Two years of work erased — but maybe not for long.
Sam Pelts painted a mural on a retaining wall on the grounds of the Warren County Courthouse about a decade ago, while he was a student at Warrenton High School. The wall served what was the entrance into the Warren County Health Department at the time, but recently was made into the main entrance for the Warren County Sheriff’s office.
The mural’s removal was part of the facilities upgrade and expansion project at the sheriff’s office and jail, county officials said.
The mural featured historical homes and other buildings along and around Main Street, including the former Warren County Courthouse.
It was painted over the week of April 22-26.
Pelts, 29, remains an artist. After graduation, he went on to study fine art and psychology. He lives in Oakland, Calf., where he organizes artists whose work deals with climate change issues.
The mural had been commissioned by the Warren County Commission and researched with images from the Warren County Historical Society, said Pelts in a Facebook post June 17, which is when its removal really started being talked about.
“As a 17-year-old aspiring artist, I just wanted to bring a little beauty and history to the downtown area,” he went on to say in the post, along with statements making his ire clear, and starting a sort-of frenzy for locals on the social media site.
Pelts later told The Record, “I’m well aware of the fact it’s not my property. It’s their wall and they can do whatever they want to do with it.”
Pelts took issue because he was not notified. While he does not own the property the mural was on, which belongs to the county, he does own the copyright to the art. He said the Federal Visual Artists Rights Act requires artists to be notified. He said if he had been notified, he would have come home to ensure he had what he needed to someday make a life-size copy of the mural somewhere else.
High resolution photographs were taken. Warren County Sheriff Kevin Harrison said he had a plan from the start to save the image so it could be reproduced. He took photographs with the idea of creating a photo on canvas to be hung at the Warren County Historical Society.
Harrison said he shared the photos with Pelts and the idea of the mural on canvas to display at the Historical Society just might work out.
Harrison said painting over the mural was never meant to disrespect the artist or his work.
Presiding County Commissioner Joe Gildehaus learned about Pelts and the making of the mural after the social media hoopla. He shared Harrison’s sentiments. No harm was intended. He said their focus was on the upgrades in progress at the facility. Painting over the mural, he said, was an unfortunate situation in the middle of improvement projects.
“All we’re trying to do is upgrade our facilities. I don’t know how we could have done it differently,” said Gildehaus. “I apologize to the young man. Nobody did this intentionally or maliciously.”
Jennifer Schipper is president of the Warren County Fine Arts Council. The organization’s mission is to promote art and the arts in Warren County. Schipper came across the Facebook posts and joined in on the dialogue.
Murals are a medium she has said the organization would support to draw attention to local artists.
Schipper said the organization has Pelts’ approval to recreate the piece in future projects. She added that a business on Main Street in Warrenton might be interested in adding Pelts’ mural to its building.
Incidentally, artwork along Main Street would be much more visible than its original home, which could not be seen from Main Street and was barely visible to its nearest road, South West Street, between the Courthouse and Warrenton City Hall.
The mural had been an early portfolio builder for Pelts. It was an unpaid project. But even then, he saw it as a potential legacy for him and something for the community to enjoy, and that they did. Pelts said his Facebook post drew attention. It went viral, at least on pages in Warren County, he said.
Pelts was so overwhelmed by the response from well-wishers who had enjoyed the mural that he posted again a few days after his original post, this time more measured.
“The reason this is hitting a nerve for so many is because we all need to believe that what we do matters to other people and that what we build will last,” he wrote. “I feel so lucky to know that something I did 10 years ago means something to all of you.”
As conversations started and emotions settled, Pelts said he was focusing on all the positives.
“If (all of this) raises awareness about the value of public art, that would be worth it. That would be a good thing,” Pelts said.
He said public art is created for the community to enjoy, for as long as it can exist.
“The mural served its purpose. I’m happy it brought some joy to the community while it was up,” he said.