By JEFF CLEMETSON
When protests over policing in La Mesa turned into destructive riots that damaged storefronts throughout the Downtown Village shopping areas, the city’s residents immediately stepped up to help clean the damage and offer support in any way they could. One of the more visible ways community members showed their support for the businesses was to paint and beautify the large plywood boards used to cover broken windows and protect intact ones from the possibility of a repeat of the May 30, 2020 incident.
“You have to remember, we took lemons and made lemonade out of it. We now have this beautiful collection of art boards,” said Love La Mesa Strong founder Jimmy Long, who formed the group in the aftermath of May 30 and who has become the art boards’ “caretaker” after they were taken down from businesses.
Now more than a year after the riots that will forever be a part of the city’s history, the “lemonade” collection of art finds itself in a state of limbo, with no clear solution as to what to do with them and no clear entity that has authority over them.
Art goes up, art goes down
On the morning of May 31, 2020, Long, like many other residents of La Mesa, went into the Downtown Village to offer help. While there, he came up with the idea to form a Facebook group — Love La Mesa Strong — to organize community members wanting to aid in the riot recovery efforts.
“Before we knew it, we had 2,700 members in two days. I took that as a sign that we needed to do more because the community was hurting so deeply,” he said. “I’m a spiritual healer and also a caregiver for seniors that are crossing and so I decided to work with artists and encourage artists and start posting for artists to start painting. Some of it was organic and then most of it was organized by Love La Mesa Strong the new Facebook group.”
Long said businesses contacted him through the group who wanted art on their storefronts and that he asked the artists to keep messaging on the boards positive, with three basic themes: love and understanding, equality, and support for community. Many of the boards painted in the Village were through Love La Mesa Strong’s organizing, including boards Long helped paint himself.
But not every artist connected to businesses through Love La Mesa Strong. Tova Galgut and fellow artists Wendy Kwasny and Ann Golumbuk directly approached local business and offered to paint boards — a mural of a crow on the Crow Salon, a hummingbird and flowers at Blackbird and some murals at Tam’s Alteration & Dry Cleaning as well.
“It was about supporting the community and supporting what was going on and painting a feeling through art,” Galgut said. “Personally it just felt good being part of the whole movement and the feel of contributing.”
Galgut said she doesn’t know what happened with the mural boards after they came down, and that she’s “fine with that.” Her last contact with the murals was to connect Tam’s Alteration with Long, who was helping businesses take down the boards and moving them to a storage area offered up by the city’s public works department.
Mary England, president of the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce, also contacted Long for help with removing boards from La Mesa Springs shopping center — one of the most damaged areas in the riot — because the leasing agent for the center tasked her with removing the boards.
“When the glass people came up, those boards had to be down. That’s where I came into it,” she said.
Long said he made himself available to businesses using a truck he inherited from his father that eventually became “worn out to the point of exhaustion and actually blew up at the very end.”
Once the over 170 boards finished off Long’s truck and made their way to the public works storage area, the task of organizing them began. With help from public works department, especially Leon Firsht, a group of volunteers including Envision La Mesa co-founder Ursula Koenig, did the work of cleaning the boards, removing screws and nails, restoring some damaged boards as well as photographing and cataloging them.
“This was seven months, sometimes for 40 minute shots in 100 degree weather,” Koenig said.
After those seven months, the city needed back its space at public works and reached out to Koenig and Long to begin finding a new place to put them. The city eventually released the boards to Long. According to City Manager Greg Humora, Long was given possession of the boards because he was the one who brought them to the city storage. Humora said he requested of Long three things: to take care of the boards, to return any to artists or businesses who might want them back and to work with the community in any future plans for the art boards.
“I have had opportunities with other large organizations representative of La Mesa that they wanted to jump in and potentially store them, but then when they saw the amount of them and how much coordination it would take to manage them, I became the [caretaker] by default,” Long said. “Public [works] reached out to me and said, ‘we need the space.’ I was on a sabbatical in Sedona and started working with Leon on potential options of when we can pick up those boards. And there was a timing issue in respect to the city not being able to provide another space and then I became concerned because we were running up against, not a deadline, but a concept of me doing the boards for display for the first time for the one year [anniversary of May 30] and that’s where Open heARTS became a possibility.”
Approaching anniversary creates a schism
Open heARTS was to be a three-day festival held May 29–31 at Harry Griffin Park featuring live music, live art, poetry and a display of the mural boards. Long eventually cancelled the event due to logistical concerns.
“The red tape involved with the, I guess, unsureness of COVID-19 and how the changes were happening for public events, it just wasn’t … there were limitations on how many people I could have and it was kind of confining because I knew if we had done this event, we would have many more people than they were going to allow,” he said.
Although the event never materialized, its proposal created a schism between Long and others working to care and plan uses for the boards, especially Koenig who objected to using the boards at an event that was charging money, calling it an “inappropriate” use for them. Koenig said she was in favor of allowing Grossmont Center to display them in a “walking path exhibition through the mall, with the most fragile pieces in the food court.”
Long said Open heARTS’ ticket prices were to cover expenses like the $3,000 needed for the permit and that his intention — laid out in both the proposal and a mock-up of a potential marketing poster — was to donate money raised above the cost of the event to local charity groups. He also countered that using the boards at Grossmont Center could be construed as using them as symbols the BLM movement to drive traffic to the shopping mall.
