By LINDA MOSS
A local artist has come forward to say that she was the person responsible for the color and wording, “Love where you live,” that was added to an existing mural on Glenridge Avenue.
Azie Shelhorse — who describes herself as a township resident, local business owner and mother of two — unapologetically took credit for what she called her effort to “beautify” the mural, which is on a wall by the Midtown Parking Lot across the street from The Crosby restaurant. At a meeting earlier this month that Montclair Local reported on, the Township Council inquired about who had done the work, and discussed if any recourse should be taken against whoever had made the changes to the mural.
“I am the professional painter who beautified the neglected wall on Glenridge Avenue,” Shelhorse wrote in an 800-word email to Montclair Local this past weekend. “I donated a high-end exterior decorative paint and many hours of my own time, taught the elementary-aged neighborhood children how to mix their own colors and paint the stripes as a community art project, then hand-painted the pro-Montclair sentiment ‘love where you live’ as an homage to how I feel about our town.”
Shelhorse appeared at Tuesday’s council meeting to basically repeat the comments she made in her email, denying any wrongdoing or stealth in her actions. Deputy Mayor Robin Schlager said that the council hasn’t made a decision about what should happen with the mural now, such as whether it should be whitewashed or left as it is.
At the council’s meeting earlier this month Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renee Baskerville brought up the mural’s modifications, and the local governing body said it would identify who had done the changes. Baskerville and Schlager questioned how the mural’s additions had been made without anyone from the township being made aware of it or asked permission.
The council’s initial discussion about the mural sparked a larger conversation about the private use of public space — for not only murals and street art but also community gardens — and how the township should regulate it.
Shelhorse said her work on the mural was no secret.
“I didn’t sign the wall nor did I promote my local business on it — not because I was hiding from the law — but because I considered it a contribution to our neighborhood that didn’t require recognition,” Shelhorse said in her email. “However, this wasn’t sneakily done in the stealth of the night and [practically] the entire neighborhood was well aware of the progress as it has been a three-year long project done entirely in daylight hours with permission.”
She said in her email that she had permission from Luther Flurry, the former executive director of the Montclair Center Business Improvement District. But on Tuesday Baskerville informed her that Flurry had been told that he and the BID never had township approval to have the mural put on the wall in the first place. Shelhorse said she hadn’t been aware of that.
“I do understand now that there is a process,” she said.
Baskerville said that no matter now beautiful the Glenridge Avenue mural is, there are township laws regarding unauthorized artwork being put on public spaces. Shelhorse has said that she had gotten nothing but support from residents.
“I have been overwhelmed by the positive response from the residents and local businesses of Montclair (and beyond) who have seen the wall since the improvements and who have thanked me, taken photos in front of it, used it as a promo for their real estate ads to entice people to move here, etc. … and also those who reached out in disbelief once they read the Montclair Local article,” Shelhorse said in her email.
“I deliberated about responding to the article because explaining myself feels like a defense which would suggest I did something wrong,” she said. “To quote the article, I am not a ‘vandal’ or ‘culprit’ and the artwork is not ‘graffiti’ nor did I ‘deface’ anything. It’s unsettling that someone would be opposed to such a positive, non-political message and feel strongly enough to bring it to the attention of a town hall meeting, suggest criminal activity without learning the facts, then threaten extreme punishments.”
Four years ago Shelhorse opened a shop, Verdigreen, on Glenridge Avenue.
“I support local artists and artisans by carrying their products and artwork in addition to my own handmade home goods so ‘love where you live’ is a way of life for me and my family and one I preach to my customers regularly,” she said. “The wall in question has been neglected by the township for years. It had algae and mold actively growing on it and had turned mottled shades of brown and gray.”
Shortly after she moved into her shop Shelhorse said that she asked Flurry if she could “upgrade the eyesore” and paint the wall.
“At that time, Suzanne from the Art Garage was my merchant neighbor and we met to find a painter from her resources but could not find anyone who would paint a mural for free so I began painting colorful stripes instead,” Shelhorse said.
“After I had painted about one-third of the wall over the course of several weeks, Luther announced that he found a muralist to paint it,” she said.
The muralists was artist Lori Panico.
“I spoke with him about the stripes and how I would like to preserve them and he said she would incorporate them into her mural,” Shelhorse said. “I offered to donate my paint to her but was told she would be using chalk instead so I would be able to finish my project once her mural faded away. Except, as you know, her mural did not fade as she ended up using latex paint. She painted the faces over my stripes, so they lasted and are still in good condition. However since she painted the text ‘notice me’ over the dirty wall, her latex paint peeled off and started looking worse for wear.”
Current BID Executive Director Israel Cronk was at Tuesday’s council meeting, and he was told by Schlager that the council hadn’t decided what it would do regarding the mural.
Earlier this week, Cronk said, “I think it’s admirable that she [Shelhorse] came forward. I think it shows the innocence of the intention.”
In her email, Shelhorse said that she had allowed enough time to honor Panico’s mural, and was ready to finish her project earlier this year.
“So last spring I continued striping the wall,” she said. “Since I did so during business hours, my own children and my customers’ children painted the remainder of the stripes from the right of the faces down the length of the wall. They intently mixed their own colors, wrote down their recipes, named them creatively, then stood outside with a sense of accomplishment that they were helping to enrich the neighborhood. Once the stripes were dry, I whimsically hand-painted the phrase ‘love where you live.’”
Street art isn’t only an issue in Montclair. A group of graffiti artists in Brooklyn filed a federal lawsuit when a landlord demolished a building in Long Island City, Queens, with their work on it. A trial on the suit, which claims the graffiti was art protected by federal law, is now taking place in Brooklyn.
Third Ward Councilman Sean Spiller earlier this month said that municipal officials are happy to see the community engagement with public property.
“As it relates specifically to a mural or artwork … when it happens on a public piece of property without any type of process or permission, we get into the debate of who thinks something is art and who think something is more graffiti, maybe, or vandalism,” Spiller said back then.
“This of course is in the eye of the beholder. But we can make sure there is a process. And I think that’s what we’re talking about as a council: What is the process that exists and how do we make sure everyone is aware of that process, and how can we help educate people to the proper pathways to go through.”
Shelhorse ended her email talking about her love of Montclair.
“As a first-generation Iranian-American who grew up in the South, our diverse and open-minded town of Montclair has been the first home in almost 40 years I have felt not only accepted for who I am but also a part of something bigger than me,” she said. “This community has embraced us, encouraged us, and supported us from the moment we chose it over five years ago. I love where I live and not even a little town council drama can change my mind.”