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That 'ghetto' traffic box 

Public art depicting African-Americans survives complaints.

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Theresa Cates, a self-taught North Little Rock artist who paints sinuous and stylized African-American men and women, often praising God, has found that when it comes to public art, people aren't color blind.

Cates has done several public art projects in North Little Rock and one in Jacksonville. She's also had several works painted over, including one on a traffic control box near City Hall, the first completed in a Main Street Argenta public art project in which several artists were chosen to paint traffic control boxes on Main Street. That box featured a preacher and women and white doves against an orange background. It has no image on it any longer. Another traffic box she did that year, at the John F. Kennedy Boulevard exit off Interstate 40, and the pylons surrounding it, were also painted over. The box now reads "Perfectly Park Hill."

Her latest project, a traffic control box at First and Martin in Jacksonville, almost suffered the same fate last week. Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher decided he'd have to remove Cates' work after he got nearly a dozen complaints, including one from a resident who said that the box looked like a scene from a "ghetto." The painting features women and men on an undulating keyboard on all four sides, holding Bibles. They are black women and men.

Cates is used to adversity, living in poverty as a child and residing in a battered women's shelter as an adult. Her father abused and terrorized Cates and her mother, knocking out Cates' teeth before she was old enough to go to school. Cates fled her first husband after he mentally abused her. Painting was an escape for her. Now it's a living.

Cates, 45, is represented by Red Door Gallery and championed by gallery owner Melody Stanley, whom Cates calls her "white mama." Stanley was a member of the Main Street Argenta group when it selected Cates to paint the traffic boxes. And it was Stanley who Cates had to call for help when police stopped her as she was painting the box and surrounding pylons at the JFK exit. "Do you know this girl?" the police officer asked Stanley when she arrived.

Cary Tyson, the former head of the Park Hill Neighborhood Association, said the decision to paint over the box had nothing to do with race.

Ron Newport of Jacksonville, the former head of Keep Jacksonville Beautiful, invited Cates to take part in a public art project for that city after seeing her work. He and Mayor Fletcher both approved the image that Cates was to put on the traffic box, and she painted the work over a couple of Saturdays, finishing two weeks ago. She donated her time and materials; it cost her about $100 in paint.

But last Tuesday, Newport called Cates to say someone had complained that the painting "reminded him of living in the ghetto," Cates told a reporter, and that he was sorry but it would have to be painted over and the project — she was to do a second painting — discontinued. "He said, "I'm sorry. I'll give you lunch. I said, 'I'm not hungry,' " she said. "I felt like my breath was taken away from me. That was the most detailed [box] I'd ever done. My paintings start at $500 and go up."

Cates' pastor, Jacksonville Alderman James Bolden, overheard a complaint about the traffic box painting while he was in City Hall. He then met with the mayor, who called Cates from his office to apologize for his decision. "He was real sympathetic," Cates said. But he said it would be painted over. "I was at a loss for words," Cates said.

But on Thursday, Fletcher had a change of heart. This time she took him up on lunch, and she learned her work would not be painted over. Fletcher also invited her to take part in future Jacksonville public art projects, projects he said would use imagery that would reflect some identifying theme of the city, as does the military history mural on the building where Cates works, the Jacksonville Workforce Center.

Fletcher told the Times that his original objection to the box was that he "wanted something more cheerful," and did it have to be orange, a color he apparently didn't consider cheery enough. What about a blue background? Cates declined to change the painting; orange backgrounds are a signature of hers. Cates said rumors that she was asked to paint the faces white were not true.

So why did the mayor change his mind? Fletcher didn't answer that question in a straightforward way, except to say that he personally liked Cates' painting and her belief that public art is a way to expose kids to art that otherwise might not get to see original work. He acknowledged as correct an explanation Cates heard: that when he got home from work Tuesday, he told his wife he'd had a bad day and she told him she liked the painting and to leave it alone.

"I grew up poor," Cates said. "I'd never been to a gallery until I was in my 30s. A lot of children don't go to museums. That's why I do public art."

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