An “overzealous” (his boss’ word) city code enforcement officer gave notice to a Southwest Little Rock resident recently that she was in violation of the city’s nuisance code for having “excessive balls” (the playing kind, per the citation’s description) in her yard. She didn’t want to be fined, so she removed most of the balls rather than contest the notice.
But code enforcement has not acted on the many complaints — which it calls service requests — about piles of rocks and other items on property at the corner of Harrison Street and Kavanaugh Boulevard in the Heights. The difference, new city code enforcement division chief Brian Constantino insisted in a telephone interview, does not have to do with location. The Heights house’s assemblage — which includes painted croquet mallets in a bucket, a chalkboard hung from a post and a straw-covered yard and driveway — is art, which is not a violation under city code. It’s art because the property owner says so; it’s free speech.
Contino said the city had reached out to Michelle Herrera, the Southwest Little Rock resident whose numerous soccer and other balls (briefly) earned her a foul, about what Contino acknowledged was overreach by a new employee trying to “keep the peace within the neighborhood. ” Complaining neighbors feared the balls indicated an illegal day care operation, he said. “We don’t regulate the number of toys people have in their front yards,” he said.
Under city code, residents can be fined for such things as overgrown weeds or grass and building materials and offcast appliances in the yard. Safety, rather than aesthetics, gave rise to the nuance law; it notes such items can attract mosquitos and critters.
Contino insisted that if the yard at 2000 N. Harrison St. were south of Interstate 630, in poorer neighborhoods, there would still be no violation.
Kevin Howardcity housing director, said the rock mounds, bricks, poles and other items arranged in the Harrison yard, on property owned by Peter Moschel, fell into a “gray area” and were, after an inspection in October, considered to be Halloween decorations, and not something that an environmental court judge would find to be a violation. Howard said there were several complaints about the property, the most recently filed in January. (Attempts to chat with Moschel for this story were unsuccessful.)
Howard could not recall other yards that the city deemed as containing art rather than building materials, appliances, furniture and other objects that fall under premises violations.
Perhaps Arkansas’s best-known case of residents vs. yard art was in Conway, about sculpture in artist Gene Hatfield‘s yard on Donaghey Avenue. The retired University of Central Arkansas art professor’s yard was filled with sculpture made from such things as stacked bicycles, bed frames and colorful found objects. A website on the artist, who died in 2017, noted that one of his sculpture garden’s creations, Dum Wayter, built of metal parts from grills and other detritus, was registered in the Smithsonian Institution’s Save Outdoor Sculpture program of the early 1990s.
Detractors, however, called the yard art trash and in 2002, city officials took Hatfield to court. Many in the community rallied against the censorship and the city lost its case, the ruling deeming the creations art.
Of course, the debate about what constitutes art began long before Arkansans started arguing about the aesthetic merits of bed frames and croquet mallets.
In 1917, Marcel Duchamp bought a porcelain urinal, painted “R. Mutt” on its side and called it art. “Fountain” was not initially greeted with streams of praise by his own artists’ association, the Society of Independent Artists, but has since come to be seen as perhaps the most influential artwork of the 20th century, introducing conceptual art.
Tonie Atkinson of Hot Springs, however, was fined $10,000 by the city in 2015 for numerous toilet planters in her yard. “Just because you can’t appreciate it doesn’t make it not art,” Atkinson told television station KTHV, Channel 11, when it reported the fine. She also said it fit the quirky vibe of Hot Springs. “I mean, you’ve got an alligator farm,” she said.
Atkinson fought the charge — illegal disposal of solid waste, ironically — all the way to circuit court, where she was found guilty and fined a mere $25 plus court costs of $195.
