It all started innocently enough. SVV and I, long-time mural chasers, wanted to bring public art to our former town of Manchester, Tennessee, many buildings of which have been neglected for decades and which had a downtown that had long fallen into a virtually-deserted square. SVV was a commercial painter for well over a decade and knows better than anyone what a fresh coat of paint can do to beautify and protect the structural integrity of a building. Plus, it’s a well-proven fact that murals stimulate economic development, drive tourism, and instill both pride and a sense of public safety in a place. It’s called “creative placemaking,” and it’s a concept we are 1,000 percent behind.
Why wouldn’t a community want a public art initiative, particularly one that a couple of journalists and tourism pros with more than a wee bit of marketing experience, were spearheading?
We put together the framework for such a program, including developing an RFP for artist commissions, and presented it to our town’s tourism body at their annual workshop in February two years ago. The tourism commission in Manchester, however, is a volunteer body, and communication is severely lacking; after multiple encouraging meetings and submitting all the components to the commission secretary on Feb. 22, 2017, we heard … nothing. That is, until another commissioner texted me months later in May and asked: “whatever happened to that mural program?” I explained to him that we had sent it all to the secretary in February, who in turn was supposed to share it with the commission, and it turns out she never bothered to pass it along.
And so goes the tale of trying to move the needle in Manchester, Tennessee.
Even once all the tourism and community development commissioners had a copy of the scope, which we ensured by following up individually with each one of them, another year went by with zero movement—in fact, it was almost as if that conversation never happened—so we took matters in our own hands: We’d commission the city’s first community mural at our own expense.
We find an artist
If you know SVV and me, you know we aren’t types to dilly-dally. Once we set our minds to things, they happen. And from there, it happened fast. Real fast. I had followed Tara Aversa’s gorgeous floral mural as it went up at Walden bar in Nashville and reached out over Instagram on March 7 of last year. “I saw your work on a friend’s profile, and I really love it,” I wrote. “Would you be interested in working with us on a project in Manchester?” Not only did she write back immediately, but she and her fiancé drove down to Manchester the following week to meet with SVV and me in person. The four of us had lunch at Jiffy Burger to discuss ideas, and it was an instant connection. I could tell Tara was the artist we needed to launch a movement of love and positivity via ribbons of paint on a wall.
Tara told us she could carve out a block of time in May to come down and paint. She’s a celebrated hair stylist in Nashville and makeup artist to the stars, so we had to get on her busy calendar, and while we didn’t know how we were going to fund it, we knew that she was our girl. She understood and embraced our mission, she was new to large-scale painting and—most importantly—eager and excited about the concept. So we signed a contract with her and moved forward.
But first, we needed a building. There was an old, faded flag that was turning purple at the entrance to the historic Manchester square that just made the half-occupied downtown look even more tired. SVV walked into the business one afternoon and, nearly three hours later, walked out newly-minted friends with the business owners, Jim and Sylvia Wheeler. They’d bought the building three years prior for their booming construction business and had wanted to replace the old flag but weren’t sure how to go about it. It was like SVV was the patron saint of mural arts they’d been waiting for, and it was a divine appointment. On top of that, Jim offered to cover the cost of materials, and SVV offered to paint his entire building for free. It was already the perfect marriage.
A picture of the old American flag mural that was on the building when Wheeler Construction bought it four years ago. Taken on May 7, 2018.
Jim and Sylvia offered us the side of their building and said they trusted SVV to put up something we liked but wanted to see drawings first. Tara gave us two different sketches: one was an awesome pop art rendering I’m still dying to have her paint somewhere and the other was an American flag overlaid atop a Southern magnolia. SVV took the sketches to Jim, who loved the American flag and had wanted something to go up similar on his building where the old one was. So just like that, we had an artist, we had a building and we had a design.
While this was all happening, SVV kept both the Historic Zoning Commission, of which he is a commissioner, and the downtown groups apprised of what we were doing, still trying to keep everyone motivated and emotionally-invested in the public art project. We even showed them the artist sketches, and one of the downtown committees committed to help us fund it, which was a godsend because murals, while not overly costly, still cost money, and we didn’t even have a public art company at this point—we were going at it all on faith and a dream.
Before Tara started painting, we went down to the election commission office to have a sit-down with HZC chairman Ray Amos. Like SVV, he is a veteran, and part of our reason for wanting to get the American flag up so quick was because we thought it would be a great way to honor our fallen service men and women. We wanted to have a flag dedication ceremony on Memorial Day weekend, but Ray told us you can’t dedicate a flag that is a painting and not actually a flag. Other than that, he seemed to have no issue with the mural, and we told him we were moving forward with it as soon as we could get all the pieces in place.
