Mount Dora artist shines through clouds hanging over ‘Starry Night’ tribute.
A painting of artist Vincent van Gogh’s life would be a classic connect-the-dots: tortured soul, suffered for his work, misunderstood, underappreciated, cut off his ear, died by his own hand.
Richard Barrenechea can relate—to a point. The Mount Dora artist unwittingly became embroiled in a dispute with the city this year after re-creating van Gogh’s 1889 masterpiece, “Starry Night,” on a 140-foot-long wall along Old Highway 441 at Sixth Avenue.
He was commissioned by the homeowner to improve the wall, but shortly after he started painting, the owner was cited for a “graffiti” violation. As local debates raged over the artwork, a magistrate ruled the mural was an unpermitted sign and a distraction to drivers, and the homeowner appealed in court.
Oh, that’s no reason for Richard to cut off an ear. In fact, while he’s shocked by the city’s reaction, he seems more steadfast than suffering. After the citation, Richard continued to paint, as the homeowner pushed “Starry Night” skyward from the wall to the side of the house—so the colors matched.
“We don’t really mean to challenge the city in a bad way,” Richard says. “The wall was kind of small for all I wanted to put on it. With the house, it’s perfect.”
Of course. Who wants a plain, white house when they can have a van Gogh?
Richard had passed by the area many times and couldn’t help but see the long, white wall as a blank canvas. Born in Uruguay and living in the U.S. since 2000, he has worked in mediums including plastic, airbrushing, custom fine art, and acrylic and oil paintings, and exhibited his art in Orlando galleries.
“I’m the kind of artist who can do pretty much anything. I’m so lucky,” he says.
Considering the high-visibility location and the city’s usual artistic reputation, Richard knew he needed something bold.
“It’s got to be really iconic. When you think of master painters, the first ones who come to mind are van Gogh, Picasso,” he says. “It’s a starry town, and that goes together with what I had in mind. It’s a starry mural for a starry town.”
While the fate of the artwork rested in the stars, Richard gained name recognition and residents’ support, including a petition to city officials, who reportedly may revisit city codes.
“From the beginning, everybody stops by and beeps their horn and says, ‘Keep it up, it’s beautiful,’” he says. “A lot of people are showing me that they like it.”
FEB. 13 UPDATE: City fines against the homeowners over the artwork surpassed $9,000 as of early February. Jeremy Talcott, an attorney for Pacific Legal Foundation, wrote in a Feb. 1 website post that “Mount Dora’s application of the sign code raises significant constitutional issues of free speech, due process, and equal protection,” and that the foundation, representing the homeowners free of charge, would file a brief arguing that the sign code is unconstitutional. Pacific Legal Foundation is based in Sacramento and has offices in Palm Beach Gardens.
After a city magistrate approved Mount Dora officials’ request in February to increase fines against the owners of the “Starry Night” home, city officials on Tuesday, Feb. 13, issued this statement:
“The city of Mount Dora thanks all who have voiced their support or opposition to the residential property at 306 W. 6th Ave., which depicts the owner and artist’s rendition of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ and other images.
“Our city values art and embraces our art community with a long history of strong support. We also recognize that art is a subjective matter which people can be quite passionate about. The responses from our residents and visitors to our city have run the gamut about this depiction. Unfortunately, we have been unsuccessful at finding common ground with the homeowners.
“The city has concern that the striking and bold depiction on the outer wall and outside of walls of the two-story home may present a distraction to safe vehicle operation along the street which fronts the home. The home is located in a residential neighborhood, on a two-lane right-of-way which connects Mount Dora to Eustis and Tavares, via a very heavily traveled Old Highway 441. There are no sidewalks along the front of the wall and there is a steep drop-off directly across the road from the residence. There is also a sharp turn in the roadway as drivers travel in and out of the downtown corridor, as well as a change in the speed limit. There is no safe place from which pedestrians can view the home from the street and no place for a vehicle to pull over, slow down or stop.
“Another concern of the city is balancing the interests of the property owners in our residential neighborhoods, given that there are strong feelings and reactions to the current exterior presentation.
“The residential areas that are outside of the commercial district of Mount Dora enjoy the uniform neighborhood settings with well-maintained structures and landscaping; whereas, the commercial district of Mount Dora allows for a different appearance and presentation. Together the residential and commercial areas make up the unique, Southern charm that our city council has worked very hard to protect.
“It is not the city’s intention to prevent anyone from enjoying art, but it is the city’s intention to protect the safety of everyone who lives in Mount Dora or comes to visit and to preserve the residential character of our neighborhoods. We would hope our citizens would stand behind the city when it comes to making sure everyone is safe and content with their surroundings. We would also invite anyone who has never been to Mount Dora to come and see all the wonderful attractions, restaurants, and shops the city has to offer.”
FEB. 15 UPDATE: The city of Mount Dora reports that “on Thursday, Feb. 8, the property owners filed a voluntary dismissal of their appeal of the city’s code enforcement action. The city will continue moving forward with its regular code enforcement process related to this matter.”