Nye Beach Merchant Association

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.

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