Worth noting: The HZC comprises a handful of older folks born in the first half of the 1900s who don’t understand how good murals, social media and the impact of the two combined can have on a town. One later tried to ban the use of a hashtag, calling it “advertising,” and got mad about Tara’s prominent florals, a motif throughout her entire body of work, mockingly calling it her “logo,” to give you a sense of what we were dealing with. Still, we kept them in the loop, as this was always meant to be a community project, the genesis of a greater overhaul of a tired town that needed a gentle facelift.
So, SVV and our buddy John Mancini manned up at 5am and painted the Wheeler building on May 8 of last year, and we scheduled Tara to start the mural the following Sunday, eager to get it finished by Memorial Day.
What follows is rather nutty, so buckle up for the ride.
The artist starts; the cops show up
On the first morning of painting, Mother’s Day 2018, SVV and our John were out there bright and early with Tara and Michael setting up. She hadn’t been painting for three hours when the vice-chairman of the HZC, who is facing controversy of his own these days, showed up, conveniently while SVV was away for 15 minutes getting Tara a water refill, and demanded she stop.
Not missing a beat and only briefly pausing to address this man that lounged on her scaffolding as if it was his property, she said firmly, “You’re going to have to talk to Scott about that. Because he hired me and I’m not stopping.” According to her, he apparently lost it and threatened to call the police before storming off in a tizzy. We have it all on video, too, since we recorded the entire painting process from start to end.
When SVV returned and sat down to observe the creative process again, Tara related this encounter to him. Rolling his eyes and glad that he’d done all the preplanning work of ensuring that we were totally in the right to paint a piece of private property with artwork, even in a “historic zone,” he slathered on more sunscreen and kicked back.
Then, three police cars rolled up.
The media frenzy begins
On Wednesday of that week, we had an early morning flight to Minneapolis for a three-day break. The moment I touched down in Kansas City for our connection, my phone started blowing up. Channel 4. Channel 2. Fox 17. The Manchester Times story on “someone” calling the cops on us had gone live that morning, and they all wanted to interview SVV and me about the “controversy.” Who could have ever known that painting an American flag to honor all the service men and women who have given their lives to defend our country could veer into “controversial” territory? The things small towns get up in arms about, I swear.
My Facebook immediately started dinging. People posted misinformation saying we broke the law. Others launched a #SaveTheMural hashtag, alleging they heard the old folks were going to paint over our beautiful flag, and so they posted a photo of the half-painted mural as their Facebook cover image in a show of solidarity. Memes started circulating (the one below being my favorite). Meanwhile, we were on vacation trying to actually relax and catch up with friends, but instead spent the whole time fielding inquiries as our phones didn’t stop ringing. It was simultaneously hilarious and mind-boggling.
Since SVV and I weren’t around to do interviews, the news crews talked to our buddy John, some local residents who just happened to be photographing the mural at the time of filming … and the HZC commissioners who called the cops on us. You can see and read those news segments here, here and here. Nashville’s CBS affiliate Channel 5 did come down seven weeks later, on July 4 (ironically, SVV’s birthday), to do an updated segment and caught us coming home from the pool, so SVV logged a couple minutes on camera then.
“I’m philosophically against regulated art … it ceases to become art if you have a committee deciding what goes where.” —Scott van Velsor
From then on out, we made sure if Tara was painting, one of us was on duty as her guard. It wasn’t fair to us that she could potentially be threatened by these rogue old folks who think they have more power than they do, and even though everyone that drove by gave her the thumbs up or shouted encouragement, we feared what some crazy-eyed, righteously-ignorant commissioner would do.
Despite all odds, Tara completed her masterpiece on May 23. How anyone could possibly find this piece of beauty offensive is beyond me. I’m forever grateful to her for powering through, taking all the “controversy” in stride (though in actuality it was just four unhappy people) and giving Manchester the gift of her art. It was only her second ever mural to complete—can you imagine being new to the street art world and being treated like this by a Historic Zoning Commission?
It also took her less than six days to paint with a one-inch brush—a true artistic genius who no doubt will be telling the story of her time in Manchester for years to come.
In the 10 months that followed, we have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of posts in front of the Southern Magnolia mural, which just warmed our insides and provided fuel for our passion. This is the point: for people to be a part of the art, for them to feel pride in their community, and for others to get off the interstate and come see what this tiny town is all about, spending money locally and contributing to the Manchester economy.
The HZC chairman calls for SVV and John’s dismissal
But even after the mural was done, the drama did not end.
Right before Bonnaroo, we caught wind that the HZC commissioners opposing the mural were attempting to seek legal recourse, so we rallied our troops and more than 50 people supporting our program packed the house at the next Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting, a monthly session with typically low to no public attendance. It was there that the HZC chairman and secretary continued dragging SVV’s name through the mud in front of the public. The HZC chairman called for SVV and John’s removal from the commission. Rather than chastising the commissioners for abusing the police department with this civic complaint—which pulled four police officers off the streets for a couple hours, I might add—the mayor just said he wanted everyone to get along and told the commission to work it out amongst themselves. OK….
