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Drawn lines: Pop-up painter goes to town with unauthorized art

Pop up painter goes to town with unauthorized art

What began as an effort to beautify downtown Nevada City’s Commercial Street has turned into a struggle over attempts between city government and residents who desire to touch up the street with folk art.

Miriam Morris is a local artist who said that after soliciting opinions of merchants on the block, painted a blue creek last Thursday on the street with fish, turtles, a king snake and stepping stones.

“It was meant to draw people to the space, as it’s been so neglected by the city,” said Morris.

Morris said she believed she would be permitted to put a fresh coat of paint on the pavement in the 200 block of Commercial Street.

But on Friday, the city covered over Morris’ artwork with black paint. Later that evening, during the city’s scheduled Art Walk, children and adults who supported Morris’ initiative covered over the city’s paint job with chalked artwork and testimonials supporting art in public spaces in general, and Morris’ art in particular.

Before the city covered the painting, Mayor Erin Minett said residents cannot come into town and paint over whatever they want. When she initially saw the painting Thursday, Minett recalled she said to herself, “Whoa, it’s beautiful.”

Yet she added, “It’s basically graffiti, but beautiful graffiti. You can’t do that. If everybody could do that, it would not be so beautiful.”

There is a process to follow, Minett stressed, and Morris did not adhere to protocol.

“Miriam did not put in an application,” the mayor said. “And there is a need to use an approved paint. We’re trying to work with her and she wrote us an email.”


Morris returned to the site on Monday.

“So, I think they were trying to send a message to artists — ‘Don’t try to put art in the historic district,’” she said. “All the children and adults who came out for the Art Walk did the chalking. But people who came to the Trail Celebration at Robinson Plaza and the Village Market came to see it, too.”

Morris had already completed artwork of floral patterns on the back wall of the Alpha Building (210 Broad St.) previously, which is visible on Commercial Street, and the city let it stand. And, she added, at the beginning of April, she and other volunteers installed flower planters on the block.

The street mural before it was painted over.
Submitted to The Union

“They moved them to the curb the next day,” recalled Morris. “Public Works said the planters were in the way of merchants’ access. But the City Council allowed us to return them to the original location two weeks later.”

Morris in the past has volunteered to help with improvements to public space such as Robinson Plaza, Calanan Park, the post office garden and various other commons in town. Recently, after consulting with Commercial Street merchants, she and other volunteers submitted a plan for aesthetic improvements to the block via a Chamber of Commerce board member. Morris said the city has ignored her proposal.

Morris said she didn’t have the city’s seal of approval to paint, adding that the city has no formal process to approve such activity.

Minett said she wrote to Morris about a meeting for last Thursday to discuss the artwork, but Morris did not respond.

Out of consideration of the city’s legal obligations, liability and city insurance requirements, the council must abide by certain procedures, Minett said.

“Miriam has done a lot of volunteer work for beautification and we are incredibly grateful for it,” she said. “But we can’t allow anyone to come to town and paint anything they want.

“We’re trying to handle this in a way to defuse the situation,” Minett added. “I think she may be distressed, but she needs to come and talk with us and look for a solution.”

Chris Shehab, a frequent patron of the Commercial Street merchants, said Monday that Morris’ painting was a really well done piece of art.

“I love it,” he said. “I really enjoyed it and was disappointed when it was painted over. It seemed really appropriate for this space.”

William Roller is a staff writer for The Union. He can be reached at wroller@theunion.com

Chalk art covers Nevada City’s Commercial Street.
William Roller
Miriam Morris, right, the artist who painted Commercial Street, shares disappointment with neighborhood patron, Chris Shehab, after it was removed.
William Roller

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