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Public Art Erasure Could Be Racially Motivated

County workers restore art work on utility box at Maryland Parkway and Flamingo Road.
Brent Holmes

County workers restore art work on utility box at Maryland Parkway and Flamingo Road.

Lance Smith was taking a break from his art when Clark County asked him to paint utility boxes on Maryland Parkway last year.

Intrigued by the idea, he accepted, and adorned one of the boxes with a robed, comic-hero-like figure, meant to watch over the busy intersection at Maryland Pkwy. and Flamingo Rd.

"It was in some ways it was a kind of a love letter to Maryland Parkway," Smith said. "I call her the watcher or the lady of Maryland Parkway."

The watcher depicted has dark skin — a conscious decision on Lance Smith’s part, as he is a person of color and representation for minorities is a theme in his work.

"It is nice to see yourself reflected in things," Smith said. "These figures were kind of an affirmation to being able to see not only myself, but people who are like me to see themselves reflected in the scape of your community."

One nearby business took offense. Paul Klein, the manager of 702 Motoring, told County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani that the figure looked Muslim, and asked for white and Asian people to be added to the artwork.

“What if someone was coming by here, thinking of coming to my store, and they had had bad experiences with blacks before, like they had been mugged or raped by a black person?” Klein was quoted as saying by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “If they saw that picture, they would just drive right by.”

The county heard Klein’s concerns, but decided Smith’s work could remain as it was.

Then recently, more than a year after Smith finished the piece, the box was painted over illegally — in beige paint to make the vandalism look official.

No one knows who painted over the boxes, though it’s under investigation. County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani suspected it was Klein, who had complained about the artwork for featuring a black figure instead of a diverse group.

We went out on Friday, June 17, to see Smith’s work being restored. Klein declined a recorded interview, but told us he didn’t paint over the boxes and isn’t racist. He says if the work depicted only whites, he would ask for people of color to be added, as well.

Though the crime is considered vandalism, its intent is of a different, perhaps more disquieting sort. Smith’s painting wasn’t just defaced or disrespected, it was erased, censored, smudged out — an attempt to deny its right to exist.

"It's not defacing, it becomes something else," Smith said. "This is another aspect of this that hurt my heart is the aspect of erasure. Dare I say cultural smudging."

Smith now has to return and touch up the art work, but he is looking for the positive side of the whole experience.

"I'm able to see past the negative and actually see that I have a beautiful community that stands behind me," Smith said. 

Lance Smith, artist

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Kristy Totten is a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada. Previously she was a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly, and has covered technology, education and economic development for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. She's a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.