July 25, 2018 By Tara Law
Two teams of Forest Hills muralists are locked in a disagreement about who will create a mural on the wall of a neglected underpass on Yellowstone Boulevard between Austin and Burns Streets.
Both of the teams are spearheaded by Forest Hills residents who hope to improve the appearance of the wall, but offer different visions for murals. Each of the teams claims that their group has earned the right to paint a mural on the wall of the underpass by the 112th Police Precinct.
One team is led by Yvonne Shortt of arts nonprofit RPGA Studio, who hopes to create a geometric mural celebrating diversity. The other team is led by Michael Perlman, a local author who is chairman of the Rego-Forest Preservation Council, who hopes to create a mural honoring Helen Keller.
Each team argues that they have dedicated a year to planning and fundraising for their respective projects. Both claim that they did not become aware of the other team’s project until a few months ago.
Both groups say that they have been given permission from the Long Island Railroad to paint on the wall, and that they are not willing to cede their rights to the other group.
Shortt, who is working with Community Board 6 member Mark Laster, says that her team is willing to share the wall with the Keller painting. However, Perlman argues that the space can’t be shared since the Keller mural has been measured for the wall.
As of Tuesday, Perlman insisted that Shortt and Laster’s painting should go on the wall on the opposite side of the underpass.
For the moment, there appears to be no clear official process to determine which mural will be painted on the wall, or any official form of mediation to help the two teams decide how to share the space.
Although the wall is owned by the Long Island Rail Road, an MTA spokesperson said that it’s up to the community members to decide whether one or both murals will be painted on the wall.
“We’re not there to make a judgement one way or the other,” an MTA spokesperson said. “We’d love to have all parties figure out a way to work together.”
Councilmember Karen Koslowitz’s office, which allocated $6,500 for the Keller mural, declined to weigh in.
“It’s up to them, we’re staying out of it,” said Amanda Menichini, Koslowitz’s budget director. “We were never informed that there were two projects.”
For now, however, the two teams have not met in person to coordinate their murals.
Both teams defended their respective murals in interviews on Tuesday, explaining why their own projects are deserving.
According to Perlman, Keller’s legacy makes her an important candidate for a mural in Forest Hills.
Keller, who lived in Forest Hills in the 1910s and 1920s, was a celebrated lecturer, author, co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts. She was also a pacifist, a Socialist and an advocate for the rights of women and the disabled.
Perlman chose the space because it is the closest available wall to the property formerly known as 93 Seminole Ave., where Keller lived for more than 20 years. The property was later renumbered 71-11 112th St., and Keller’s house has since been demolished, but Perlman insists that Keller’s legacy should live on in Forest Hills.
“Helen Keller has local to international accomplishments, so that larger wall is absolutely necessary for the Helen Keller mural project,” said Perlman.
Perlman also argues that the size of the planned mural— which is designed to be 135 feet long and 16 feet tall— necessitates using the entire wall.
“There is not enough room for two murals on one wall,” Perlman argued in a Facebook message. “The extent of Helen Keller content fits the wall on the precinct side precisely.”
The planned design will include a portrait of Keller; an image of her Forest Hills home; Braille; one of Keller’s dogs; and a symbol of voting rights, Perlman said.
Muralists Crisp and Praxis, who created the Ascan Avenue mural and the The Ramones/Forest Hills Stadium/Station Square mural at the Continental Avenue LIRR underpass, will return to create the Yellowstone Boulevard painting, Perlman said.
Shortt and Laster, however, argue that their own vision for a mural is no less worthwhile.
Shortt said in an interview earlier this month that their mural will celebrate the community’s growing diversity. The grid design will feature flowers and the words “love, respect, tolerance and resilience” in different languages.
“We have to acknowledge how our community is changing, and it’s full of so many different cultures,” Shortt said of the mural Tuesday. “I think it’s important that this wall should represent that.”
Shortt also emphasized that the project is part of a community-driven initiative to clean up the underpass. Community volunteers have spent time campaigning to have brighter lights installed in the underpass and to have the police remove the totaled cars that are currently stored there.
Community members have also been involved in the design of the mural, and will help with painting the artwork, she said.
“We’ve been sweating our butts off to clean up the underpass,” Shortt said yesterday. “We don’t want to go anywhere else.”
Shortt said that her team is not willing to use the opposite wall, in part because the area is currently covered with scaffolding. Shortt argues that both teams should find a way to share the wall.
“I do believe we can collaborate,” said Shortt. “We want to sit down with [Perlman].”