Jeff Jardine

Artist's work gone in a few brush strokes

In 2002, Modesto artist Mark O'Bryan was commissioned to paint a mural on a building in downtown Modesto. The mural, titled "Valley Life," included a portrait of physicist Stephen Hawking — one of six varying panels reflecting what O'Bryan viewed as "human potential."

He received $5,000 through a United Way beautification grant, secured by Grace Lieberman of the Stanislaus Arts Council, for his work on a side of a building owned by Bill and Lenore Hughes at Seventh and I streets.

Lieberman said Bill Hughes was the only building owner willing to allow the mural at the time.

"I called everybody to get a visible building," she said. "Bill was the only one who said, 'Go ahead.'"

Now the building is empty and recently got a fresh coat of paint, which means the mural is covered up. O'Bryan claims the Hughes family had no right to paint over it without his permission.

"Now it doesn't suit him so he paints over it?" O'Bryan asked.

In 1979, the state's civil code was amended to protect the works of artists from destruction, alteration, mutilation or defacement without the artist's permission. Federal copyright laws also give strong protections to the artists.

It's meant to protect artists from having people alter their work, akin to stopping someone from painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa or putting Dumbo ears on Rodin's statue "The Thinker."

But like many laws, it has vagaries that leave it open to interpretation by attorneys.

Does it really mean a building owner gives up control of his property when he allows an artist to paint a mural on it?

The language in the law pertains to the artist's ability to remove the painting without damaging it, which is pretty impractical when you're talking about a mural painted on a masonry wall.

It raises other interesting questions. What if Hughes decided to build a new building up against the existing one — a building that would have obscured the mural from public view?

What about the murals inside the El Viejo post office building downtown? When the Postal Service moves out and a new tenant moves in, will the new tenant be obligated to keep the existing murals?

Or, Lieberman wonders, what happens when a theatrical group hires an artist to paint scenery backdrops? Do they remain the property of the artist? Or can the theater troupe reuse expensive material by painting over it for the next production?

Again, that's how the lawyers make their living.

The law does require that a good-faith effort be made to contact the artist before making any alterations or destroying the work.

O'Bryan said he was not contacted by the Hughes family before the building was painted.

Nor did they reserve their rights, in writing, before allowing him to perform the artwork, that they might someday need to paint over it or destroy the building, as appears to be required by law.

Lenore Hughes and O'Bryan both state they never signed any such agreement. She said her husband had no idea they'd be giving up their control of the wall or they never would have allowed the mural on the building to begin with.

"My husband thought he was doing them a favor," she said.

The building's most recent tenant was Elegant Furniture, which has since relocated to Turlock. Lenore Hughes said she and her husband are in the process of selling the building to their son, business park developer Gerry Hughes.

She said he plans to demolish the building even though it recently got the new coat of paint and some broken windows were replaced.

O'Bryan, meanwhile, believes the exterior building paint could be removed and his mural restored.

"I put a double sealant on it," he said.

Lieberman said she has contacted the Hugheses in hopes of finding another building for another mural.

"I've been there for the artists for 30 years," she said. "I'm trying to soothe it over."

From the voice mails and the e-mails:

BROKEN FENCES — I received a call from a Modesto couple whose property on Swain Drive backs up to Bridgeford Lane. The common fence recently blew down, and the owner of the property behind them, which has duplexes, refuses to pay his share of the replacement costs even though the homeowner is in construction and would do the work at no cost. He said he asked only that the absentee landlord pick up half the costs of materials, or about $600. The landlord refuses. So what can the couple do? They can take him to small claims court, with no guarantee of collecting even if they win. City government won't step in and mediate these kinds of disputes.

The reality is — and this kind of dispute is common everywhere — they probably will get stuck paying the entire cost.

WILD RIDE — The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is $494.50 richer thanks to Claire Dial, who rode a stationary bike atop Giacomo's Espresso stand on Dale Road on Feb. 10. She spent three hours in the rain, under a large umbrella, and raised $356. The remainder came from Jim Brockman, owner of the coffee stand.

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Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be contacted at or 578-2383.