Student slogs through public art process

Ashland High School senior Nicole Shulters has taken on a task that's daunting even for adults — getting a public art project approved in Ashland.

She's also the first person to seek approval for a painted mural since city officials loosened Ashland's restrictive rules on public art in 2009.

It's been a long road for Shulters, who started planning a mural as her senior project in August 2011 and has yet to win the final approval that would allow her to start painting.

"I wasn't expecting the hurdles. They were pretty high hurdles," Shulters said.

She hopes to paint the 32-by-6.5-foot mural on the side of Dan's Shoe Repair, a business operated by her father, Dan Shulters. A blank wall of the building faces Enders Alley near Second Street downtown.

The building's owner, Allen Drescher, has given her his blessing.

Back in September 2011, Shulters went before the Ashland Public Arts Commission to seek approval for her plan to paint a scene of big-city skyscrapers in the alley.

The commissioners wanted Shulters to return with a written proposal.

When she went back the following month, commissioners raised concerns that the urban design of her mural didn't reflect Ashland's small-town character.

"I didn't think people would say, 'This needs to change and that needs to change,'" Shulters said.

Commissioners suggested that she meet with Ashlander and nationally known muralist Robert Beckmann, whose work includes a full-length portrait of William Shakespeare on the side of the Best Western Bard's Inn downtown.

Back when it went up in 2007, the large Shakespeare painting was classified as a sign — not as a public art mural — under city rules. It replaced a sign with the Best Western corporate name.

In November, after meeting with Beckmann, Shulters submitted a revised design showing the hills of Ashland behind black buildings. The commission voted to recommend the mural for approval to the City Council.

In the meantime, the city had sent out 53 letters to neighboring property owners asking them for input on the mural. Several responses trickled back in — with people giving both positive and negative reviews of Shulters' design.

Roanna Rosewood, co-owner of Pangea café, wrote that she was strongly opposed to it. For safety, her employees go in pairs through the alley at night to take out garbage and recycling. The alley already makes some people nervous, she said.

"I strongly feel that this mural, with its red sky and black buildings, would increase feelings of unease. Please note, this is not a negative judgement on the quality of art or the artist. I think a mural is a great idea but one that is uplifting and relates, in some way, to our unique and wonderful small town instead of a nameless city with a blood-red sky, would be enjoyable instead of just artistic," Rosewood wrote.

In contrast, Paddy Brannan's Irish Pub owner Tysin Senestraro wrote that he was definitely in support of the mural.

"I think this is a great idea! It would brighten up that dreadful alley," he wrote.

Shulters said she had mentally prepared herself for some negative feedback and took it in stride. She said she plans to tone down the red sky and add more detailing to the Ashland hills.

On Feb. 21, Shulters finally won approval for her mural from the council.

But two days later, she found out that city staff members had overlooked a step in the public art process and her mural proposal would have to go before the Ashland Historic Commission. It will review the proposal tonight.

"It's kind of a bummer. I thought I was completely done and ready to paint," Shulters said. "But it's teaching me to stay open."

Ann Seltzer, city management analyst and liaison to the Public Arts Commission, said she has admired Shulters' perseverance and willingness to learn from the experience.

Seltzer said the commission has fielded inquiries from other people interested in doing public art murals, but Shulters is the first person to have a formal proposal move through the process since the city loosened its rules on public art.

"It's been a long process for her and the Public Arts Commission because this is the first time," Seltzer said.

Sculptures and tile projects have gone through the process.

"Nicole was very responsive to feedback from the Public Arts Commission," Seltzer said. "She wanted to do the right thing and also hold to her artistic vision."

Shulters said she talked to Ashland High School officials and she will still get credit for doing a senior project if she hasn't painted the mural before the end of the school year. That's because she's already committed enough hours doing sketches, creating a mock-up of the mural and attending public meetings.

Shulters said she learned that doing a public art project entails much more than just picking up a city permit and painting.

She said she admires the members of the arts commission.

"It's a tough job," she said. "It's hard to tell people 'no.' They were really helpful in telling me what to do next to increase my chances of getting it approved. Hopefully I can get it painted. I've enjoyed the process so far. Hopefully there's nothing more after the Historic Commission.

"I'll keep my fingers crossed."

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or

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