When Russian muralist Liya Kot attempted to finish a mural on the side of Restaurant Russia on Southeast Foster Road, she hit a brick wall: Portland's sign ordinance. Even murals, such as the restaurant's three-panel depiction of an onion-domed cathedral, are governed by the city ban on outdoor signs exceeding 200 square feet.

Before the artwork is completed, project organizers need to seek an "adjustment" from the city, a procedure that costs $1,365 and doesn't guarantee approval. That's a high-stakes gamble for Southeast Uplift, the nonprofit community group sponsoring the 3-year-old project. So a group of artists is raising money to seek the adjustment and, they hope, challenge the law.

The city's ordinance, which was prompted by a series of legal actions by sign companies taken over the past several years, makes no distinction between art and advertisement (see "Board Bills," WW, March 8, 2000). Under the law, any representational image is considered a sign, and regulated as one. "We're not discriminating against public art," Portland Office of Planning and Development Review's Kermit Robinson told about 35 angry artists at a recent panel discussion on the topic. "We're not discriminating based on content."

Therein lies the problem, says Eagle Creek artist Joseph Cotter. He believes there's another way to regulate public art and wants the City of Portland--or the courts--to find it. He and other mural-lovers hope to use the Restaurant Russia case to get the ordinance overturned. To pay for the adjustment process and test the ordinance, public-art advocates are holding an art auction at 7 pm Saturday, Sept. 21, at Outside In.