Proud Native Plants mural

Susan Comfort
10 min readAug 28, 2022

tl,dr: Some people are mad that I asked local teens to paint native plants on 50 feet of retaining wall during covid. It’s about to removed, so come say hi!

I was told the “story keeps changing” on social media about what happened, so I published a sidewalk piece and I thought I’d share some pix and memories along the way about the mural part specifically.

So, here goes, going back to pre-covid times…

After a lengthly neighborhood process where my neighbor Marcus got petition signatures for a sidewalk, then we all endured and debated multiple rounds of design, the City of Takoma Park finally broke ground and built a four-block sidewalk and a rain garden down Lincoln Ave (pre-covid). It cost over a million dollars. It left us with a giant retaining wall. Here’s the right section that includes my property:

The current mural is on the last 50 feet on the right side of this pic.

For this sidewalk, the City had a process of signatures and meetings and drawings and negotiations for the four-block project. We were so happy to get a safer route for the kids heading to the bus stop, we didn’t think about the ugly grey concrete retaining wall that would be necessary.

Once poured/repaired, the gray wall was begging for a spot of color.

A long-time public art fan, I pounced on the opportunity to get Takoma Park to hire one of DC’s amazing muralists to brighten up our neighborhood. Maybe Lincoln Ave residents would want an nature-y, eco-vibe, or brightly colored pop-art, or a plant wall, or maybe even a kid’s literature theme, given that acclaimed children’s book author Minh Le lived on the block at the time? Takoma Park, at the urging of Lincoln Avenue residents like me, allocated funding ($25,000!) and issued an RFP for a mural. Unfortunately, they asked proposing artists to design what they would create, which to me is unpaid work that artists are always being asked to do. And it dismisses or re-does community input on the design of the mural. BUT, a mural! Great!

And apparently the City sent residents on Lincoln Ave postcards asking for input on the mural, HOWEVER, they forgot to send to people on the 500 Block of Lincoln, and they didn’t send to people (like me!) who live on corners of Lincoln or abutting streets. Sigh. Not like a postcard is everything, but it’s something, and that omission resulted in some pretty big complaints.

As Takoma Park received proposals, I held a little drawing party with kids on the block, to remind the City that residents should have a say in the outcome of the project.

Ben (Lincoln Ave resident) reads a children’s book about the community creation of a mural.

Then my daughter helped deliver our mosaic of the results to Roz, who heads the Arts Commission for Takoma Park.

the middle note says “please choose a muralist who will work WITH us!”

We found out that over 60 artists responded to the RFP; city staff (unilaterally) narrowed those down to 20 and planned a public meeting to review them, at the end of March 2020.

We all remember what happened that month.

I proposed an online review, maybe a scorecard, where TkPk residents could rank the proposals, something to distract and engage us during quarantine. Even though I offered volunteers to do that uploading/web wizardry, the city staff were (understandably) swamped and instead, cancelled the project.

No one ever saw the designs.

But there was, and is, a pandemic raging.

My neighbor Sarah’s kids were bouncing off the walls. She asked if she could use a tube of green paint to create an obstacle course on my portion of the sidewalk (the controversy around that project is in the other Medium piece). She said she ordered the paint online and green was the cheapest color.

The sidewalk story and comments are here on Friday’s medium piece.

Back to the wall.

During Covid isolation, I didn’t have little kids to drive me nuts, so I practiced gratitude for that! I dragged my kids outside to re-discover our natural surroundings. My daughter and I took walks around the block as our fake “commute” every day. I read about the critical importance of — and dearth of — nature. One of my jobs is with wellness, and I incorporated training on #VitaminN and the importance of outside time on the immune system.

I pulled trash can after can of English ivy from my property, liberating tree trunks and fences and brick masonry in the process. I downloaded PlantSnap to find out who the heck all these flora were. I joined the “Capital Naturalist” group on Facebook and was awakened to a world of native plants and insects and fungi that I never knew about. From this journey I eventually became a Tinkergarten leader this year, to teach “Explorers” (kids 2–8 yo) and their “Guide” (grown-up) about nature. From this journey I also met a lot of neighbors, out walking their dogs and with their kids on the new sidewalk.

I invited the head of the Maryland Native Plant Society, Dr. Chris Puttock, to Zoom-speak to Takoma Park residents about the importance of native plants. He zoomed us a gorgeous slide show of “spring ephemerals” emerging at that time (April 2021). I learned about Virginia bluebells and so much more:

Dr. Puttock’s talk was where I first heard about the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly

It was 2021, a year into the pandemic, my ivy was cleared, and I was itching to take action. Not only to re-paint the movement sidewalk, which had eroded over the winter, but also to beautify that ugly gray wall.

I enlisted the eldest of my painting-party attendees, two teenage sisters who live on Lincoln, to research and choose a rainbow’s worth of native mid-Atlantic plants, anchored by my namesake state flower, the Black-eyed Susan. Here is what Hanan sketched, which I loved:

Hanan’s artist sketch 2021
Here’s the resulting rainbow of native plants

After we solicited leftover latex house paint from our local Buy Nothing group, they made it a reality in June 2021.