I filmed this all for posterity since meetings in Manchester are not broadcast for the wider public, and often minutes have a way of being light on substance by the time they’re sent out for approval, not accurately reflecting everything that went on in such a meeting. In the months that followed, the chairman and three other members continued to try to bully SVV, right out in the open. And no one said a word, including the alderman overseeing the commission, who not only sided with the older folks, but requested SVV’s resignation. He declined that request and asked for an apology from the commission members instead. They lost their minds; it was if someone had pulled a pin from a grenade.
Eventually, they realized that we weren’t going to give up and were actually in the right, so instead, they took another approach: trying to add in a mural ordinance to the historic zoning codes. After a subsequent HZC meeting in which the city attorney asked SVV to send over rough guidelines for a mural program, he did as asked and submitted the American Bar Association’s recommended guidelines to the whole commission by email. The chairman replied all, copying the city attorney, all commissioners, an alderman and the director of codes, on July 17:
“Scott, I don’t understand your concerns over the first amendment. Until you started bring it up most of us on the HZC did not have any problem with the first amendment. It appears you are planning something that you need the protection of the first amendment. We ask you once before to wait until we could get guidelines for a mural you refused and even lied about it. You even told us you would be getting paid to help paint. But you know all that don’t you? Why not be honest and up front with us for a change, What kind of murals do you plan now, and where, and when? You say you put Manchester first but your actions say otherwise, Why don’t you cooperate with us instead of calling us rogues when you can’t get your way. We have a [sic] excellent city attorney that we use to approve our guidelines and we don’t need a sea lawyer trying to tell us what to do. We need a [sic] HZC that can work together to improve our city not one that has a member or two who insist on doing things their way. I propose that we use good common sense in what we do and do it for the good of Manchester and not for the good of one person. Can you do that?
If we all strive for that we will not need to even worry about the first amendment.
Note: Not only have we not profited off the murals, we’ve actually spent our own money (and so much time) to accomplish them. And the “you even told us you would be getting paid to help paint” is straight-up fake news, given that SVV donated his time and expertise to paint Wheeler’s building as a gift to the downtown.
You can see why everything about this line of thinking is a problem. Last time we checked, the United States of America needed the First Amendment when it passed in 1791, and still needs it today along with the rest of the Bill of Rights, which addressed deficiencies in the Constitution regarding protection of individual freedoms and government overreach against its citizens.
SVV continued working with the HZC throughout the process of their attempts at regulatory overreach, eventually forcing them to accept a very basic set of guidelines that closely mirrors the ABA recommendations (no hate speech, no profanity, no porn, no regulation of content or size). It’s very common sense stuff, and passed the Board of Mayor and Alderman unanimously a few months ago.
Our second mural goes up
Mural number two went up very quickly and with little controversy. We’d been communicating with Nashville muralist Eric “Mobe” Bass all summer, and he and his pal Folek had a break in their schedule in August and were able to come down on a Monday night, prep the wall, then paint the entire thing in less than a day. We’re grateful to the Hershman family for giving Mobe and Folek the space on which to paint.
The only negativity came following my Facebook announcement of the completion of the Manchester Postcard mural, when the HZA secretary at the time—who is not my Facebook friend, please note—chimed in on my personal page, calling us copycats by drawing inspiration from Victor Ving and Lisa Beggs’ Greetings Tour that we’ve photographed all over the US.
The whole thing is pretty embarrassing for these senior members of the community, watching them act like children in a public forum, but we’ve since learned that it’s just a pity, and have mostly moved on. But with a lack of oversight of some of the volunteer-based committees that Manchester has, it’s still a concern that some folks feel empowered to act like this without fear of removal for unethical behavior. Manchester’s a town with five interstate exits on one of the most heavily-trafficked corridors in the South, and living through years like the past one, we now know why there hasn’t been meaningful growth in the last few decades.
The classic power struggle
Sadly, this type of power struggle isn’t isolated to Manchester; we’ve seen evidence of similar issues in other small towns from upstate New York all the way down to Mount Dora, Florida, where the mayor was made to publicly apologize to a couple who the city attempted to fine for a mural on their private property. Still, we dotted our “i’s” and crossed our “t’s,” because we’re journalists after all. After talking to enough lawyers in the private property and public art sectors who further confirmed that we were in the right—the HZC had no grounds on which regulate or to ask us to remove art from private property—we slowly extricated ourselves from our involvement with them and the downtown groups that didn’t support us when it counted and have been installing murals on our own.
