements in the first place.

In late 2015, when large portraits of prominent African American cultural figures painted by beloved local folk artist Scott “Panhandle Slim” Stanton began popping up in areas of town where many fear to tread, no one thought to ask for permission.

“We didn’t know any of the rules when we started,” avows Elder Erika Hardnett of Agape Empowerment Ministries, one of the driving forces behind the Walls of Hope project.

“We just wanted to bring something positive to the community.”

Over the past year and half, more than 30 colorful likenesses of and encouraging quotes from historic influencers like James Baldwin, Bob Marley, Shirley Chisholm and India Arie have found their way to the façades of shuttered businesses on Waters Avenue, the sides of convenience stores on Montgomery Street, and increasingly, into the wealthier, whiter neighborhoods in between.

Most have welcomed the Walls of Hope to their blocks, heralding Panhandle Slim’s pieces as a soulful salve for a city wracked by poverty and violence. The great masked rabblerouser Banksy once said, “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” and we’ve got far more of the former than the latter around here.

But Walls of Hope’s artful sedition eventually caught the attention of the Metropolitan Planning Commission and the City, which sent out letters to property owners last summer giving them the choice of pursuing a permit or removing the portraits. Some took them down to avoid authoritarian conflict, though all it takes is a cruise around town to see that plenty have ignored the edict.

Homeowner Paul Suszynski filed a petition to keep the portrait of musician and Civil Rights activist Nina Simone affixed to the side of his 1886 clapboard house on Habersham near Hall Street, and it hit the agenda last week for the MPC’s Historic District Board of Review monthly meeting.

Paul stuck around for the first couple of hours as the board debated the aesthetic value of rounded roof lines and metal pilasters, but eventually had to go back to work. (His petition was #27 on a list of over 50 items, and HDBR members also approved the design of at least THREE new hotels over the course of the afternoon.)

Those of us remaining zoned out during the zoning discussions but perked up when Historic Preservation and Urban Planning Director Ellen Harris presented the petition to save Nina. She explained that while she and her staff were not opposed to the concept of a mural in the neighborhood, because the artwork was submitted “after the fact” and wasn’t “visually compatible” with the surrounding architecture, staff recommended that board deny approval of the petition.

“This was a difficult review and a difficult decision to make,” she said to the room.

Fellow public art policy nerds know that’s not just lip service. Ellen has been a huge advocate of public art in Savannah but also has a job to do.

In addition to her vast preservation expertise, she was a major player in crafting the mural policy adopted by the city in 2012, an exacting process that involves an application, visual submissions and multiple go-rounds with the Historic Site and Monument Commission. (If they fall within in the Landmark Historic District, proposals have to pass the HDBR as well.)

While cumbersome and unspontaneous, the mural policy is still the only avenue by which artists can go big without the City dispatching buckets of beige paint.

However, Nina isn’t technically a mural—she’s painted on a piece of reclaimed piece of wood that “can come down as easily as it went up,” clarified the artist himself as he took to the podium to address the board.

Panhandle Slim also recounted the significance of Nina Simone and the quote taken from her heart-wrenching lament, “Sunday in Savannah,” which she sang to tearful crowds in the days after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

“This message is important to American history, to Georgia, it’s important to Savannah,” he implored to the board.

While some of the board members nodded in agreement, others weren’t having it.

“This isn’t the first piece of art of yours that has come before this group. There is no way you’re ignorant of how this process works,” admonished Chairman Stephen Merriman, Jr. of the artist’s civilly disobedient tendency to leave works of art around the city for anyone to claim.

Neighbor Tim Coy spoke against leaving Nina up, complaining of arbitrary code enforcements and citing how the city made him comply with an exact type of clasps for the shutters on his carriage house renovation. He also just doesn’t like the painting.

“When my wife and I first saw it, we thought it was graffiti,” he said.

“We have to look at it every day and we don’t find it inspirational at all.”

Historic Savannah Foundation Executive Director Daniel Carey weighed in against letting Nina stay. “It’s not about the aesthetics, it’s whether it is visually compatible with the guidelines and does it work with the surroundings.”

The ensuing deliberation volleyed between the social worth and the architectural inconsistencies of the mural/not mural. Board member Dwayne Stephens called the piece “disruptive” in a good way, and Kellie Fletcher posited that Nina and her quote represented Savannah history and culture, declaring “that’s what we’re here to preserve.”

Scott Cook and Becky Lynch agreed that while they are in favor of more public art, they didn’t feel that this piece belonged on this particular block.

Keith Howington and Debra Caldwell proposed a time limit for the public portrait, which the HDBR isn’t qualified to impose and would have to be steered back through City Council.

“I see it every day, and it makes me feel good,” Mic Madon said simply. “It makes me smile.”

In the end (which wasn’t even the end of a verrrrry long meeting, bless the board for volunteering their time), the lack of permission found forgiveness: The petition squeaked by with a 4-3 vote; Chairman Merriman abstained.

So Nina Simone will see at least a few more Sundays in Savannah, at least until Historic Site and Monument Commission convenes again on August 3.

It’ll be interesting to see if any other Walls of Hope portraits come before the board before the wood pieces disintegrate on their own, and from what neighborhoods. I adore Panhandle Slim’s work, and I’m all about delightful disruption and bold color in public places.

I also appreciate the work that went into the mural ordinance and how its guidelines are intended to inspire more expression for and from Savannah, if only there were more artists willing to commit to the process. And I’m quite happy it keeps Nutbag Joe’s artistic endeavors indoors.

Still, I can’t help but think of another quote from Ms. Nina herself: “There’s no excuse for the young people not knowing who the heroes and heroines are or were.”

The Walls of Hope project and its artist have shouldered the responsibility of reflecting great women and men back to those who may not know them otherwise.

Surely that kind of benevolent sedition deserves absolution?