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Lack of policy failing Duvall artists: Pride art removed after threats

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Photo courtesy of Axton Burton
Photo courtesy of Axton Burton

Axton Burton was commissioned to create a colorful Pride wall made of carefully tied ribbons on the fence outside of the Valley Mail shipping business in Duvall over a year ago, and up until recently, it had remained largely untouched. The highly visible art piece near the entrance and exit of the city was taken down by the city on July 21 due to complaints and threats the city received — threats that had legal ground to stand on. The potential for a new and permanent Pride art installation has been aired, but for now the individually tied ribbons are sitting somewhere in city hall with an unclear future.

Pride ribbon wall art piece at Valley Mail in Duvall before being taken down — Photo courtesy of Axton Burton  

Fence a battleground of symbols
When Burton was initially commissioned by Carol Kufeldt, owner of the Valley Mail, they say they completed about 10% of the work in six hours. Bringing ribbon and some extra sets of hands, volunteers helped finish the piece. After a while, it needed to be refreshed, and Burton put out a call for volunteers. Around the same time, the city started receiving emails about the fence.

"A small group of people in the city got upset, and started — we didn't find this out until later — harassing the city and threatening them," Kufeldt said.

In the following weeks a slew of new flags appeared on the fence, and no one is really sure who put them up. First, American flags were stuffed on the top of it, and Kufeldt let them be.

"I was like, 'Okay, it's not quite the original design, but the fourth of July is coming up,'" Kufeldt said. "The flag and the Pride flag should be together because we're all American."

Then a POW MIA flag showed up, and Kufeldt initially let it stay up but eventually took it down to make space on the fence for another organization. A Gadsden flag (the "don't tread on me" flag) appeared shortly after, followed by an Appeal to Heaven flag with the words "an appeal to heaven" written across it and an image of a pine tree — lately a flag associated with Christian nationalism and the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

Art in legal limbo
Duvall doesn't have any policy about banners, so the fence — owned by the city — and whatever is on it are completely unregulated, meaning anyone can legally put what they want on it. Amy Ockerlander, Mayor of Duvall, says the city originally planned to have a policy discussion about sign codes in October. The mix of employees who felt unsafe at work and the increasingly stronger signals on the fence forced the city to move that date to Aug. 15 and take everything off the fence.

"We wanted to have a calm dialogue so that all members of the community could come and have a rational conversation, and I really feel that with those that continue to put increasingly exclusionary flags and symbols up on the fence, that the opportunity was taken away from the entire community," Ockerlander said.

Burton says they received notice about the August meeting about a ban on non-permanent banners that was expected to pass, and the notice warned that the piece might need to be taken down in a month and a half. They say after about two or three days of hearing from the city, they received another follow up email saying they would need to make a decision about the piece as soon as possible.

Burton was given three options: to take the art piece down themselves, to have it taken down by the city, or to have it given to them or to City Hall. Burton says they spent five hours looking into alternative options alongside community members, and they came up with more than 10. Some ideas included putting an "under construction" sign in place of the art piece to give a visual cue to the community, or for the city council to plan an emergency meeting. By the time Burton got home to write it all out in an email, the offers had been rescinded and they were notified the art piece would be coming down in the early hours of the next morning.

"Unfortunately, because my partner works at night and he had the car at that point, I didn't get a chance to go and do what I personally needed, which was to see it one last time and say thank you," Burton said. "It prevented me from honoring and saying goodbye to my 15-hour creation. It was a painful tease to offer me my art piece."

They also expressed frustration about not receiving information about the threats sooner, and that the police had been involved in taking down the piece.

"It was irritatingly painful to learn that [police] officers were involved in the removal. I had only learned that after. I believe they had paid the individuals extra because it was at four in the morning, which is four or five hours earlier than individuals are supposed to be on the clock," Burton said.

Pride ribbon wall art piece at Valley Mail in Duvall before and after being taken down — Photos courtesy of Axton Burton  

City hopes future policy will protect LGBTQ art
Ockerlander expressed sadness about the piece going down, saying that she and many others in the community loved driving by the fence every day.

"It's kind of feeling like what's going on nationally is filtering down to the local level in ways that we haven't seen in a long, long time, which is quite sad and disappointing," Ockerlander said.

Burton says they'd like to see an apology from the city, including an acknowledgement that the installation's removal has impacted the Queer community's relationship with the city.

