In 1989, 10-year-old Kelley Sigler painted a heartfelt portrait of U.S. Olympic sprinter Jackie Joyner-Kersee on the wall of her school.

Sigler took part in what became a three-decade tradition. Every spring at Glencoe Elementary, a public school on the northwestern slope of Portland's Mount Tabor, fifth-graders looked forward to a treat: the opportunity to work with a renowned artist on a hallway mural.

Over the years, the kids painted the fall of the Berlin Wall, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, and less weighty events, like the Trail Blazers' acquisition of center Arvydas Sabonis. Today, several hallways are filled with their murals.

Murals at Glencoe Elementary portray Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Orel Hershiser. (courtesy of Kelley Sigler)
Murals at Glencoe Elementary portray Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Orel Hershiser. (courtesy of Kelley Sigler)

Sigler is now 39 and the mother of two Glencoe students, whom she hoped would add their own contributions to a mural. But this fall, Glencoe Principal Lori Clark announced all existing murals would be covered with a fresh coat of paint during winter break. Among the reasons cited by Clark in an Oct. 19 letter to parents: Some of the children's drawings "are disturbing and from some perspectives are deemed racist."

Clark gave examples: a package from the Unabomber; the twin towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001; Osama bin Laden in hiding; and "Tom Sawyer paddling a slave on a raft."

"In my first year," wrote Clark, who came to Glencoe in 2015, "I walked by the murals many times and didn't look closely at the images. However, there are some images that are not relevant to our students or ones we want to represent our Glencoe community."

That decision places Glencoe in a national conversation about public art that ranges from edgy graffiti to statues of Confederate war figures.

Sigler is frantic.

"It makes me feel horrible," Sigler says. "She wants to erase the work of the community and all it represents. The murals feel like home to me."

Sigler isn't alone.

"The things [Clark] is trying to censor: These things are part of our history," says Sara Heying, a Glencoe alumna who painted Michael Jackson's sparkling glove in 1989. "9/11: That happened. The Berlin Wall coming down: That happened. There's a picture of Huck Finn on the raft. They are saying that's racist. Read the book. It's not."

Murals at Glencoe Elementary portray Huckleberry Finn and Jim, Vera Katz and Shaquille O’Neal. (courtesy of Kelley Sigler)
Murals at Glencoe Elementary portray Huckleberry Finn and Jim, Vera Katz and Shaquille O’Neal. (courtesy of Kelley Sigler)

The tempest echoes age-old fights over schools and censorship—attempts to ban Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from school libraries for racism, after all, have become perennial battles.

But this scuffle also reflects new, nationwide tensions over Confederate monuments, buildings named after slave owners, and other relics of history: At what point do messages from the past become unacceptable to people who now use those spaces?

PPS spokesman Harry Esteve says an equity committee at Glencoe raised concerns about the murals last year.

"Several staff said they found some of the images racially and culturally insensitive and offensive," Esteve says, "while others said some of the images, especially of violent events, were triggers for staff and students. The principal began engaging with Glencoe families about the possibility of painting over the murals and allowing current students to work on new art. This was discussed in principal coffee chats, in the school newsletter and at PTA meetings."

(Sigler disputes the district's account, saying little notice was given to families.)

Defenders of the murals have little time left. But they do have one possible recourse: federal law.

A legal protection called the Visual Artists Rights Act prohibits building owners from covering up murals without artists' permission. Two years ago, WW examined that law and its application to dozens of threatened murals on the sides of Portland buildings where owners wanted to tear the structures down or disliked the art ("Up Against the Wall," WW, July 20, 2016).

Murals at Glencoe Elementary include a painting of the Portland Trail Blazers defeating the Los Angeles Lakers. (courtesy of Kelley Sigler)
Murals at Glencoe Elementary include a painting of the Portland Trail Blazers defeating the Los Angeles Lakers. (courtesy of Kelley Sigler)

In Glencoe's case, hundreds of children participated in making the art. They were supervised for many years by a noted artist: Michael Florin Dente, whose work can be found on the University of Portland campus and at the Oregon Convention Center.

Dente, 70, has not granted his permission for Portland Public Schools to cover up his work. He's currently recovering from an illness, but his wife, Laurie, spoke on his behalf. She says neither Glencoe nor PPS notified her husband of the plans to cover the murals. Instead, they heard about it from a Glencoe parent. "We were saddened and shocked," Laurie Dente says.

Dente is fighting back. Portland copyright lawyer Kohel Haver, who has previously represented artists in VARA challenges, has taken Dente's case.
"As of this morning, we represent the artist Michael Florin Dente," Haver says. "As advocates for artists and the arts, we were compelled to step in. The artist wants to have his art preserved, and he has the right to do that. It is kind of an art time capsule."

Esteve says the district hasn't been able to speak to Dente because of his illness. "As a result," he says, "we don't have a final decision on what to do next."

"A photographer from the PPS Communication Department is photographing each mural, and the photos will be uploaded onto Glencoe's website," she wrote. "Having them on our website will allow alumni to view their mural, download and print pictures if they like for years to come."

Critics don't find that sufficient. Serena Weatherly was a fifth-grader at Glencoe in 1987—the year after Challenger exploded. She remembers her classmates painting Christa McAuliffe, the schoolteacher killed in the disaster.

"If there are murals that people take exception to, it's a good opportunity for conversation," she says. "To simply paint over them, it's really sad to me. It feels like a dead end. I'm really frustrated with PPS. They pretend to listen but make their own decision."