Art or Whitewash?

Art or Whitewash?

Artists fight to save a George Washington mural commissioned by a controversial power plant.

The 18-mile Mount Vernon Trail follows the Potomac River from the Key Bridge to the Mount Vernon Estate. Its users pass miles of weeping willows and well-tended lawns, marshes and shady forests. They pass the landing strips and parking lots of Reagan National Airport. They cross bridges beside busy sections of the George Washington Parkway, bump over old train tracks and are occasionally routed onto Alexandria’s streets, passing beside industrial facilities and historic homes and beneath the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Until a few months ago, 1,000 feet of the trail ran about 25 feet from a rusty chain-link fence belonging to the Mirant power plant on Alexandria’s waterfront. Mirant had covered the chain-link with a mesh screen to catch the dust from a large pile of coal that feeds its generators. The plant’s pipes and smokestacks loom above a portion of the fence.

In December, Mirant replaced the chain-link with a wood fence and commissioned two local artists to decorate it with a mural about George Washington.

Criticism from the community has put that plan in jeopardy, and the artists are scrambling to save their commission.

In early February, before the project was formally unveiled, a daily newspaper published an article quoting local and federal officials blasting the mural. Taken aback, Mirant officials canceled the planned unveiling and they are now questioning whether to go ahead with the project, according to the plant’s vice-president Debra Bolton.

The mural’s artists, Christopher Erney and Patrick Kirwin, are wondering how their art could be criticized so stridently before it had even been publicly unveiled. “It’s kind of funny that they say this is controversial,” said Erney. “There are so many things we could think of to do that would just be wild. This is a very conservative area and we wanted to do something that people would end up liking.”

SEEKING “POSITIVE OUTREACH” to a community that has been protesting the plant because of pollution concerns, Mirant officials offered several of the city’s artist groups the freedom and the money to transform the new fence into a 12,000-square-foot canvas, according to Bolton. But Mirant was given the cold shoulder. Erney, a sculptor at the Torpedo Factory with experience painting, heard about Mirant’s offers, recruited Kirwin, a mural artist with a studio off Duke Street, and approached Mirant with the George Washington idea.

After incorporating suggestions from the National Park Service the artists have envisioned a chronological series of realistic, life-size snapshots detailing significant moments in George Washington’s life. Each scene will be set in a national park or historic site within a day’s drive of Alexandria, beginning with Washington’s boyhood home in Westmoreland County and ending with his retirement in Mount Vernon.

“We were really trying to do the research and portray it more accurately, more realistically than the heroic, stylized portrayals,” said Erney. Trail users would be able to see George Washington camping at Fort Necessity in Pennsylvania during the French and Indian Wars, surveying for the locks at Great Falls, crossing the Delaware River in historically accurate “Durham boats”, laying siege to the British army at Yorktown and being inaugurated president. “When you walk up to it you’ll feel like you’re almost part of the scene,” Erney said.

Erney and Kirwin stressed that they have put a premium on historical accuracy and local connections. They visited a reenactment at Fort Ward and plan to use local re-enactors as models for the mural’s many crowd scenes. At a central point in the fence, where it will be visible to boats passing on the river, the artists plan a scene of George and Martha taking a carriage past the famous doors of Gadsby’s Tavern, with a view up the street to Christ Church.

Images of George Washington as a farmer will show him overseeing slaves and will highlight his conservation of the woodlands on his property. Viewers will also stand witness to the riverside Masonic ceremony in which Washington participated before crossing the river and laying the cornerstone of the Capitol. If they turn their heads to follow Washington’s gaze, they’ll see the capitol dome across the river.

The final 200 feet of the mural will run beside a chain link fence below the power plant’s smokestacks. The artists agreed with Mirant officials that a scene with a natural setting would seem out of place in the most industrial section of the trail, so Kirwin and Erney decided to use their trompe l’oeil expertise and create a “legacy” section with oversize stamps, medals and currency bearing Washington’s image “pinned” to a wall beside postcards of historic sites people can visit in Alexandria.