"Wouldn't it be nice, as a Trans person, to just rip down art or change a policy to stop being threatened? I really wish that they had some empathy around that," Burton said. "I want them to be transparent about the steps they are taking with permanent local art."

The city is currently working with Burton to create a more permanent art installation, Burton says. Ockerlander says the city got caught off guard by not having rules and procedures in place for art, so the city administrator is working on an art policy.

"We would like to identify a place and policy so we can have a permanent installation supporting the LGBTQ members of our community. I don't know how long it will take to get that policy done and through a council process, but that is most definitely the intent."

Kufeldt is pleased with the city's efforts, and the mayor has been the first in Duvall to issue a Pride proclamation.

"I'm happy with what they're planning to do. It's going to be very visible, very out in the open," Kufeldt said.

Local artists skeptical of city efforts
Other community members have doubts, however. Elizabeth Hill, a local artist who moved to Duvall over 30 years ago for the arts community, says she doesn't know how the new piece is going to turn out given her experiences with the city for past projects.

"The city finds itself in situations where it has challenges, let's say something needs to be done with the art or a performance space, but they don't coordinate with the art community in the way we used to work together on things," Hill said.

Hill listed multiple instances of art being taken down or disappearing without being given to the arts community in Duvall. A granite bench engraved by a local stone carver was damaged and thrown away rather than repaired, a monument by a park needed to be maintained but disappeared after being promised to the arts community, and a mural that needed to be replaced was removed, Hill says. Duvall is somewhat of a news desert, so SGN was not able to find information to confirm those instances.

Hill also mentioned a 20-year long project to create a cultural and performing arts center in Duvall. A website about the center, whose last update was in January 2022, recounts the process. In 1995, the owner of a 30-acre property with an old barn was required by the city to use some of that property and the barn for a performing arts center.

"Subsequently the City then formed an Arts Commission to advise the City on how to move forward with the idea of creating a performing arts center and other ideas that would support the arts in Duvall, which at that time was a thriving arts community," the website reads.

The Duvall Foundation for the Arts received the deed for the property in 2019, but COVID-19 hit immediately after, and DFA eventually received a notification requiring they remove the barn along with a tent, funded by 4Culture, that had been intended to help preserve the barn.

"Unfortunately, the City of Duvall wanted to see the commercial development of the property along Hwy 203 around the Thayer barn sooner than what DFA had hoped for," the website reads.

The city's vision, Hill says, was to install big pieces of the old barn in a new facility.

"They thought we could just take the barn wood apart and have little individual boards and that would be equivalent to what we were trying to do," Hill said. "It's heart-breaking as an artist to spend thirty years being part of an arts community and have these things basically taken away."

Burgeoning city, shrinking city hall staff
Gentrification in a fast-growing city also creates challenges, specifically city council members rotating out quickly, Hill says.

"The council, because it's such a big influx of people, they don't know the history of the town and they vote on stuff that makes permanent changes to things that we really highly value without a conversation," Hill said.

Living outside of Duvall compounds the challenges. Hill says that when the town was smaller and had less pressure for development, she felt that the city looked at the community as people who shopped there, went there, came to restaurants, volunteered, did public art, and so on. She says a lot of artists live in unincorporated King County outside Duvall.

"As the development pressure has come on and frankly, so many new residents, it's much more like, if you're in the city limits you have a voice, but if you're outside of the city limits you can't be on commissions, can't run for council, can't be the mayor," Hill said. "A lot of folks feel like if you're not in city limits you don't have a voice."

The city is growing at the same time that the city government is understaffed. Ockerlander says that staff members were cut during the 2008 recession and beyond. When she took office in 2017, there were fewer staff members than after the layoffs in 2008, but the city had grown over 40%. She did not have a city administrator for years, nor did she have the staff for a lot of day-to-day work. The only reason Duvall hasn't had a Pride celebration, she says, is because of staffing.

Understaffing contributed to the Pride wall being taken down, too. Historically, Ockerlander says, public art installed in the city has had to go through the city's cultural commission. That commission has been defunct for a couple of years due to a lack of staff. Along with it, a public art policy has not been put in place, which is what is lacking for a new permanent piece to be installed.

Both Ockerlander and Burton encourage community members to attend the city council meeting on August 15 at 7 p.m. in city hall.

"What would be really helpful. I know many, many people in our community are showing up to the council meeting on August 15th, but I think that sending emails to the council expressing public support for a public art policy, expressing support for making sure we are a welcoming space for the LGBTQ community," Ockerlander said.