Will Divine mural stay or go? A city commission will decide

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Photo by Ed Gunts

The performer Divine played characters who ran afoul of the law in John Waters movies such as “Female Trouble” and “Multiple Maniacs.” Now, a mural that honors Divine is having its own brush with city rules and regulations.

City officials have decided to let an 11-member panel determine whether two property owners may continue to display a three-story-high mural of the drag actor and Baltimore native, painted last month by the internationally prominent street artist Gaia.

Eric Holcomb, executive director of Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, said the commission will hold a public hearing on Nov. 13 to determine the fate of the mural on the west side of the row house at 106 E. Preston Street, part of the Mount Vernon historic district.

“We will hold a public hearing on this,” he said in an email today. “We feel that the mural does not ‘clearly’ meet our guidelines.”

Holcomb said the mural does not meet the city’s guidelines primarily because property owners are not supposed to paint unpainted masonry surfaces.

“We, of course, look to see if the painting of an unpainted brick wall will cause damage to the building over time, and we want to make sure the mural doesn’t overwhelm the historic character of the neighborhood,” he said in his email.

The mural is allowed to stay up until the commission makes a decision, Holcomb said. If the panel decides the mural cannot stay up, the owners would have to remove it on a timeline worked out with the staff, or appeal the decision in court, he explained.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said she has not followed the mural issue, but has followed the career and contributions of the filmmaker. She’s a big fan of his work, she said today. “I hope they will be wise enough to work it out.”

Divine, also known as Harris Glenn Milstead, was born in 1945 and died of an enlarged heart in 1988. The mural, entitled “I’m So Beautiful,” is based on a Greg Gorman photograph that was used as the cover art for Divine’s 1984 disco single of the same name.

The mural was commissioned by property owners Jesse Salazar, 35, and Tom Williams, 37, without Waters’ knowledge or involvement.

The two men, who are married, bought the building on Preston Street several years ago, operate it as an Airbnb property and live several blocks away. They say they asked Gaia to paint the mural both to honor Divine and to send a message about Baltimore’s LGBTQ community. They paid for it by taking out a loan against a credit card.

“My husband and I asked Gaia to create this mural as a tribute to Divine and the city’s queer history,” Salazar said. “At a time when LGBT rights are being threatened, we hoped that Divine’s beauty would inspire others to know that they too are beautiful.”

Gaia and his crew painted the mural between Oct. 15 and 22. According to Holcomb, it was painted without any permits, which are required for any changes to exteriors of buildings in the city’s historic districts.

Holcomb asked the owners to apply for an “authorization to proceed” notice after the mural appeared, and they did so. At the Nov. 13 hearing, the commission will be asked to decide whether the mural may remain, after hearing a recommendation from the CHAP staff and testimony from the public.

Holcomb said CHAP does not yet have a recommendation from staff for how the commission ought to vote, but “the initial information and staff assessment suggests a recommendation of approval. We are still gathering information and continuing our review.” He added that it is not unusual for CHAP to retroactively approve changes, as preservation commissions do in many cities.

The panel is expected to base its decision on the answers to two questions, Holcomb said: “Will painting of this unpainted masonry wall cause damage to the building in the long run” by trapping water and potentially damaging the brick? And, “Does the mural significantly detract from the historic character of the neighborhood, street, or building?”

To his knowledge, he said, CHAP has never before asked a property owner to remove a mural from a building in a historic district, “and I have been here for almost 25 years.”

Asked if CHAP has received complaints or comments about the mural, he said: “Most of what we have heard has been from the owner and his prompting of art experts. We have heard from many journalists. We have heard that the neighborhood [architectural review committee] has had an avalanche of complaints, but we have not heard them.”

Salazar said he has received strong support since the mural appeared, both from individuals such as artist Tony Shore, director of the painting department at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and organizations like the American Visionary Art Museum, which has a statue of Divine in its collection.

Waters and casting director Pat Moran, both longtime friends of Divine, have visited the mural and shared photos on social media.

Waters, who has a retrospective of his work as a visual artist at the Baltimore Museum of Art, initially declined to comment about CHAP’s decision to hold a hearing until he had more information about who might have objected to the mural and other details.

Later, during a talk Thursday evening at the museum, an audience member asked him what he thought of the mural.

“I heard today that they are going to have some hearing about it,” he responded. “I can’t imagine. Why would anyone object to that? First of all, it faces a small alley. You can’t even see it driving because that street’s one way and you have to get out [to see it.]

“It’s five stories high. It looks great. It’s the ultimate Neighborhood Watch. You won’t have any crime on that block with Divine watching. I just can’t imagine that they’re going to make someone take it down. I mean, especially in the Mount Vernon area. I hope it’s just a technicality. I think it looks absolutely great.”

He also nodded to AVAM’s Divine statue, and said he believes Baltimore needs more Divine-themed art work. He suggested that statues of Divine be put up to replace the Confederate monuments that have been removed around the city.

“They took all the racist statues down, so we just have the pedestals. Make them all Divine!”

Gaia, also known as Andrew Pisacane, left Baltimore immediately after completing the mural to work on a project in the Netherlands and could not be reached.

Salazar said he and Williams haven’t formally solicited community support for the mural because they have been waiting for information from CHAP. He plans to attend the CHAP hearing and is “thinking through how to have a constructive presence,” and also plans to meet with representatives of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association, which reviews proposals for changes to buildings in the historic district.

Both CHAP and the community association “are giving full and fair consideration to the matter,” he said. “I’ve appreciated their responsiveness.”

Last week, Salazar shared comments from two men who have written CHAP to express support for the mural: Christian Larsen, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Noah Brodie, chief executive officer of Divine’s estate.

“As a work of art, this particular mural of Divine is astonishing for its sensitive likeness, bold color, excellent execution, and brilliant physical placement, poking out from the alley amongst stately row houses,” Larsen wrote.

“It’s an inspiring message for counter-culture types, the LGBT community, and those affirming body positive representation,” Brodie wrote. “In many ways, she represents the strength of Baltimore’s character, and serves as a reminder of the city’s perseverance and authenticity. Divine is brassy, bold and beautiful, just like Baltimore.”

Baltimore is not the only city that has seen a mural appear in a historic district without prior approval. In New York City, so many murals have appeared in historic districts recently that the Landmarks Preservation Commission held a public meeting to address the phenomenon.

CHAP’s hearing will be on the eighth floor of the Benton Building, 417 E. Fayette St., at around 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 13. Correspondence about the mural can be sent in advance to Holcomb and city planner Caitlin Audette.

This story has been updated.

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.
Ed Gunts


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