Over the last year, the sisters and their friends have added details like snail, bumblebees, ladybug, fungi, a native fern, and my favorite, the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly (Maryland’s endangered state insect and an homage to my hometown).

native insect pollinators and fungi join the plants on the wall’s ecosystem

As a bisexual woman, the #ProudNativePlant mural was intended as a subtle nod to my queer own pride. Plus, it was painted during June (pride month!) by teens who are fluid on the queer spectrum. Indigo wrote a moving note about their perspective on this process and this art which is at the very bottom (scroll all the way down!) of the sidewalk piece.

In fact, two updated details the teens added this June: a gay pride flag and a trans pride flag (in our next update, I’ll insist we add a bisexual one). Some local native-plant landscapers loved the look:

I want to emphasize the community nature of this art installation — almost none of it is “mine” as I only painted Neptune, Saturn and some of the lettering.

To clarify, I also thought using latex house paint qualified us for the exemption, which mentions chalk or water soluble paint (again more on this in the sidewalk piece). I googled “water soluble paint” and it seemed like latex was the best choice:

we used leftover latex paint from the Buy Nothing list to create the sidewalk and mural. That’s why it keeps washing away and we were hoping to re-fresh the sidewalk every spring, with kid-community input.

Then based on a few complaints, we got cited with a graffiti violation on June 27. I tried to get an exemption, and was told there is not process for it.

So I created a board to let people speak out for themselves. Note that most people put their names next to their YES vote but there are only anonymous insults on the NO side.

A few of the comments on my giant board speak to the tension surrounding what separates graffiti from public art:

NO VOTE: “Wish it wasn’ there — I don’t like it!” and “Wish it were art”

YES VOTE: “If you’re anti-graffiti you’re probably classist. Whoever wrote this is cringe.”

This article from NYU Journal of Intellectual Property convinced me this wall and sidewalk art not only should not be classified as graffiti, it’s downright worthy of copyright protection!

Some people say why not just use chalk? Well, you can’t see it on a light sidewalk, it disappears quickly, and it is bad for water. However, Takoma Park. City government is a big fan of chalk: they paid Chalk Riot to do chalk murals at the beginning of covid. I wonder how much that art, which got immediately washed away, cost?

For that matter, how much did the “Equity Walk” painting and re-painting cost? Those are the paintings on the sidewalk around Takoma Park Library and Elementary school.There are signs with QR codes that you need a smartphone to access info about — not very equitable but whatever.

Whatever money spent on art is nothing in our city budget. Our four-block sidewalk, wall, and rain garden cost over $1 million to build. It would have been money well spent to pony up the $25K for a professional muralist who worked with the community to determine what and where to paint.

Barring that, we took up 50 feet of the wall, did our best to engage the community, and created something that is a memento of a crazy era in time.

On Friday, we delivered to City Hall hundreds of supportive comments from a Google form (and that one anonymous negative one) to city officials. We happened to encounter City Manager Jamal Fox on his way out to lunch and asked him if he would pause the situation. Short summary of our conversation: it’s graffiti and will be removed. They will proceed as if it’s any other graffiti and (I was told) hire contractors to powerwash it. I will be given the bill and a lein will be placed on my property if I don’t pay it.

Friday night, I tried to talk in person, and meet for the first time, the neighbor who I emailed back in April 2020 and who has recently been vocal on Facebook about his many complaints. No one answered the door so I waved to the doggo & the Nest and left a note and a printed copy of all the comments sticking out of their front door mail slot.

My neighbor responded via in the Takoma Park FB group, telling me not to knock on his door ever again. I also got dragged on Twitter as “entitled” by another vocal critic (who then sent me nasty private messages about how “fake” I am, then blocked me, then implied on Twitter that I started a boycott, and then posted make-nice messages on that Facebook group, commending my community action).

Kate Stewart is our current mayor (running unopposed, I think, for MontCo County Council). Last Friday, I asked the Council, including the Mayor, for a “stay” on this execution until the full Council could come back in session and determine what to do, in a few weeks.

Friday night, she responded, the first I’ve heard from her (despite cc’s on other emails):

So, for now, say farewell to the #proudnativeplants mural. Here’s a pic of Hanan, Zahra’s sister, who helped create the mural and the dwarf planets. She and her friend, the artist who created the Checkerspot butterfly, came by today to add a bisexual pride flag to our collection (thanks! it’s the only painting that has been done after receiving the notice of violation on June 27) and to say goodbye to their other art.

If this all ends up a sacrificial lamb to a greater process of community art and a revision of what we consider “graffiti” or enforcement in this City, it will be a win. If we can learn from other cities how they handle these policies, it could spark many more community projects here and elsewhere.

Our friends in Culver City, CA were inspired by my Facebook posts about this project during Covid. They and their neighbors co-created an obstacle course on their street:

A neighborhood in Culver City was inspired by our movement sidewalk to create their own

I’ve already got a core of folks willing to take this to City Council in their fall session. (I’m starting a new job tomorrow so I can’t commit much more time to this…I did my part while working at home to move this issue forward though!)

Want to join us, or offer legal/policy advice from afar? We’re all ears!

Here’s to Sarah, my neighbor who started this graffiti rebellion in 2020, and a burgeoning movement for #movementsidewalks.

Sarah dancing with her two amazing daughters, who created (& re-created) Planet Earth and its Moon.

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Susan Comfort

Co-founder of NonprofitWellness.org, manager of the DC/Balto/Pitt Alvéole teams, Tinkergarten leader, queer parent, bee promoter.