Featured photo: Nicholas Schmidt’s mural depicted Wake Forest’s Demon Deacon as a robber baron stepping on houses. The mural was deemed too “political” and was painted over this week. (courtesy photo)
UPDATED (9/15/2021, 4:21 p.m.): The piece has been updated to include a statement from Wake Forest University
It’s art for art’s sake, until it isn’t. At least that’s how artist Nicholas Schmidt is feeling after one of his murals, which was created for this year’s Mural Fest, was painted over this week.
Schmidt had been chosen as one of 10 artists to paint a mural in Winston-Salem’s downtown Artivity on the Green park, hosted by a local arts organization, Art for Art’s Sake or AFAS. The organization, which has been around for the last 14 years, has hosted Mural Fest for the last seven, generally featuring about 10-11 pieces each year. This year was Schmidt’s first time participating.
“I asked to be in this mural event about a year ago when last year’s event was going on,” Schmidt told Triad City Beat in an interview on Wednesday. “As the time grew closer, I came up with this concept.”
Schmidt’s mural, which has since been painted over, originally depicted Wake Forest University’s Demon Deacon mascot walking over houses as he holds a bag and his cane. In the background, which was painted Wake Forest gold, is the stenciled word,” DEACTOWN.”
The imagery was meant to be a critique of the university and the hospital system’s overarching influence over the city, the artist said.
“I was getting really excited about calling out Wake Forest for the gentrification of our city and spreading Deactown all over our downtown,” Schmidt said. “They’re rebranding downtown Winston-Salem.”
The Mural Fest has always had rules about the content that artists can paint — no nudity, no violence, no politics, said AFAS CEO, Harry Knabb.
The last rule, which Knabb said Schmidt violated, is the one that ultimately resulted in the mural being taken down.
Before his mural was painted over, Schmidt took to social media like TikTok and Facebook to bring attention to what he calls “corporate censorship of art.”
Schmidt also told TCB that he had cleared the mural’s content with Kendall Doub, the curator for this year’s Mural Fest.
“I reached out to Kendall through Facebook messenger on Sept. 7 to ask about the rules,” Schmidt said. “And he responded and said, ‘No nudity, no violence, no politics.’ And I said, well that’s pretty vague so here’s what I’m working on.”
In texts provided by Schmidt to TCB, the artist explains that he is “working on a piece in which the demon deacon is a giant robber baron stepping on houses.” To that, Doub replied, “That’s a pretty cool concept. Should be fine, just keep things symbolic as possible, no direct attacks and u should be fine.”
However, on Tuesday, after Schmidt had worked on painting the mural for two days, he got a text from Doub saying that a sponsor for the event had issues with Schmidt’s piece and that it would have to take it down. In the interview and in texts sent to TCB, Schmidt clarified that the sponsor in question was Verger Capital Management, who, according to texts from Doub, has a business relationship with Wake Forest University. However, in a subsequent phone call, Schmidt said that Doub walked back those statements and noted that the decision to take the mural down was made solely by AFAS.
Doub, who directed questions to AFAS CEO Harry Knabb, has been a longtime contributor to the Triad’s street art scene. He has collaborated notably with Greensboro real estate developer Marty Kotis over the years to put up several murals around Greensboro and has been a well-known entity in local art circles.
And that’s why Schmidt said he doesn’t blame Doub for what happened.
“Kendall was very gracious, and I think he was put in an impossible position,” Schmidt said. “Over and over again, he told me how sorry he was and he told me that I could do something else.”
In a call on Wednesday, Harry Knabb said that the decision to paint over Schmidt’s mural was made solely by him and that neither Verger nor Wake Forest University had been involved.
“They don’t even know as far as I’m concerned,” Knabb said.
When asked why the mural was taken down, Knabb said it was because the piece violated their rule about being political. He noted that portraying the Demon Deacon as a robber baron was “pretty political,” as was the claim that Wake Forest University was responsible for gentrification. Subsequently, when TCB noted that Schmidt had gotten express permission about painting the piece, Knabb initially said, “that conversation never took place.” But when he was notified that there were text messages to the contrary, Knabb reiterated that it doesn’t matter if Schmidt got permission because he still broke the rules.
“The bottom line is when we saw the depiction, it was not what our understanding of what it was going to be,” Knabb said.
Still, Knabb made it clear that if Schmidt wanted to paint his mural elsewhere, that he was welcome to.
“Just not on private property,” he said. “Artivity is a private park. And for seven years, with 70 artists, we’ve never had a situation where the rules were broken.”
Knabb also noted that his decision wasn’t influenced by the fact that Verger is a sponsor of Mural Fest. Schmidt doesn’t believe that.
“This is corporate censorship,” said Schmidt. “The issue is corporate censorship and not my piece being put up on a wall.”
UPDATED (9/15): A spokesperson for Wake Forest University responded by stating that, “Wake Forest did not request the removal of the mural and supports the arts and the free expression of artists.”
Schmidt said that if Verger didn’t have anything to do with the decision to take the mural down, that’s almost worse.
“I feel like it’s even more nefarious because it’s the people who should be displaying art in our community who are censoring art,” he said.
Schmidt, who has been living in Winston-Salem for the last 12 years, said that targeting Wake Forest was somewhat personal for him. He revealed that prior to the pandemic, he worked on campus in foodservice through a contract company and saw the way that many of the workers were treated there.
“I just feel like Wake Forest is turning Winston-Salem into this kind of company town where you receive your education from them and then you go to work for them and if you can’t afford to get an education from Wake Forest, you can do so-called lower skilled work like foodservice where you’re really underpaid and your hours get cut,” he said.
And as the “City of Arts and Innovation,” Schmidt said he expects more from Winston-Salem’s decision makers whether it be the head of AFAS or city officials.
“We are the City of Arts and Innovation as long as that serves capital interests,” Schmidt said. “Like only when there is an influx of wealth into our community but not when those same arts present a controversial opinion…. I think we’ve had a huge influx of businesses in that last 12 years and they’re taking advantage of artists who have been working to make Winston-Salem the City of Arts and Innovation.”
As it stands, the spot where Schmidt’s mural was is now just a grey rectangle. And he has no plans to paint something else, he said.
“I’m fine with that space going to another artist,” he said.
And that’s just as well; Knabb confirmed that they have already found another artist to fill the space, likely within the next week.
Schmidt said he’ll likely paint his original concept on a large canvas. All in all, he thinks the controversy has been a good thing for Winston-Salem because it’s prompted a lot of conversation.
“It’s brought up questions like, ‘What is our city?’ and ‘What is our identity as a city?’” Schmidt said. “Like how much is Wake Forest’s investment influencing our culture as a city? I’m thrilled that my art is able to inspire that conversation. As an artist is there anything better than sparking a conversation in your community?”
TCB did not hear back from Verger in time for publication.
Learn more about Schmidt and his art via his Instagram or his TikTok @kudzu_gardens. The Mural Fest opened on Saturday and runs for the next year.