On the May 30 anniversary of the riots in La Mesa, the boards did end up being shown — a video display of the photos Koenig had taken while cataloging the boards was part of an event at La Mesa First United Methodist Church that featured remembrances by Mayor Arapostathis, California Secretary of State Dr. Shirley Weber and Assembly member Dr. Akilah Weber and more.
Koenig said her next project is to use the photos to create a “living Facebook page of the protest art boards of La Mesa.” The project is not only to share the art with the public, she said, but to also be a place for artists to find and claim credit for their work.
Where do they go from here?
The schism over where it is and isn’t appropriate to display the mural boards is indicative of the nature of how and why they were created in the first place, according to Galgut.
“I feel that because it was such a sensitive time between COVID and what was going on nationally with the murder of George Floyd, it became personal because of what happened in La Mesa and then it became like a national and international movement,” she said, adding that she personally did not want to claim the art and thinks most of the other artists who painted murals feel the same. She does however have an opinion on what should happen with them.
“I think they should be preserved and there should be a show of it,” she said, adding that because of the cost of such an undertaking there would likely need to be lots of volunteers.
That search for more volunteers, despite the fallout over the Open heARTS festival plan, is something Long, Koenig and others involved in the effort to preserve boards still agree on. Long pointed out that before the “static” between himself and Koenig, both were in support of finding another home for them, such as the La Mesa Historical Society.
“[The Historical Society] wanted a digital archive of all artists giving permission [to the society to use the images of their art work],” Koenig said. “They never wanted anything to do with the physical boards, only the artists permission on the images.”
Long said he feels the Historical Society should have “stepped up” and taken the boards. And while he understands that taking and storing the 170 boards that he describes as “quite bulky” would be difficult, there might be other reasons why the Historical Society or other groups might shy away from taking charge of the collection.
“To me, I feel that it is part of the history of La Mesa,” he said. “But it is kind of a little bit emotional and sticky in the sense that we took something negative and made it positive, but the overall aspect of the event is negative and so you come up to the wall of ‘do we want to remember this that much?’”
Other plans for the boards included beautifying corridors to the city, specifically along SR 94 and Massachusetts Avenue on land that CalTrans owns, Koenig said.
“This is what started my connection to this project… I wanted a few boards to welcome us to La Mesa on that corner since no welcome sign to La Mesa exists there today,” she added. “CalTrans was on board, however they were skeptical if it was ‘doable’ and we left it at: ‘the City of La Mesa would need to be involved.’”
England suggested that if the art were to be displayed, the group should approach property owners in the Downtown Village.
“There’s a lot of buildings Downtown or wherever. Go to them, hand pick some boards and see if they’ll let you display them on the side of the buildings,” she said. “Then every three or four months … change them out. That way you can display them, and you got lots of buildings in the Village, as well as possibly La Mesa Springs, which was heavily damaged, that might want them on their walls on the side of their buildings.”
Long agrees that public displays would be the best use for them, and that there should be a system in place with bar codes to check out and return different art boards for temporary displays. That that process was started, he said, but completing it was difficult because they lacked the space needed to continually move and return the 8-by-4-foot and to 12-by-6-foot boards.
Cost of such an operation is also a factor. Koenig said while she was involved in the cataloging work, she had reached out to groups like A Reason To Survive (ARTS) and Tony’s Custom Framing for consulting on what it would take to professionally and properly display the boards.
“Their professional opinion and quote also included two framers’ work on oversized pieces, trimming, stretcher bars, professional varnish per medium, framework — possibly $200-$300 per board/artwork, per 5-by-10-foot size. We had an early estimate of $125-160K, to properly have these weatherproofed and ready for exhibition,” she said.
Another idea for the boards is to offer the collection to a museum such as the Smithsonian, which has expressed interest in preserving murals in other cities. Other ideas, such as auctioning the boards off for charity, came up but were dismissed.
Another option is to ask artists and or businesses to take possession of their work. Long said that any artist who wants to claim their work will need to go to the business that hung the boards first because that is how he has them cataloged and how he can verify who the artist is.
No matter what ideas may or may not come to fruition, the nebulous nature of who has the authority to actually make those decisions is still a factor in any plan going forward. An idea accepted and preferred by both Long and Koenig was also shared by England: a committee or commission formed by the city that could make decisions about the boards in a transparent way.
“Possibly … a community group should get together, a committee of some type, like we do for everything, and collectively decide what should be done with the boards,” she said. “One person or one group should not have total control over something that many believe are part of the entire community.”
Long, who is currently in possession of the boards, agreed. However, for Long and other parties hoping a city-led committee will take control of the boards and be a transparent solution to the issues complicating what to do about them, there is good news and there is bad news.
The good news is that at the July 27 City Council meeting, Vice Mayor Jack Shu and Council member Bill Baber initiated a task force into forming an arts commission in the City of La Mesa. The bad news is that, according to Shu, the city would be hesitant to take any action involving the boards because of the various legal issues, such as copyright ownership of the images, that could arise — issues that are present for any person or entity in possession of the boards, including Long.
In the meantime, Long said the mural boards are stacked in his yard, horizontally on top of each other to avoid warping; wrapped in tarps and secured with rope; and atop a buffer from the ground, waiting for the right plan or opportunity to be displayed again.
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.