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September 23, 2014

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Joe Downtown: Walls scouted for next Life Is Beautiful murals

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Charlotte Dutoit, curator of the Life Is Beautiful festival street art program called Rise Above, shows her Mayor’s Urban Design Award on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014.

Planning for the next Life Is Beautiful festival began almost as soon as the two-day festival ended in October. But one of the most visible and unexpectedly controversial parts of the festival — its street art program — really got rolling this week.

Charlotte Dutoit, curator of the street art program called Rise Above, is in Las Vegas to begin figuring out which buildings will be used as canvasses for murals and which artists will be called upon to create them.

Last year’s murals were one of the biggest hits of the festival, creating lasting improvements to drab building exteriors whose only contribution to the downtown landscape was that they remained intact.

The murals were such a success that earlier today, Dutoit appeared at a meeting of the City Council to receive the Mayor’s Urban Design Award.

More than a dozen murals and other forms of art dolled up old buildings, with a large concentration of them on 7th Street, just south of Ogden Avenue.

Reaction to one of the murals, however, caused a minor controversy.

Artist Interesni Kazki spent a week painting the east-facing exterior of the Emergency Arts building, one of the first art-related businesses to emerge downtown.

The mural depicted a cowboy in an oversized yellow hat and three reels of a slot machine in his chest reaching out toward hands reaching up from an orangish earth.

About a month after the festival, the mural was painted over and disappeared.

Jennifer Cornthwaite, who operates the Emergency Arts building with her husband, Michael, said the mural “didn’t reflect the spirit of all the people working downtown at all.”

Jennifer Cornthwaite, however, also said she is open to art of all kinds and opened one of the first art galleries near East Fremont — Henri & Odette, now closed — several years ago. Emergency Arts is housed in a building owned by the operators of the El Cortez across the street.

Dutoit said she was “very sad” that the art was covered up. This year, she said, “I will do everything I can not to have that happen again.”

She said examples of Kazki’s previous work had been shown ahead of time to the owners of the Emergency Arts building, but sketches of what Kazki intended for that wall were not provided.

The art world is small, and word of what happened to Kazki’s mural spread fast, she said.

So will that harm attempts to draw artists to Life Is Beautiful this year?

Dutoit, who also runs U Design, a design company in Puerto Rico, believes she has earned enough trust in the art world that muralists won’t shy away.

“They will come if I am involved,” she said.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown, he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.

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