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JONESIE: Public art exposes politicians for who they really are

Some of the works at the Behind the Mask exhibit.



In 2005, Kelowna turned 100 and boy did it have big plans to celebrate.

Among the festivities, the City of Kelowna contracted a local art gallery to produce a series of videos to mark the occasion. Kelowna-born videographer Jayce Salloum was one of the artists selected and he used his 15 minutes of video to focus on pre- and post-contact from the perspective of Westbank First Nation, almost all of it elders and children talking about their side of the last 100 years. Hard truths.

The City threw itself to the floor in a tantrum. “I! WAN-TED! A! CEL-E-BRA-TORYYY VIDEO!"

It refused to show the video as planned. Wouldn’t advertise it. Wouldn’t even show the other videos. And finally even pulled final payments on them.

Man, I love artists. They are a perfect antidote to bureaucrats and politicians and other myopic warriors for status quo. All they do is create things and people tear themselves apart about it. And that’s precisely what the City of Kelowna did.

The City’s own reaction — can you even imagine such a response 17 years later? — blew up their entire celebration. It became provincial and national news, rightly pissed off their Indigenous neighbours and gave the city another black eye, right behind then-Mayor Walter Gray’s continuing denial to proclaim “Gay Pride Day.”

Marshall Jones, managing editor
Marshall Jones, managing editor
Image Credit: FILE PHOTO

READ MORE: Behind the Mask: Vernon's 'scary' murals don't actually scare children

In Penticton, it was more of the same when Frank came to town. The City of Penticton commissioned local artist Michael Hermish for a large piece of public art in its most prominent traffic roundabout. And Hermish made Frank, The Baggage Handler, a wonderful seven-foot tall statue of a man, figuratively carrying emotional baggage.

Oh and he was also nude. The townsfolk gathered round, spotted his little penis and it so shocked them that they almost crashed their vehicles into each other. They were outraged! Not about their own driving skills, but about the penis, apparently unaware half the population is furnished with such a spigot. ‘WON’T ANYONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!?’ they declared. So the politicians eyed a majority opinion and acted.

After first toying with making Hermish create a steel loin cloth to cover the offensiveness, Frank was eventually evicted. But before he went, his junk exposed Penticton for having no balls.

That news went international.

Now to Vernon, where the politicians are at least a little brighter to hide their frailties, though perhaps not as honest. Councillors saw, approved and agreed to spend $33,000 to put up 11 new murals, none of which are exactly in the historical spirit of the other murals in town people are used to.

Two weeks later, four of those councillors rescinded it. They said they were inundated with people who didn’t like them. Some people called them ’scary’ and, you guessed it — children are once again a top concern.

No exposed genitalia or difficult history here, no national news. A Calgary artist used a national arts grant to engage some Vernon residents in a process. She asked them to create masks with a theme of mental health, then showed them how to use that as a creative tool for artistic expression. She photographed them wearing the masks and paintings of those photos were to be used as murals.

A petition was launched, people called their councillors. Those councillors sensed an uproar and with an election this fall, they promptly cowered to the mob.

It was rather hilarious reading Councillor Scott Anderson tie himself in knots in a 1,137-word press release (that I promise to haunt him with later), to insulate himself from criticism by explaining all the reasons he did NOT vote to essentially reject the murals. It’s NOT because of the art itself, NOT trampling on free speech, NOT a vote against expressions of mental health.

Nope, the difference with these murals is that people will see them, being public art and all. And people must be consulted about things that may pass before their eyes. Because if there’s one thing you can count on from the public, it’s homogenous tastes in art. Good luck with that.

And to punish the Vernon Public Art Gallery for pushing this pie in their faces, they’re going to make the gallery pay for the public consultation.

Here’s an idea. Appoint an arts council to make these decisions and leave the politicians out of it. Public art should be bold, that’s half the point. Does anyone remember what else the City of Kelowna did for its Centennial? Can anyone tell me what’s now in the roundabout in Penticton? 

Art is an individual experience, provoking reflections of one’s own perspective. It’s like a mirror, how you react to it.

The murals have shown Vernon's politicians for who they are.

"Maybe they don’t understand and the fear of not understanding gets in the way,” Cheryl Jackson, one of the artists told us.

Allow the murals or don’t allow them.

Either way, I’d say the artist’s job is already done.

— Marshall Jones is the Managing Editor of

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