G.Byron Peck has been painting murals around Washington for more than 15 years. Now the two he's best known for are in jeopardy -- the Duke Ellington on U Street NW and the Frederick Douglass at 12th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW near downtown.
Plans for new apartments by the JBG Companies will obscure the Douglass mural completely, and the Jenco Group will start construction on a commercial property adjacent to the portrait of the jazz legend early next year.
Construction has already started near the Douglass mural, which soon will disappear, but the Ellington art is likely to survive because it is on movable panels and a lot of people are working to save it.
Peck is pleased about that -- but, frankly, not that pleased. All of this, he says, could have been avoided, at least in the case of the Ellington mural, which has become a landmark in the historic Shaw neighborhood.
Peck learned of plans for the new building about 18 months ago and says six months ago he spoke to the developer with hopes of having some input on how to save the mural. Peck was told it was too early to discuss specifics, he says. So he was surprised a few weeks ago when he got a call from the company asking him to move the mural. He learned about the project at the other site in October when he drove by and saw a construction pit next to the Douglass mural.
"There should be a way to come to a meeting of the minds on what should be preserved," says Peck, who adds he isn't anti-development but believes his Ellington mural could be left intact by moving the new building back about eight feet.
A Jenco representative declined to be quoted for this story.
City officials, neighborhood activists and the developer are working with Peck to relocate the Ellington mural, Peck says.
One option for the Ellington work is to remain where it is near the corner of 13th and U streets NW but in a smaller version.
"Aesthetically, I hate the idea of chopping up the mural," Peck says. "For me, it's kind of like cutting off your foot to save your leg."
Another alternative is to move the mural to the Rite Aid store located across 13th Street and owned by Jenco, or the True Reformer Building on the same block of U Street.
None of the alternatives is a perfect solution, Peck says.
District Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) is working with Peck to figure it all out.
"Everybody's putting their heads together. . . . This mural will not be lost," says Graham, who is also the vice chairman of the Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board. Metro initially supported the art project, which towers above the U Street/Cardozo Metro stop. Metro also sold the property to the new developer.
Tony Gittens, executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, says the city will pay relocation costs for the artwork. A few years back Peck pledged to donate the mural to the District, which will own the artwork as soon as paperwork is completed.
"Murals in the city, in any urban setting, are very important. They lend a sense of place to the community," Gittens says.
Peck would also like to re-create the Douglass work. Stewart Bartley, a principal with JBG, says his company documented the mural before construction began and may be able to help with funding a new one if Peck finds a good location.
The Ellington mural was painted in 1997 and the Douglass in '95 as part of summer projects with children. Peck has done 60 murals in the area, a dozen outdoors.
Says the artist, "You see a great wall and you go for it -- and hope it lasts."
Fabric of Art
Cynthia Sands will be among the artists at the Holiday Artists Market Day at the Franciscan Monastery in Northeast Washington this weekend.
Sands, who will attend only on Sunday, is known for her paintings, which she shows at Parish Gallery in Georgetown, but she also works in textiles, the focus of her work at the show.
Sands designs colorful dresses, jackets, quilts, candleholders, ornaments and more. She's just returned from Ghana, where she employed about eight people for the past two years. They batiked and tie-dyed fabric, and sewed patchwork patterns, clothing and accessories. Sometimes Sands gets her hands wet batiking, but she prefers to come up with new ideas.
"It leaves me able to keep designing to have other people help me," she says. "This is a collaborative effort."
Sands has returned to Washington -- her home town -- for two years, but she recently bought property in Ghana, where she wants to build a studio next summer.
"I want to continue and keep people employed," she says. "I learn from the local people. . . . I study the indigenous art and add my particular style."
Tonight a herd of artists will be autographing their donkeys and elephants as they appear in a new book, "Party Animals, Washington, D.C." (Orange Frazer Press, $24.95), that commemorates the city art project. Organizer Lou Stovall expects more than 40 of the nearly 200 artists at Borders Books & Music at 18th and L streets NW from 6 to 8 p.m.
The Holiday Artists Market Day is at St. Francis Hall, 1340 Quincy St. NE, Dec. 14 and 15, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. For information, call Belmont Arts East at 202-832-1121 or visit www.artistsmarketday.com.