In 2014, Veronica Willemin hung nearly four dozen individually painted banners from street lights all around the oceanside neighborhood of Nye Beach. It was the sixth year of the Nye Beach Banner Project.
One particular banner drew the interest of a businessman who requested it be hung outside his café, which sported a surf motif. On one side of the banner, a woman in silhouette wears a cowboy hat and holds a surfboard under her arm. On the reverse, the words: “Guns are for shredding, not shooting.”
It seemed harmless enough to Willemin, who would learn that in surfing terminology a gun is a surfboard and shredding means to ride a wave hard.
A letter to the editor of the local paper praised the banner project, but deemed the banner inappropriate. Then, came the call from the café owner. It seemed he’d received 20-odd calls threatening to boycott the café. ‘Would she please come and take the banner down?’
It wasn’t Willemin’s first encounter with public disapproval of a banner. The first year of the project, an artist created a banner with a topless woman, arm reaching up, her hand a crab claw. On the reverse, the words: “Nye Beach is 4 freaks.”
And yep, soon enough the objections poured in. They wanted it taken down. The artist was so distressed by the criticism, she offered to change the quote.
“I said, ‘No, I don’t want you do to that,’” Willemin recalled. “It will look like we are a bunch of little old ladies and we are censoring the artists. I called a meeting.”
Now in its 10th year, the banner project began as a grassroots effort to help define the neighborhood’s identity, and has evolved into a public arts event that’s inspired similar projects in towns as close as Yachats and as far away as Florida.
It culminates with a silent auction at the Newport Visual Arts Center, with the money raised — about $5,000 to $7,000 a year — going to help fund the Art Fridays youth art classes and the summer art camp. Since its inception, 148 artists have contributed their time and talent, including the late renowned artist Rick Bartow whose last banner brought a record $900.
This year, the VAC is hosting the retrospective “10 X 10: A Decade of the Nye Beach Banner Project” exhibit through Nov. 24. It’s a chance to see the work of the 10 artists who have contributed the most to the project, as well as four additional banners hanging in memory of Bartow, Lynn Bishop, Chad Buckingham and Andrew Rodman.
From the start, Willemin has opposed censoring the banners. She asks that artists stick with a theme of nature or art, with the choice of painting an image on both sides, or an image on one side and a quote on the other.
“Some people were concerned about the quotes and what would be said,” Willemin said. “I didn’t think we should have to be worried about that. I don’t want anyone telling me what I can or can’t have. Quotes are encouraged, but not required. We ask that they be thought-provoking or smile-inducing.”
You could say that “Nye Beach is 4 freaks,” could fit either. In fact, behind those words is a memory that is poignant and, no doubt, painful. The artist was born with a large birthmark on her torso, and learned as a child that doctors had kept her away from her parents at birth, treating her like a “freak.”
Willemin wasn’t sure what the fuss over the banner was about.
“There was an assumption that some guy painted this banner,” Willemin recalled. “And I said ‘What side are you bothered by? That it’s topless?’ It wasn’t provocative.”
Turns out it was not the image, but the quote.
And so, the Nye Beach merchants convened their meeting, inviting the artist to explain.
“They found out she was a she not a he,” Willemin said. “One of the people who thought she didn’t care for it asked to have it hung in front of her business. It was the most photographed of that year’s banners. I thought this was in the spirit of being all inclusive. It started with controversy, lead to a round table discussion and had a really positive outcome.”
• The Nye Beach Banner Project silent auction will be held at the Newport Visual Arts Center on Sunday, Nov. 11, from 5 to 7 pm.
Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.