Behind the Mask: Vernon's 'scary' murals don't actually scare children | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source
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Behind the Mask: Vernon's 'scary' murals don't actually scare children

The artist behind the mask, Cheryl Jackson.

Cheryl Jackson says concerns that public art that was scheduled for Vernon is 'too scary' is being overblown.

"I am the most timid person, scared of my own shadow," she said. "I don't think these masks are scary at all."

As one of a group of artists that produced the Behind the Mask artwork, she's very disappointed that Vernon council has made a u-turn decision after it originally approved the project.

"I cried when I heard it wasn't happening," she says.

The project, Behind the Mask, has created controversy after Vernon council approved spending $33,000 to place 11 pieces of art around the city.

However, Monday, June 13, councillor Akbal Mund said there had been an "outcry from the community" sufficient enough for council to stop the project entirely.

The four councillors present at the meeting decided there hadn't been enough public consultation – although they originally voted to approve the project – and put a hold on the murals asking the Vernon Public Art Gallery to do some public consultation.

Council also suggested the project be scaled back.

Jackson sees it as an excuse by council for those that don't like the art.

"Maybe they don’t understand and the fear of not understanding gets in the way," she said.

Turning Points Collaborative Society program coordinator Sarah Lillemo worked closely with the artists making the masks and said council's decision was unfair.

"It was supposed to be a very personal experience and now all of a sudden we're saying we're only going to pick the ones the public thinks are acceptable?" she said.

Some of the works at the Behind the Mask exhibit.
Some of the works at the Behind the Mask exhibit.

Much of the controversy came after council discussed that they'd heard from some that the artwork was scary.

A petition was quickly launched by Sharmay Taylor against what she called the "awful" murals.

The petition incorrectly said the artists weren't local and that the murals would be "scary for young children." Nearly 3,700 people signed it.

A pro-mural petition was launched by Kimberley Fuller which gained 1,200 signatures.

So is the artwork too scary to children?

Vernon Public Art Gallery director Dauna Kennedy said it hasn't been.

Kennedy said plenty of school children from Kindergarten to Grade 8 have visited the exhibition and are curious, not scared.

"None of them left in tears," she jokes.

Kennedy doesn't answer the question directly when asked if Vernon council is just appeasing the philistines?

"I can't speak for council... I think those different opinions are positive, that's what a project like this is supposed to do. It's supposed to create conversation and we've certainly done that," she said.

Vernon Public Art Gallery executive director Dauna Kennedy.
Vernon Public Art Gallery executive director Dauna Kennedy.

The Behind the Mask project is the brainchild of Calgary-based artist Katie Green who scored a $55,000 Canada Arts Council grant to produce the project.

Green formed workshops with individuals who used masks to explore the theme of mental health.

The workshops were in part art therapy as the participants became artists themselves and produced their own masks.

Green then photographed the artists wearing their masks. The artworks at the Vernon gallery have a write-up of the artists explaining their creations.

Green did the same project in Calgary in 2019 and 16 murals were placed around the city for three years. They just came down last week.

Green said she heard similar comments in Calgary to those heard in Vernon.

"I'm not surprised to people having a strong reaction to public art in general, I think public art has a wonderful role in starting a conversation, but I am definitely surprised by the amount of push back this project is getting," she said.

Does Green think the murals will scare children?

"It's a valid thought for one opinion, but there are many other experiences outside of that single experience," she said. "With any public art it will have an effect in the sense that it changes someone's environment, and the way someone experiences their environment, and then also their sense of self in that environment, and I think public art is really interesting in that way," she said.

Cheryl Jackson's mask 'Azura.'
Cheryl Jackson's mask 'Azura.'

For Jackson, making her mask, and then being photographed in it was a cathartic experience.

"I was able to think about some things in my own mind, and the people around me and how things are going in my life right now," she said.

Standing in the Vernon gallery reading the artist's statements next to their masks and photographs it's clear the project had a deep effect on them.

Kennedy said the project is bigger than the murals and will also have a mini-documentary to go with it.

For her part, the gallery did everything it was required to do, but will now conduct the required public consultation.

"We've used the visual arts to create dialogue around a very challenging topic," she said.

She encourages the 3,700 people that signed the petition against the mural to come to the gallery and see the work.

Jackson questions whether the naysayers have been to the gallery and seen the work.

"I just think it's better than what's out there right now, plain old walls... it would be some Vernon culture for a change."

Behind the Mask runs at the Vernon Public Art Gallery until July 19. For more information go here.

The group of artists pose with their masks.
The group of artists pose with their masks.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED: Katie Green

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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