BUT AN ART PROJECT associated with a coal-fired power plant in the heart of the city’s waterfront will never be just about art.

“It’s nothing against the artists or their work. I have no doubt it’s outstanding. But Mirant is polluting our community and no amount of paint can gloss over that fact,” Rep. Jim Moran (D-8), wrote in an email.

“Nobody is opposed to art. That is really not the issue whatsoever,” said Vice-Mayor Andrew McDonald. He expressed sympathy for the artists, but condemned as a “red herring” any public meeting designed to expose the artwork to the community. “Mirant is trying to do things to bolster its image instead of dealing with the basic problem… an old polluting plant that needs to go.”

McDonald said the trail beside the power plant is “not an appropriate place” for a mural. “What the bike trail needs is quiet, soft things,” like trees or a green fence.

The National Parks Service, which manages the Mount Vernon Trail, has no decision-making power – and no official stance – on whether Mirant can or should paints its fence, according Mount Vernon Trail director David Vela.

Poul Hertel sits on the board of the NorthEast Civic Association, the neighborhood nearest the mural, and is also a member of the Mirant oversight commission, which has had contentious disputes with the power plant over its polluting effects. He said the controversy over the mural “suggests that the issue concerning the plant is aesthetics, which is far from the truth,” he said, adding that he would welcome a presentation of artwork at an association meeting, but he himself would be unswayed.

“It’s a process question’” said council member Redella “Del” Pepper, who co-chairs the Mirant oversight commission. She said Mirant should have had more consultation with the community before commissioning the project. “It’s really another example where Mirant just doesn’t know the community and they’re just not in step with the community. This is a community that has an opinion on everything, right down to the last pothole and curb cut. It might have been better if they had proposed the idea … before they spent money on it.”

“WHO DO YOU GO TO WITH ‘THE CITY?’” asked Mirant vice-president Bolton. “Who is ‘the city?’ Is it the mayor, the city council, the monitoring committee, the arts council? We made every point of contact we thought was relevant and no one said stop.”

Bolton said her company thought it was investing in positive outreach to the community, and added that she and others were “shocked” to read about the controversy in the newspapers. She said Mirant sent letters to all City Council members in December and had contacted various city organizations involved in the arts. “Nobody really engaged,” Bolton said.

Vela, the director of the Mount Vernon Trail, said he appreciated that Mirant and the artists reached out to the National Park Service early in the process. “Its their decision, their project, their property. They didn’t have to go to us. They didn’t have to go to other entities. We appreciate the fact that they did.” He said he hopes Mirant will seek input from other community groups as well.

Council member Rob Krupicka, who pushed for legislation in the General Assembly that has given Alexandria new tools to encourage art, said he could have easily missed a letter from Mirant on the subject of the mural. He said the power plant should have held a public meeting, and he would withhold judgment “until they show something to the community and the community has the chance to respond to it.”

This is exactly what the artists want to do. With Mirant officials reviewing whether to go forward with the project, which the artists say will cost more than $400,000, a price on which Bolton would not comment, Erney and Kirwin are scrambling to demonstrate that the public will support the project. The key to this support is simple, Kirwin said: “People seeing what we’re doing.”

They have posted a website, and are looking for every opportunity to exhibit their vision. In recent weeks they have shown it at schools, Gadsby’s Tavern and various organizations in the city. “The people we talk to on the street seem to be 99 percent for this,” Erney said. “We need to capture the fact that so many people think that if there’s going to be a fence there anyway, why not make the fence educational and pretty and valuable?”

The artists hope to start work when weather warms, but as the project remains in limbo, the official completion date, Washington’s birthday in 2008, becomes increasingly “subject to change” as Erney put it. “I didn’t put the asterisk in on the website yet,” he added. “I need to do that.”