Artists perform at Pine Hills mural to protest Orange County plans to replace it

·3 min read

One by one, poets and musicians performed in front of a small crowd of a couple dozen people in front of the Pine Hills mural, showing love for its popping colors that wraps over the pale, tattered exterior of the warehouse on the property and telling stories about its community.

Ronyai Hawkins, dressed all in white, stood front and center in front of a mural painting of Kobe Bryant in Pine Hills, depicting the iconic No. 24 with shattered glass as he recited a poem, called “The Artist’s Creed.”

“You would rather destroy a precious commodity that uplifts a community to sell property, like a prostitute to the highest bidder — now that’s a tragedy,” said Hawkins, an Orlando-based artist.

The mural, a nearly two-year long project by Seth “Seven” Charlestin, who runs the community organization Las Semillas, is slated to be demolished as Orange County, which bought the warehouse property on Powers Drive for $1.5 million in February to transform it into a mosquito control facility.

It has been painted and continuously changed since late 2018, when Charlestin paid for primer and paint and began scraping at the old paint. After growing up walking or riding the bus past that plain and peeling wall, he felt it was time for a touch-up.

Nearly three years later, he laments that the county wants to take it down.

“That wall’s been an eyesore from before I was even born, and the fact that they would push back against us fixing it, putting up stuff that people in the community appreciate” is frustrating, said Charlestin, a teacher at Innovations Middle Charter School.

But county Commissioner Victoria Siplin said the plan is to invest in a new mural, promising to include many of the original artwork and the local artists that design it. It’s something the county doesn’t typically do, she added.

“Normally, you don’t see artwork on a county [property’s] wall, but we know the importance of artistic expression, so we want the community involved,” said Siplin, whose district covers Pine Hills. “They put a lot of work into the art, so we want to make sure the wall still has the artwork and the artists are still are a part of it. But we realize the wall has to be replaced.”

The wall, she added, is structurally unsound, along with the warehouse on the property. With that section of Powers Drive being a common walkway for residents, it could become a public safety hazard.

But the artists and residents who showed up to Saturday’s event are skeptical that the county will follow through with including some of the original artwork. One of the sections of the wall that could go away at least temporarily tells the story of Pine Hills and its residents with, “New love, new life, new possibilities,” painted on it.

“I want to speak to my other artists before we destroy the wall and trust you guys to help us put it back up,” Charlestin said. “All they have to do once they destroy it is change the rules for what art can go up.”

A Change.org petition to “stop the County from destroying our wall” garnered more than 500 signatures by Saturday evening.

“If you’re going to change it, I don’t want it to be stolen or whitewashed for it to be some other pieces that we didn’t actually curate,” said Dean Dennis, an artist also known as Suineg who collaborated with Charlestin on the wall. “We took the time to sweat out here in the heat and build the traction to bring the artists out here. So for them to try to spearhead and take over, that would be diminishing our work.”

There’s no timeline in place for when the county will begin working to transform the property and take down the mural, but Siplin said a committee was formed to help plan and curate what would go on the new wall.

creyes-rios@orlandosentinel.com

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