Commando artists undertake mission of beautification

by Jordan Green

Tucked in among the notices for theater workshops and strolling street performers on the Fire Flies: The Art of the Possible festival for July 6 was this compelling notice: ‘“Commando art party. Wear black and bring painting supplies (neon paints if you have them). Mission to be revealed later. Meet at Café Europa.’”

The operation hardly looks surreptitious at 7 p.m. as a handful of creative professional and artist types huddle around the three-dimensional metal rectangular box that designates the stage and patch of grass in this center-city plot of land as the ‘Price-Bryan Performance Place.’ The box is painted a dull park service green and seems to beg for modification. At the patio tables and on the wide concrete steps leading to the bar, patrons avail themselves of Café Europa’s half-priced wine specials, barely taking notice of the artistic intrigue below.

A minivan full of painting supplies, hatch opened, is parked in the grass, and various volunteers are scraping Scotch tape off the monument to Ethel Clay Price, the fin de siècle Greensboro insurance wife. The owner of the van, a local librarian dressed in professional black slacks and a black T-shirt advertising a literary festival ‘— her name is Beth Sheffield ‘— seems to be in charge. She informs the volunteers that they’ll hold a meeting in about five minutes. Asked for details about how the sign will be altered, she says mysteriously: ‘“We’ll see.’”

None of the artists’ faces are concealed by Zapatista-style ski masks or anarchist black bloc bandannas. Somehow it doesn’t seem likely that Homeland Security’s Office of Infrastructure Protection is mobilizing its forces to counteract a major art insurgency on the Atlantic seaboard tonight.

‘“I did get glow-in-the-dark paint,’” Sheffield reveals, ‘“so we can paint over our design and it will glow in the dark.’”

‘“Maybe we could paint over the letters and it will say something else in the dark,’” suggests a woman who identifies herself as ‘Etta Cetera from Pittsburgh.’ With unkempt brown hair held back from her face with wooden clothespins that serve as barrettes, she has a pair of baby-sized black cowboy boots dangling from her waist. It’s unclear whether the glow-in-the-dark letter alteration plan has received group approval.

Various ideas emerge about the sign beautification project. The box should have spaces that invite people to post community notices with magnets. Artistic renderings of people or animals should hold up empty signs for this purpose. The group decides to tape off the section of the box about four and a half feet above the ground to keep the signage area clean of paint.

‘“I like the idea of bugs,’” says Isabell Moore, a local artist and activist.

‘“Fireflies!’” says Kelly Prewett, also a librarian.

Then the artists are suddenly in motion, pouring paint into pie tins, mixing colors and applying swaths of base color to the metal. Etta Cetera paints the right side apple red, while Moore applies a base of deep blue that will take on a Van Gogh effect after she applies a lighter hue of the color onto the surface with a scrap of flannel to create the glow of fireflies. The red side looks like a hellish sky that evokes the volcanic birth of the world. The front is painted yellow with sharp green blades of grass cutting against the background.

As the evening progresses, men show up and sit in nearby aluminum bleachers drinking beer and reading the newspaper.

Eric Huffman, a local cook who’s working the door tonight at Café Europa, monitors the artists’ progress from his post in a foldable camping chair at the approach to the patio.

‘“I’ve been looking at this sign every Wednesday,’” he says. ‘“It’s about time somebody did something about it. It’s really needed it.’”

The sign beautification project was approved by the city, says Sheffield, adding that it conforms to the Greensboro Cultural District’s strategic plan to make the public spaces around downtown’s libraries and museums more colorful. She advises that people can perform aesthetic improvements on signs in their own neighborhoods by going through their neighborhood associations, which in turn can get clearance from the proper city authorities.

By now, three more volunteers have grabbed paintbrushes and started detailing the panels: Hannah Hawkins and Patrick Horne, who each do film production work, and a man who identifies himself only as ‘“a closet liberal trapped in corporate America.’”

The closet liberal applies glow-in-the-dark paint to the letters, while Horne paints a pale moon and a brilliant sunflower on the red side. Hawkins contributes by adding small dancing stick figures and musical notes along the bottom of the red side.

Moore dabs some light brown paint on the trunk of tree that leans into the Van Gogh sky, creating a sound effect of quiet, rumbling thunder. Painted dragonflies and ants appear on the front section of the metal box.

By 9:30, the work is done and celebratory beers are passed around. The artists huddle and let loose a cheer before disappearing on bicycles, on foot and in motorized vehicles.

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