Faring Purth, a wandering street artist famous nationally for her hauntingly distorted portraits, landed in St. Louis weeks ago with the dream of adding a massive mural to the Lou's street art scene.
But things changed when Purth found her way to Cherokee Street, an up-and-coming neighborhood for artistic entrepreneurs. After starting her mural on a brick wall at Cherokee Street and Jefferson Avenue, Purth says she's done traveling for a while and she wants to stay in St. Louis.
"All I know right now is St. Louis has been an experience like no other," Purth posts on Facebook. (She declined to be interviewed before her work was finished.) "So much to see. So much to touch. And I have already met people I feel profoundly connected to. People I want to know my whole life and whom I'd be heartbroken to say goodbye to...without giving myself the chance to truly learn them."
And Cherokee Street business leaders say they've been just as excited to get to know her and to watch her work progress.
"She's just really been taken in by the community here," says Cara Spencer, who runs the Nebula Coworking space on Cherokee Street. "The larger Cherokee community has embraced her being here, her artwork, who she is. It was not our intent to keep her here, but why not, right?"
Purth has only completed the base layer of her mural -- a silhouette of a woman in a fetal position that stretches more than 100 feet wide and 40 feet high -- but her work is already making waves among local street art enthusiasts. Ann Wimsatt, a co-founding partner at Cite Works Architects, criticized the piece as antifeminist.
"Just in case we cannot get enough of it in music, film and TV, more oppressive symbolism hurled in the faces of the women of the city. Dislike," Wimsatt posted on Facebook.
St. Louis artist Tara Schneider, who ran the Failnot Postcard Project, rejected the mural as an unnecessary outsider's representation of racial oppression in St. Louis. UPDATE: The post was up for a few hours and deleted from her personal Facebook page before this article was published. (See update below.)
"In my St. Louis, white women from out of town don't get to come in and define the experience of local women of color for them. Period," Schneider posts on Facebook. "My guess is that the artist will not be indefinitely residing in the parking lot to re-educate the silly art-illiterate folk who read this as, 'Just a reminder: We think you're hideous and pathetic.'"
UPDATE: Spencer said Schneider had already sent a heartfelt apology to the artist and posted a public apology Monday afternoon, before this article was written. Schneider says she retracted her original comments from her Facebook page early Monday morning, just a few hours after they went up, not as a result of this article.
"I should have dug deeper and tried harder to contact those intimately connected with the situation, and asked them my questions and let them respond to my concerns, critiques, issues, etc. before writing some heavy editorial on the topic," she posted online Monday afternoon. "I don't think I had any right to say a lot of the things I did, some of which must have came across as very self-righteous and/or out of touch. I was appalled by what I saw on that wall, but I went about it the wrong way from there and I apologize."
Spencer says Schneider's change of heart is evidence of the trans formative power of art, even of a piece so early in its development.
"This is what you hope for when you create art, to create a dialogue," Spencer says. "It game me goosebumps just to read (Schneider's apology.)" End of update.
Purth reminded critics that her mural is only in its very beginning stages.
"I hope you are, at the very least, curious enough to watch her grow," Purth responds to Wimsatt on Facebook. "This is the base coat of an immense work of art, one that will undoubtedly give you another fifteen layers of symbolism to knead through (one that I have undoubtedly had to face fifteen layers of oppressive thought to create.)"
Purth's mural is going up on the side of Nebula Coworking. See what Nebula thinks of their new office artwork on page two.
Purth is no stranger to detractors so early in the artistic process. Her 125-foot long mural Etty in Rochester, New York, was promptly defaced with a red spray-painted "Jesus" and a cross.
"It was a profoundly difficult experience for me; That after giving so much to a single piece of work, she could, with one cheap can of Rustoleum, be so grossly wounded," Purth told the Brooklyn Street Art blog.
Purth is painting her mural on the south wall of Nebula coworking space, a hub attracting tech geeks and artists alike from all over the region. The wall was originally blocked by another building, but now, a very well-lit parking lot makes the spot perfect for street art, says Spencer.
"She just sort of fell in love with the wall and asked if she could paint it," Spencer remembers. "We were like, hell ya, of course you can. We really liked what she does. We took a risk."
Nebula helped finance some of Purth's work, although the artist is still looking for donations. WJL Properties paid for the diesel-fueled boom she needs to reach the top of the mural 40 feet high*. Spencer says Purth got free artistic license as long as her work wasn't too offensive for their family-friendly workplace.
Spencer says she's inspired, not offended or insulted, by the figure Purth has started. "It's really interesting how art can speak to people differently and rile people up," Spencer says. "This has been, personally, a really exciting project for me."
*Correction: This story originally credited Nebula Coworking with buying the boom.