Guest Column: Beware of artists

THOMAS THORSPECKEN

THOMAS THORSPECKEN

Guest Column: Beware of artists

Thomas Thorspecken
Orlando, FL

As Queen Victoria said, “Beware of artists because they mix with all classes of society and are therefore most dangerous.”

Back in 2009 Saint Augustine city officials wrote an ordinance that banned the creation of art in public spaces. Painting or sketching city parks became a crime punishable with 60 days in jail and a fine of $500. In the ordinance, artists are grouped together with street performers, and vendors.

Performers in the law includes, “acting, singing, playing musical instruments, pantomime, mime, magic, juggling, artistry or the creation of visual art, and wares, which means drawings or paintings applied to paper, cardboard, canvas, cloth or other similar medium when such art is applied to the medium through the use of brush, pastel, crayon, pencil, spray or other similar object, and the creation, display and/or sale of crafts made by hand or otherwise.”

This clearly contradicts our first amendment rights which allows for freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The law bans art on 8 public streets and 4 public parks and green spaces. My first reaction was indignation and then I found out about a protest that was going to be held in front of the Lightner Museum and City Hall at 75 King Street.

The city is celebrating its 450th birthday and this law seems like it was written back before there was a US Constitution.

Sections of King Street are included in the ban on creativity but I couldn’t find out online if it was illegal to sketch on the block where the protest was being staged. My original plan was to do a digital sketch, which would seem to fall outside the laws limited definition of visual art. The protest was at noon however, so I returned to work in an old fashioned sketchbook. Imagine toddlers scribbling with crayons in their sketchbook getting arrested. Illegal or not, it was time for a road trip and a sketch.

I believe this insane law was put in place because the historic parks were being turned into a free for all flea market. Vendors sell all forms of tourist trinkets, including snacks, sunglasses and clothing. Brick and mortar merchants must have wanted the ban so that they wouldn’t lose a dime in tourist sales. Some performers would attract large crowds of tourists who would sometimes block traffic.

If the city would ban the tourists, then there would be no problem.

Saint Augustine City commissioners do not seem to mind having artists creating in public, but artists are still bundled into the law prohibiting performers and vendors. It should be noted that artists are not performers and they seldom attract a crowd. While the flea market continues, police turn a blind eye. The police do however take photos of artists at work in an effort to build a case against them. Artists are being considered a threat to public safety and a visual blight. There are 12 spots in the plaza that are legally available for $75 a month to rent, and these are given out on a lottery based system. Even if an artist were lucky enough to rent a spot in the park, it certainly wouldn’t offer the historic views that beg to be sketched all over the city.

My primary concern as I drove into Saint Augustine was the parking. 450 years ago the city streets were set up with only pedestrian traffic in mind. The streets are narrow and often one way. Parking meters charge $1.50 an hour with a time limit of 3 hours. Clearly I would have to execute the sketch with that 3 hour window and then get the hell out of Dodge. The museum parking lot was full and I didn’t have enough quarters for a meter, so I got lost on the suburban side streets until miraculously a parking spot appeared. I’m thankful that I didn’t pay the city to document the protest.

I was quite nervous as I began the sketch. Every line was an act of civil disobedience. A musician pulled up behind me on his medical scooter. He had a friendly old Labrador retriever who wore sun glasses, a white beard and a Santa cap. As a musician, he clearly is affected by the law. He was looking forward to giving a speech later in the day. As I sketched the gorgeous architecture several dozen protesters gathered on King Street holding signs that said Art is not Crime, Freedom of Expression, and Spend 60 Days in Jail. Sketching was the perfect way to document this protest. One protester told me that the Mayor would at some point notice the protest when she glanced out her window. She would then likely have the police chase the protesters off. A silly little red tourist trolley stopped in from of the protesters. The driver was annoyed that shouts of “Art is not a crime!” interrupted his endless monotone scripted spiel. One police cruiser passed the protest without incident. Apparently you need to stay in motion when you are protesting. Protesters paced back and forth. As an artist, I was the only one who remained completely still and therefor I might be suspect.

Angel Jones welcomed me and handed me her card in case police gave me trouble for sketching in public. I was told that handing out business cards in Saint Augustine is also illegal. Angel was definitely the protests greatest cheerleader. When cars honked their approval, she would shout and cheer. Her enthusiasm was contagious. From across the street she shouted to me, “Don’t worry, if the police show up we will surround you. I’ll chain myself to your chair if I have to!” She was hilarious.

A Japanese family stopped to watch as I sketched. The little girl almost pressed her nose to the page as she crowded in to watch intently. The last thing I wanted was to draw a crowd because that is what got this insane law started. The trouble is that people love to watch artists sketch. People kept asking me about the protest, so I got a chance to inform people over and over again as I worked. Limiting artistic expression is an issue that is near to my heart. Winter Park, which is a place I sketch often, is considering a similar ban on artists. Their reasoning is that artists hinder foot traffic on public sidewalks. This insanity is getting closer to home.

As I was finishing up sketch, someone told me that the area where I was sketching was safe from the ban on artists. Had I sketched one block east, it would have been a different story. The city needs anti-art signs to let people know where creativity is prohibited. Maybe there should be an anti-art curb color to ward off possible painters or sketchers. It would have be nice to know it was safe to sketch earlier, the sketch might have been less frantic. I posted a picture of my sketch in progress on Instagram and close to 300 people have joined the conversation on the issue. Protests in Saint Augustine will be happening biweekly.

The ongoing case to overturn this ordinance is in federal court, and a ruling is pending. Change comes slowly, and this battle has been going on for too long, but you can help by telling others about this crazy law and of course you can e-mail city commissioners to let them know how you feel about St. Augustine’s current anti-artist laws.

When my sketch was done, I got out of that backward city as fast as I could. The next step could be burning books.

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