Controversial bridge mural in 'calming' state



A community mural planned for the Rosa T. Beard Memorial Bridge is under a two-week “calming period,” after a Paine College official complained the public art’s approved design fails to capture the contributions the former educator made to the community.

But the $24,000 mural – paid for from a $1.8 million community challenge grant awarded to Augusta from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – was never intended to be a tribute to Beard, said John Paul Stout, the sustainable development manager for the city of Augusta.

Federal and state guidelines say that the artwork must be an undivisive, community-generated piece of public art that captures a sustainable vision for the area and not a composition dedicated to the work of a historic figure.

With artist Lucy McTier, of Wrens, Ga., permitted to start painting the mural Sept. 6, Stout said the design is under a two-week “calming period” to allow disputing parties to get together on the project, whose grant funding expires in February.

He said no changes have been decided on, but minor tweaks are still possible, such as possibly changing a girl’s face to resemble Beard’s.

“With art it’s impossible to make everyone happy, but what we are trying to do is clarify the original purpose and intent of the mural, because when people hear it is going to run along the side of the Rosa T. Beard Bridge, they assume it is going to honor Rosa Beard,” Stout said. “While she certainly is worthy of such an honor, we feel the beautification of the bridge as a whole is a tribute in itself, and an option available for us to pursue.”

Leah Suggs, the assistant director of communications and marketing at Paine College, said Monday that the school nor the official who made the complaint – Brandon Brown, vice president of institutional advancement – wanted to comment on the project “at this time.” Cheryl Beard, the daughter of Rosa Beard, did not return phone calls.

Beard died in December 2010 at the age of 89. An educator for almost 40 years, she taught thousands of young people in Augusta; founded The Rocket Club for students interested in aeronautics and space; and through her debutante club, prepared young ladies for adulthood.

She was also active at Antioch Baptist Church and was a board member of Shiloh Comprehensive Community Center – a senior center, food pantry and youth-tutoring facility.

The transformation of the 15th Street bridge that bears her name was completed in February after six months of public input meetings at Josey High School and the Augusta Mini Theatre on Deans Bridge Road.

Hundreds of residents were involved in the process, providing their ideas to McTier, who submitted sketches to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the state Department of Transportation, and the Augusta Commission, which – along with its committees – unanimously approved.

“We wanted to make sure that when we started talking about the redevelopment of 15th Street that everything was very transparent and that we had broad community support,” said Elizabeth Jones, a member of the project’s steering committee, which included a member from Paine.

McTier, who has painted public murals in Memphis, Tenn., and Charleston, W.Va., said she used a young man’s drawing of an eagle majestically flying into the sunset as the focal point of the composition.

In the drawing, a young couple stares into the distance, dreaming of building a future together as the eagle flies overhead.

Next to the man and woman, an elementary school student plays with building blocks as he thinks about what he might want to be when he grows up. In the background, bike riders and peach pickers enjoy acres of green space in a safe and active city.

Jones said she does not think it is wise to alter the community’s vision of the mural and is proposing that the project’s steering committee raise money to buy a monument or historic marker to place on the grounds of Paine College that would permanently pay tribute to Beard.

“If we changed it now, we would be telling the community that what you wanted does not make any difference,” Jones said. “We are reneging on our commitment to the process and saying we are not men and women of our word.”

Because the mural is considered public art, Stout said, the project will be a work in progress “until it’s up on the wall,” which McTier said is true with all compositions.

“Some debate should be – and is expected to be – part of the process when making public art,” McTier said. “Many public artists never make only one sketch. Many drawings are involved.”

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