I’ll go into the legality of trying to challenge freedom of speech in a future post, but as the Pacific Legal Foundation stated: “Government must have a powerful, clearly articulated justification to regulate the exercise of First Amendment rights rather than the personal taste or whims of individual bureaucrats.” In other words, if a government body decides to enforce such things as a historic overlay or a codes rule, the enforcement must be content neutral; they can’t simply decide they don’t like the art as justification for opposing it, as a few of the Historic Zoning Commissioners did. In fact, HZC acting secretary at the time, Pat Berges even admitted it was the art she didn’t like and claimed to support the concept of murals; she was quoted in the local newspaper as saying: “It doesn’t represent anything. It has nothing to do with Manchester history.”
To many of us that believe in individual freedom and property rights, the right to express yourself without regulation is a no-brainer, but we’re happy that the federal courts have established this precedent, regardless.
Soft-bullying and small-town government
Through this process, we met just about every building and business owner along the square in this designated “historic overlay.” Many of them gave us tours of their buildings, the majority of which are slowly rotting into oblivion—not because the owners don’t want to do anything to fix that but because for so long, but because the Historic Zoning Commission has thrown regulatory shade into any plans they tried to make. One shop owner told us days after he bought his building that it started pouring water into the office. He wanted to replace the roof, went to the HZC for a COA, and was told any replacement must be a flat roof in keeping with the “historical significance” of the area—for a building that was constructed in the 1980s. He’s still livid, and I’m sure told others about it, thereby deterring potential investment in the square. This is just one of many similar stories we heard from downtown property owners, who are being blocked from improving their investment by a power-hungry commission who wants to keep the square in a decaying time capsule.
The greatest thing that has revealed itself in the past year is that Tennesseans love art and appreciate community improvement, especially in Manchester and greater Coffee County. But sadly, in this particular town, so many of them have been shamed into keeping quiet by soft-bullying. We’ve had hundreds—whose messages we have kept screenshots of in a folder anytime we need a morale boost—come forward by text, Facebook or email saying they so appreciate what we’re doing and support us but don’t want to publicly proclaim as much so as to not get involved in the “controversy.” And look, I get it: It’s a small town of barely 12,000 residents; you don’t want to supposedly alienate those in positions of power. The threat of retaliation is real in a community of this size.
It remains sad to me that posting a beautiful photo of original art on social media could be misconstrued as controversial (and an American flag, a show of patriotism, no less). But this, this is what soft-bullying does; it scares those who do want change into submission. And, as a result, the “good ol’ boy” system (whatever that means!) is allowed to continue as it always does. The town remains rundown, and muddles along, even at the crossroads of major tourism destinations and a superhighway running the length of the United States, north to south. Zoning changes that benefit a select few mysteriously pass, and residents are none the wiser until the roads are clogged up, the schools are at capacity or sewer systems need millions of dollars in upgrades. Apathetic or busy citizens don’t show up to city meetings because they don’t know when they are or, even worse, think that they can’t make a difference through the democratic process because their voices won’t be considered. And heaven forbid the various commissions under the City of Manchester actually broadcast public meetings—or release detailed minutes in a timely manner. Is that asking too much of our elected officials?
The HZC had a historic preservationist from the state come to Manchester last July in an attempt to “educate people about the historic zone” (i.e. scold us for our mural program), only for her to say exactly what we’d been reiterating about the basic constitutional protections of private property and individual freedom enshrined in our country’s founding document. Once again, I filmed it, because people need to hold these folks accountable.
Moving forward: can’t stop, won’t stop
So far, we’ve commissioned the magnolia, the Manchester Postcard, the American Eel triptych, a three-wall Dragonfly block and a #lovescript series of inspirational writings. Next up, we’re tackling the skate park and several spaces along the greenway in conjunction with Manchester Parks & Recreation, a great group of visionaries who understand the merit of artistic freedom, are dedicated to moving the area forward and who embrace the idea that well curated artwork brings a community together, makes it think of a better place and celebrates this land we’re so blessed to have beneath our feet.
Here’s where the power-abusers went wrong: They underestimated us. They can attempt to slander us. They can call my veteran husband “unpatriotic.” They can make themselves look childish in a dozen different ways, continuing to lose moral authority in the community. But you know what? We won’t be bullied. We won’t be made to stop doing something that is visibly improving the area, has so much magical community support and that we’re passionate about personally. And we won’t give in. Is it tough being spoken to the way we have, being treated by a handful of folks like we’re vigilantes out to wreck this town? Absolutely. But we also know that Rome was not built in a day.
Thanks to our Minneapolis friends, Wailing Loons, for this beautiful sentiment.
And so we persist. Or, as SVV says: “We stand on the shoulders of giants.”
I’ve had many tourism professionals ask for more help with starting their own mural programs. I have a step-by-step guide on how to go about this in your community drafted to publish this spring, but first, you need to know the abbreviated backstory to get an idea of what you might potentially face. I skipped over quite a few bits of the story, but am happy to answer any lingering questions in the comments—fire away!