SARASOTA, Fla. (WFLA) – It’s a long debated, controversial question. What constitute art? What is considered creative expression? What happens when some deem art to be hateful and racist?
That very topic is front and center in Sarasota, after an art installation at the Center for Architecture on South Orange Street. A collection called, “Human Tales on Refrigerator Doors” has been on display in recent weeks. One of the doors has been removed after civil rights groups called its content into question.
The piece, entitled “The Face of MLK,” was based on the Newtown neighborhood of Sarasota. The artist claims he wanted his material to reflect the area in a factual way.
Local law-enforcement agencies have admitted that Newtown is an area that struggles with crime, as community groups and artists have long since tried to improve the image of the neighborhood.
The artist, Jerry Sparkman, is a Sarasota architect and maintains that he has worked with community leaders to also improve the image. In his sculpture that is now causing controversy, he explained that he wanted to openly reflect the current status of the neighborhood, both good and bad.
But, some say the elements of the art are racist.
On Monday night, the artist met with members of Black Lives Matter at their monthly meeting in Newtown. An intense, frank and open discussion took place where Sparkman admitted over and over again, he felt horrible that he offended anyone.
He said that he wanted to attend the meeting so that he could be educated and could take questions from anyone who chose to ask about his thought process in creating the sculpture.
For more than two hours, Sparkman was in the hot seat, and the questions were personal, emotional and no holds barred.
One man asked, “Do you think, I understand and know that what you did was racist?” Another attendee posed the question, in addition to several others, “Why can’t you just admit you’re racist?”
Sparkman told the crowded room, “I never wanted to knowingly offend someone, and I did. I apologize, but I wanted to know more about this so that I never do it again.”
In the sculpture, the artist claims that he was trying to depict both the revitalization of the neighborhood and the challenges that it faces. He said that he utilized speakers to build the eyes in the sculpture and that he used his own son’s tennis shoes to hang at the bottom.
But, the baggies representing cocaine, the hat labeled, “chocolate” and the cigars were way over the top, according to Newtown neighbors.
Natasha Clemons has lived in Newtown her entire life. She tells us she felt sick when she saw the sculpture.
“How degrading, how disrespectful,” she told News Channel 8. “It’s actually unacceptable. An apology is okay, but what can come out of this is something great. We can use one another to educate each other.”
That’s exactly what seem to take place over the course of more than two hours.
What started off as contentious, deeply personal and sometimes hurtful comments, turned to a common ground, a need to understand and a need to educate both the neighbors in Newtown and their counterparts within Sarasota County.
Sparkman was thrilled in the end and admitted that he was, in fact, nervous when he first agreed to attend the meeting. But, he stressed over and over again that he did not want anyone to be hurt by his creation. In fact, even though the sculpture has been removed from the installation, he tells us that he is considering building a new one.
Meanwhile, a long time Newtown resident, Walter Gilbert, who posed tough questions to Sparkman, explained that he was happy with the outcome of the meeting.
“For you to come in here and stand up and be a man, take these arrows that were shot at you, and give that communication back? That’s very, very valuable. I’m proud of you, thankful for you for doing that,” he told Sparkman face-to-face.
Sparkman answered back, with a smile. “I’m thankful that you let this happen.”
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