Painting by numbers 

White, primed and 12 feet high, an expanse of fence surrounding a downtown construction site is inspiring competing visions of what is appropriate public art.

Local artists are willing to volunteer their time and money to decorate the great white wall surrounding the construction site at the old Orange County Courthouse, whose contemporary structural additions are being removed in preparation for the building's rechristening as a new home for the Orange County Historical Museum.

The catch is that the art proposals must be approved by the historical museum and the Downtown Development Board.

Mendi Cowles, art curator for Harold & Maude's Espresso Bar, which sits within a few feet of the blank wall, would like to see some of the cutting-edge artists who are highlighted in her establishment's small gallery space given a chance to paint the fence. The big urban canvas, erected in May, will be in place until the expanded historical museum relocates in mid-2000.

Since the wall of white backs up to Wall Street Plaza, Cowles says, Wall Street club owners would like to see something in keeping with their hip, laid-back style. "We would hate to see something up there that we don't like," she says.

Cowles, whose gallery is booked through 1999, thinks the current array of downtown murals could use a little variety. "I would like to see something more pop-oriented," she says.

But Central Florida artist Carl Knickerbocker has a feeling that the fence will be decorated in what he calls the current "Norman Rockwell" theme that dominates downtown.

Knickerbocker -- whose colorful "urban primitive" works have been sold through Robert Thomas Galleries on Park Avenue in Winter Park, and whose paintings recently hung in a New York gallery opposite those of Roy Lichtenstein -- has had several ideas for the wall, including one entitled "Lizardman," turned down. But he wonders how much attention his idea actually was given; his rejection letter was addressed, "Dear Chris."

Far from being deterred, Knickerbocker next plans to submit a pictorial about Lockheed Martin, which includes the hammer and sickle of the old Soviet Union. And, if that isn't accepted, he's considering a mural that would depict race riots in Ocoee in the 1920s.

"I don't mean to be a pain in the ass," says Knickerbocker. "I just want them to see that there is something besides the regular stuff."

Museum executive director Sara Van Arsdel agrees that in its current state, the wall is "ugly looking." But Van Arsdel envisions it transformed with panels devoted to the glories of Orange County's past. She is talking to the Downtown YMCA and a group that collects antique postcards about participating. Yet since the wall is likely to be painted by several groups, she will accept proposals -- a written description of the group or artists and a sketch of the proposed artwork -- through Aug. 1. (Send to Orange County Historical Museum, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando, 32803, or call (407) 897-6350.)

Van Arsdel says she has no particular school of painting in mind, but potential artists should create work with mass appeal. "It will be used as a gateway to the new museum," she says. "It needs to reflect what the museum is going to be. Since it is a regional history center we want it to reflect local history and topics."

The ironic thing, counters Knickerbocker, is that striving for a broad appeal may exclude a sizeable segment of the art community with more radical visions. He encourages other artists to submit proposals, even if there's little chance they'll be given space to paint. The standards set by the museum, he says, provide "something to rebel against."

Cowles is still mapping out her proposal, looking for a way "to work around" the restrictions and still highlight the kind of artists shown at Harold & Maude's. But anything is better than the great white wall, she says.

"My biggest fear," she adds, "is that they will do nothing."


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