By Jack Holland
A reported $100,000 "commission" from New York City to paint a mural of the 1981 hunger strikers has the Unionist lord mayor of Belfast foaming at the mouth, even though the commission is non-existent.
According to the reports, which appeared in the Andersonstown News, the (London) Times, the Sun, and the Belfast Telegraph, Belfast muralist Gerry Kelly, a former IRA man from West Belfast, along with New York artist Tom Billings, will be paid by the city to do a 30-by-30-foot mural near or "on" a bridge in Manhattan in time for the 20th anniversary of the start of the 1981 hunger strike, during which 10 protesters starved themselves to death in the Maze Prison.
Kelly recently completed a Celtic mural for the Immaculate Heart of Mary school in Brooklyn.
The lord mayor of Belfast, Sammy Wilson, a member of the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, condemned New York city’s "sponsorship" of the work, saying "this is quite clearly an IRA propaganda piece which will portray murderers and bombers as saints." He said he would make an official complaint to Mayor Giuliani.
Gerry Kelly, the artist at the center of the storm, is somewhat bemused.
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"I was misquoted," he said about the original story in the Andersonstown News. However, he stresses that none of the other newspapers actually called him, though they quoted him in their stories.
"It’s much ado about nothing," said a well-informed source in New York . "There are no city funds at all, nor was there an application made to get city funds."
He said that last fall when the idea of the two artists doing a commemorative mural came up, it was thought that it would require around $10,000. It was suggested then that an application be made for about $1,000 from the city, but the idea was rejected in order to avoid having the city exercise any control over the work.
Though the Times reported that the mural was destined for the Manhattan Bridge, one of the major thoroughfares over the East River, in fact the project when completed, will adorn a wall on a building on 124th Street in Spanish Harlem, one block south of Martin Luther King Boulevard, near an access ramp to the Triboro Bridge.
"The wall has been donated by the owner of the building," the source said. "It is a very generous offer" since it is estimated that the space is worth a considerable amount of money if rented for advertising.
"Private funding" said the source will pay the estimated $10,000 that it will cost to carry out the project.
Other dimensions to the story are also not quite as reported. It is planned that the work will be between 5- and 8-foot square.
"It will then be digitalized into a computer and transferred to a 30-by-30 advertising mesh," the source said. This will be put on the wall on 124th Street.
Asked about the controversy it has created, the New York source who has been involved in the project from the beginning, replied: "It belongs to the theater of the absurd."