Nye Beach banners mark 10 years of flying their freak flag

The project, begun to address the Newport community's identity problem, nearly didn't get off the ground because of one controversial offering

Organizers can smile about it now, but 10 years ago, few involved in the fledgling Nye Beach Banner Project saw the humor. It all came down to one banner, the work of Rowan Lehrman. The front featured a topless woman painted in the style of bathing suit model Bettie Page, cavorting in the ocean waves, arm reaching up, ending not in a hand, but a crab claw. On the opposite side was the legend: “Nye Beach is 4 Freaks.”

Eileen Hearne created this banner, part of the “10 x 10” show, in 2015. All banners are 22-by-44-inch canvases. Photo by: Tom Webb, Newport Visual Arts Center

“I wanted to make a statement on inclusivity and beauty standards and the way our culture twists things,” said Lehrman, chef at Tables of Content restaurant. “That was the first year of the project, and it really got off to a shaky start. People took offense. They thought a man painted it and it was pornographic. Someone said the word freak bothered them. It was very tense in the beginning. There was talk about not proceeding with the project.”

What few knew was that the work had been inspired by a tale about Lehrman’s birth, when she was treated like a freak.

That was 2009, the kick-off of a project that this month is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a show commemorating its most prolific artists, as well as its annual auction this weekend.

The Nye Beach banners were envisioned as a way to help the little oceanside neighborhood with its perceived identity problem. It was a time of change — both welcome and not. Once known for its blocks of tumbledown cottages and boho spirit, Newport’s Nye Beach was transitioning into a place of multi-level condos, upscale gift shops, and newcomers, some of whom seemed intent on changing Nye Beach into whatever town they’d left behind. It went from being a place once described as not feeling very safe at night, to one touted as having the economic potential to become the next Carmel, which few residents would have considered a good thing.

Julie Lamberson’s whimsical bicyclists decorated Nye Beach streets in 2015. Photo by: Tom Webb, Newport Visual Arts Center

That was the climate shopkeeper Veronica Willemin found herself in. Nye Beach was being discovered, but it was also losing its identity. Visitors were either loving it to death, or they didn’t know it at all. Willemin, director of the Nye Beach Merchant Association, wanted to make sure the tourists kept coming, but she was also committed to honoring the artistic flair that made Nye Beach what it was — colorful, humble even.

Someone suggested they buy and hang banners. Commercially produced banners would certainly tell visitors where they were, but they wouldn’t represent the area’s artists. So, Willemin decided she’d make blank banners and invite artists to decorate them. Thirty-five artists, including the late Rick Bartow, a pivotal figure in Native American art, took her up on the invite. Soon the hand-painted banners were flying from streetlights all around the neighborhood.

Then the grumbling started.

When Lehrman learned of the trouble, she offered to change the text on her banner, but Willemin stopped her.

The late Lynn Bishop’s crows decorate a 2017 banner. Photo by: Tom Webb, Newport Visual Arts Center

“I said, ‘No I don’t want you do to that,’” she recalled. “It will look like we are a bunch of little old ladies and we are censoring the artist.”

Instead, Willemin called a meeting of the merchant association and invited Lehrman to tell her tale.

“I have a very large birthmark in the center of my chest, and when I was born, they told my mom I had a severe deformity and they took me away,” Lehrman said. “This was 1974. My mom was thinking I was missing a limb or something.

“They didn’t bring me back for 24 hours and when they put me in her arms, she said, ‘What’s wrong with her?’ They showed her the birthmark. My mom was like, ‘That’s it?’ They warned my parents that I would have all sorts of problems and that men wouldn’t want to date me. Every year until I hit puberty, my parents would ask me if I wanted to get it removed, but I always thought, this is just who I am.”

When Lehrman finished her story, some of the members had tears in their eyes. One of the biggest critics asked to hang the banner in front of her business. The banner project would go on.

Rowan Lehrman’s 2018 effort pays sly homage to her contentious offering in the inaugural Nye Beach banner project. Photo by: Tom Webb, Newport Visual Arts Center

Ten years later, the project and its culminating silent auction have raised about $70,000 for the children’s art program, Art Fridays. It’s also inspired similar projects in states as far away as Florida.

The project is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a show titled 10 x 10: A Decade of the Nye Beach Banner Project. Previous auction winners have loaned the show 14 banners — 10 representing the work of the artists who have created the most banners over the years, plus four in memory of Bartow, Lynn Bishop, Chad Buckingham and Andrew Rodman. They are hanging in the upstairs gallery of the Newport Visual Arts Center through Nov. 24.

The silent auction of this year’s banners will be from 5 to 8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 11, also in the Visual Arts Center.

That’s where you’ll find Lehrman’s 2018 banner, a riff on the original piece and still freakish after all these years.

“This year I wanted to revisit the ‘Nye Beach is for freaks’ theme and kind of bring it full circle since it was the 10-year anniversary,” she said. On the front of her banner, a scantily clad woman kneels on the beach, her crab claw hand resting atop her head. The back reads, “Nye Beach is Still 4 Freaks.”

Laughed Lehrman, “People on the inside will definitely get the joke.”

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