Brad Cushman, gallery director and curator at UA Little Rock, has himself been the target of complaints about an art form: his art car. As a teacher in Oklahoma in the late 1990s, he and his Oklahoma State art students transformed what had been called the Peanut Mobile, a 1976 Delta 88 Oldsmobile, into the Tie Rod, covering it bumper to bumper with more than 1,400 neckties submitted by art car enthusiasts from around the country. Cushman brought the art car to Arkansas in 2000 when he accepted the job at UALR, and to freshen it up for a parade in Houston, he let schoolchildren paint the ties.
“It was like putting on a costume,” Cushman said. “If I was [in the car] in the Heights, I got glares and stares.” South of Interstate 630, however, he got cheers and honks, and kids would run out to get a closer look at the Tie Rod. Once, when he parked it in Hillcrest during a Razorback game, someone left a note on the car that said, “I love you and I love this car.”
But back in Durant, as he recalls, he got a citation from the city asking him to move the car, ostensibly because it had been parked in front of his address too long. His neighbor in Little Rock, in the Kingwood neighborhood, complained about its looks and asked him to cover it up with a tarp. “I told him, ‘I really feel sorry for you,’ ” Cushman told his neighbor, because he found objectionable a project that children had worked on for a parade. (Eventually, Cushman moved it to a friend’s garage, where it died an honorable death.)
In Arkansas, one man’s art car is another man’s bright red concrete pig, but while the pig gets a pass, art cars and toilet planters cross an aesthetic line. Sometimes, calling something art doesn’t work — it didn’t for Tonie Atkinson.
A case recently decided in Little Rock’s Environmental Court indicated that simply saying trash is not trash — that the city’s definition of rubbish should not include items a landowner does not intend to throw away — won’t fly, either.
The lawyer for a woman who was charged with a rubbish, trash and debris violation argued before Judge Mark Leverett that the items filling her carport and part of her driveway — bird baths, wooden pallets, pots, potting mix, empty garbage cans, a china cabinet, a table, pet crate, chairs and boxed pergolas — were not discarded and so did not meet the city’s “solid waste” definition. “They are her possessions, her property — items that she values and wants to keep,” attorney Leon Holmes argued in his case before the judge.
Leverett called the case “interesting,” and said it “really challenged the city attorney’s office to focus on what is rubbish.” He ruled for the city, however, saying the items amounted to litter, had vessels that if filled with water would allow mosquitos and other pests to breed and that the “sum total of the objects on the property were either unsightly, unsanitary or unsafe based on their placement, volume or state of deterioration.”
However, Leverett found for the defendant and against the city’s complaint of high grass and/or weeds in her yard. “I felt horrible for the city’s witness,” Leverett said, after she was asked on the stand how she knew the vegetation was weeds.
Little Rock’s fine for a first rubbish, trash and debris violation is $120 plus court costs of $65.
A Heights resident pointed out to the Arkansas times another house whose owner was expressing himself in an exuberant way, a cottage at 1903 N. McKinley St. The house, almost hidden behind a tall row of shrubby trees, has various metal signs affixed to the siding above the house, including Harley Davidson wings , eyeballs, a sun and the words “Una Alla Volta (one thing at a time).” A birdcage hangs from a branch, a fountain is wrapped in plastic.
The McKinley house decorations are all very orderly, an assemblage mostly of found graphic art — “readymades” to Duchamp — rather than the helter-skelter nature of the Harrison Street yard.
Cushman, inspecting a photo of the untidy Harrison yard, said it appeared to be a work in progress. He didn’t find it objectionable. Another Heights resident interviewed for this story, however, said that while he wasn’t “terribly irritated” by the house, “it is an eyesore” that has prompted some folks to yell at the home’s owner from their cars as they pass by and has neighbors wondering if there is anything to be done to get it cleaned up. On the other hand, some people like it and take photographs of it, the Heights resident said.
“Thank God there is variety in the world,” Cushman said. “It would be really boring” otherwise.
That variety also includes large, red and perhaps unsightly concrete pigs in the yard. Leverett said the familiar Razorback statuettes in Arkansas yards wouldn’t bother folks enough to draw complaints — “unless you were an LSU fan.”