Public art in Camas becomes ‘chalk war’

City leaders tackle issue after erasure of Black Lives Matter art near library

"Before and after" photos show the damage done to public artwork outside the Camas library in July, after someone smudged out all signs of Black Lives Matter.

"Before and after" photos show the damage done to public artwork outside the Camas library in July, after someone smudged out all signs of Black Lives Matter.

"Before and after" photos show the damage done to public artwork outside the Camas library in July, after someone smudged out all signs of Black Lives Matter.

"Before and after" photos show the damage done to public artwork outside the Camas library in July, after someone smudged out all signs of Black Lives Matter.

An example of the type of public art drawn in chalk outside the Camas Public Library in July.

An example of the type of public art drawn in chalk outside the Camas Public Library in July.

An example of the type of public art drawn in chalk outside the Camas Public Library in July.

Camas city leaders are trying to find the best way to encourage public expressions of art after two incidents — one that erased several Black Lives Matter chalk drawings near the Camas Public Library and another involving an unsanctioned BLM sign at Crown Park — caught the public’s attention this summer.

At their Aug. 3 workshop, Camas City Council members discussed public art, graffiti removal and the possibility of forming a public arts committee to help develop a policy for establishing public art projects in the city’s public spaces.

Camas Mayor Barry McDonnell said he thought it might be a good idea to designate a wall at Crown Park or the Camas-Washougal skate park where the public could express themselves through public artwork.

“It’s been a challenging year in many ways and (having) more ways for people to express themselves is healthy and beneficial,” McDonnell said. “Maybe we could just leave (the wall) up for a month for people to express themselves. Take it down and put up a (new wall) the next month.”

Some councilors wanted to ensure the city’s policy was clear regarding what types of “art” would be prohibited, including obscenities and attacks on a group or individual.

Councilman Don Chaney said he would encourage the creation of a committee to help develop a framework for the city’s public art projects.

The committee, along with the Parks Commission, Chaney said, could “have more meaningful discussion,” and bring ideas back to the city council for further consideration.

In the meantime, the councilors agreed that the city should continue its sidewalk chalk project outside the library and, for now, not allow expressions of art to be made at other city parks until the city had established a clear policy.

Vancouver resident decries ‘chalk war’ in Camas

In late July, Vancouver resident and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Ryan Conroy wrote a letter to the Camas City Council addressing what he called a “chalk war” happening outside the Camas library.

Having grown up in the area, Conroy said he had never thought of Camas as a “racist or unequal opportunity town” until he saw what was happening outside the Camas library in a sidewalk chalk art incident he called the “BLM chalk war.”

Conroy told the city councilors that he had watched the “chalk war” unravel on a friend’s social media page and thought, “Wow, I really don’t like the city of Camas anymore. This is a disgrace to the SW Washington community as a whole.”

Conroy urged city leaders to take charge of the situation and to “support … the people showing up for a good cause.”

“… the BLM movement needs support from the city of Camas and (should not) just get washed away,” Conroy wrote to the councilors.

The “chalk war” started innocently enough, said Camas Public Library Director Connie Urquhart.

“The library was responding to a community need. We saw a need for the community to express themselves, but the city was between a rock and a hard place,” Urquhart explained. “The city ordinance says people can’t (create art) on city structures, but on the sidewalks, they can. It’s our property and we had the chalk.”

In July, library staff let folks know they could come create artwork on the sidewalks surrounding the library in downtown Camas.

“People were doing all sorts of art,” Urquhart said. “The pictures were amazing and the artwork was great.”

Many of the pieces reflected on current social justice issues, including showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Library staff walked the perimeter of the building each morning to make sure the art was intact and to ensure no obscenities or hate speech were on the sidewalk.

“They would come in in the mornings and check to see if somebody had made a new design overnight,” Urquhart said. “For a few days, we didn’t see anything out of place.”

Then, Urquhart got a frustrating call from one of her staffers: someone had smudged out all of the artwork related to Black Lives Matter.

“I was prepared for someone to write something negative, but not for a complete erasure,” Urquhart said. “It was so disheartening.”

Lutz Hardware donated mops and buckets so library staff could wash away the ruined artwork, Urquhart said, and library staff reached out to community members, offering to let them come back and make a new design — or to recreate their artwork for them, based on photos the staff had taken of each piece of chalk art.

Urquhart said the chalk art program is still open to community members who would like to create artwork near the library. Folks can bring their own chalk and library staff will share their recipe for chalk paint, which lasts a bit longer, Urquhart said.

The city may still open up public artwork in other parks, but, for now, the sidewalk chalk art is the best way for Camas residents to show their creativity.

There are guidelines in place, Urquhart said. Artists cannot use obscenities, call for or depict violence and hate speech is not allowed.

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