Members of the Starkville Board of Aldermen approved painting a street mural on the intersection of University Drive and Maxwell Street at a special call meeting Thursday in a 3-1 vote.
Mayor Parker Wiseman and Aldermen Ben Carver and Henry Vaughn were absent from the session. Aldermen Richard Corey, Jeremiah Dumas and Eric Parker voted in favor of the project, with Alderman Roy A. Perkins being the lone dissenting vote. Ward 2 Alderman and Vice Mayor Sandra Sistrunk led the meeting in Wiseman’s place.
Students participating in the Studio School Summer Camp through the landscape architecture department at Mississippi State University will donate all the time and materials required to finish the project over a two-day period. The intersection will be closed from 2-6 p.m. Sunday for the students to pressure wash the area and prepare it to be painted and Monday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for painting and drying time.
MSU landscape architecture associate professor and camp director Jason Walker said the design derives from a Choctaw tribal symbol that means “continual happiness throughout all stages of your life.” The participants are junior high-age students identified as at-risk from city schools.
“The impetus for summer camps is finding students not succeeding in school and looking at how they can be successful in an alternative classroom environment about application, building and doing things,” Walker said. “As part of that we are looking at math, science, language — things that are important to Mississippi curriculum. I had asked the students to come up with a series of themes … and asked how they relate to Starkville and that intersection. We ended up looking at Choctaw symbology predating Anglo-Saxon development. It definitely has a reference to that and looks at predecessors, the current environment and the future. We have college students, people who live in Starkville and alumni of Mississippi State, and they come to university drive and looking to have an experience. This is a fun expression of happiness throughout all stages of life.”
During the meeting, Starkville Police Department Chief David Lindley said while he’s familiar with the concept of the street art, it’s new to the city.
“It’s a concept that is used in other parts of the country,” Lindley said. “What it does is call attention to the design when you’re passing over it so there’s a propensity to slow down and see what it is.”
Corey said he was in favor of the design because it is another aid in calming traffic in that area.
“We also recently approved to add additional curb cuts there as traffic calming measures because of the accidents and issues we’ve had at that intersection,” Corey said.
Perkins said his only reason for voting against the measure was that it sets precedent for the rest of the community.
“What about the other areas of the city that may come to us and request traffic calming pictures for their streets? Without some standards of design, how do we say ‘no’ but continue to treat areas of the city equally?” he asked. “It certainly is my opinion that this design does not reflect a traditional look for our community. I am certain that the intentions are very good but this is an example of the need for some sort of design standards for our city. If we’re going to down the path then perhaps we need to develop some option through a board approved policy for such street murals. I’m reluctant about voting against it, but I must say for the record that the matter of the precedent is the only issue that compels me to vote against it.”
Board members were presented with a draft of the design as well as a letter of support from Dan Camp, who owns several properties in the Cotton District. One difference between the design draft and how the design will actually appear is the color of the crosswalk. It is shown to be black in the draft but will remain white as it is presently.
“Part of us vetting this approval was that we had Dan Camp’s approval since we’re putting it in an area where he owns a majority of the property,” Dumas said. “We wanted to be sure he understood it and appreciated it.”
Dumas said he’s received negative feedback from citizens about the design.
“There have been some comments and questions. I still think it’s an interesting design that fits the context of the Cotton District in a way that’s artful and in a way that from a textual color dimensional standpoint will also aid with safety,” he said. “There’s been a lot of spirited debate about this, which in any city business is a good thing. It would be good if we had this much debate on more important city issues we are currently dealing with and recently dealt with.”
Sistrunk said she was not expecting the amount of feedback she’s received.
“Art is in the eye of the beholder, but I like geometric designs,” Sistrunk said. “I think public art is a good thing. This, apparently, is controversial and I’m surprised about it, but that’s what art is supposed to do: spark conversation. This has certainly done that.”
Walker said implementing a program that helps at-risk youth learn vital skills while installing an additional traffic calming measure to protect pedestrians is more important than the symbol itself.
“Knowing full well that this intersection was unsafe and people had been hit by vehicles, how do you make that safer? Installing curb extensions and stop signs, how would this contribute to improving that component?” Walker asked. “(We’re also considering) how this is fun for a student who is not doing well in a traditional classroom.”