The mural at 57 O Street NW is typical of Lisa Marie Thalhammer’s work. It depicts a black woman, arms outstretched, against a swirling rainbow backdrop. The style is casual and sentimental, neither realistic nor abstract, an illustration of perseverance over pain. It looks like it could be part of a series with “Boxer Girl,” the mural Thalhammer painted just up North Capitol Street in 2009.
Only the new mural isn’t Thalhammer’s work, according to Aja Adams, another artist. Adams says that she designed the mural that now graces the Open Arms Housing building in Truxton Circle. She wants credit, she says, and payment for her work.
The conflict over the mural’s authorship opened wide this week after Adams and her partner, Michelle Stearn, launched an incendiary petition on Change.org calling on the D.C. Commission for the Arts and Humanities to address the issue. Thalhammer completed the mural this summer with a $50,000 grant from the DCCAH’s Public Art Building Communities fund.
At root is the sort of contract dispute that often derails business partnerships. There is another element here: While both Aja Adams and the figure depicted in the mural are women of color, Thalhammer is white. Adams’s petition calls for Thalhammer to be “held accountable for exploiting communities of color.” It further blasts Thalhammer on the grounds that “[a]rtists of color in the LGBTQIA community like Aja are continuously exploited by their white counterparts.”
Dozens of people have shared the petition on Facebook this week, many echoing the complaint that Thalhammer is taking credit for the work of a queer artist of color.
“She listed me on the ‘personnel’ team,” Adams says, describing Thalhammer’s contract for the grant. “We were going to be collaborators.”
Thalhammer declined to comment for this story, saying that the issue is now a legal matter and that she cannot speak freely about it. Adams says that she hasn’t taken any legal action but may file a lawsuit.
What went wrong? The Open Arms mural was not the first joint project by Adams and Thalhammer. The two paired up in fall 2016 on an abstract mural for a Ditto housing development in Trinidad. That one didn’t generate any friction. Around the time they finished it, Thalhammer applied for a grant from the city to do the Truxton Circle mural, based on a design that she and Adams dreamed up earlier in the year.
When Thalhammer first presented the opportunity to Adams, she says, it spoke to her. Open Arms Housing is a permanent supportive housing facility for women who have experienced homelessness, domestic violence, chronic poverty, and other setbacks in life. “I know women who have lived similar lifestyles in a marginal situation,” Adams says. The building is directly across the street from Thalhammer’s longtime home at 52 O Street NW, which also houses artist studios.
Before the end of the year, tensions surfaced. In an email that Stearn shared with City Paper, Thalhammer questioned a contract presented to her by the artists. In the New Year’s Eve email, portions of which Adams or Stearn chose to redact, Thalhammer complains that she has never before received “a contract that has needed such drastic revision.” That contract assigned all intellectual property rights to Adams and “limited rights” to Thalhammer. It further stipulated that Adams and Stearn might elect to pay a third party to finish the mural and any related educational programming.
Thalhammer objected to these terms. Elsewhere in the email—in a paragraph that was redacted, but is still readable—Thalhammer notes that Adams planned to leave D.C. to live in Chile with Stearn, who received a Fulbright Scholar award. “The fact is that I need folks who can be here in person in D.C. on O Street doing the work and communicating with the community,” the email reads. “We need to be realistic about what can be accomplished here in D.C. before you leave the country and if it makes sense for us to continue to work together, given that you will not be here to complete the project.” Thalhammer also notes that DCCAH “favors my hiring D.C. residents to work on [Public Art Building Communities] projects.” (Adams moved to Chile in March.)
In May, DCCAH publicly announced that it had approved a $50,000 grant to fund the Truxton Circle mural. The terms of the partnership were not any clearer by then. According to Adams, Thalhammer never credited her appropriately during the application process. Instead, Thalhammer told Adams in January that she planned to pay her for the hours she contributed to the project—a surprise, since Adams felt entitled to half.
Email correspondence shows a debate about the project taking shape well after its approval. In March, Thalhammer proposed to pay Adams and Stearn a rate of $75 an hour for 8 hours each: $1,200 total. “Back in January before you left D.C. we verbally agreed that I would pay you for your HOURS worked,” an email attributed to Thalhammer reads. “The invoices you sent me did not reflect that agreement. You double charged me, adding an additional design fee. Then triple charged me by adding an application fee. Both this design fee and application fee were never discussed nor agreed upon.” (The email provided by Stearn redacted a breakdown of the invoice in question.)
Adams appealed to the DCCAH. The commission threatened to pull the funding for the mural if the artists couldn’t resolve the authorship question. Soon after, Adams backed out of the project. “I won’t be involved in your dealing with the DCCAH,” Adams wrote Thalhammer on June 16. “I do hope the project works out for you and the women of Open Arms, and that we can get paid as well. Best of luck with everything.”
Thalhammer answered this email the next day with a memorandum of understanding. The contract that Lisa Marie Thalhammer (“ARTIST”) offered to Aja Adams and Michelle Stearn (“ASSISTANT(S)”) paid them $3,000 for administrative support and creative support (“Work in tandem with the Artist on public art project drawings/proposals”). Which is not to say that Thalhammer pocketed the rest: Supplies, equipment, and contractors to complete the mural, plus any educational component or advocacy for the women at Open Arms, would all need to be paid for from the grant. (Thalhammer declined to discuss these details.)
“We take copyright matters very seriously and after an initial review, we determined that this is a contractual disagreement between the two parties,” says Jeffrey Scott, chief of external affairs for DCCAH.
The commission was able to move forward with the grant because Thalhammer settled one open question: She produced a certificate of registration from the U.S. Copyright Office for the “Open Arms Mural Design.” Adams says that Thalhammer illegally copyrighted the image based on her sketches without her permission. The final design changed in several ways. Originally, the swirling rainbow originally featured a series of doors, on which the artists had planned to paint symbols proposed by the residents of Open Arms, Adams says. Also, the final figure is black. “Lisa Marie and I never discussed the race outright while designing the image,” Adams says. “[The figure] was supposed to encapsulate all colors and tones.”
Some of these changes could be attributed to mission creep. By the time that paint hit the wall, Adams had long since bowed out of the mural (which she calls a “derivative piece”). Along the way, Thalhammer elected to move the painting in a more realistic direction. Of course, it would have raised eyebrows for her to paint a white woman like herself on a building that primarily serves African-American women.
In the end, a big commission to paint a black figure went to a white artist. That was not Thalhammer’s plan from the get-go. But as Stearn and Adams put it, Thalhammer, a white woman, erased the labor of Adams, a woman of color, which registers as a familiar and urgent problem in the LGBTQ community (and pretty much every community).
One debate specific to art centers around the image: Did Thalhammer bump Adams as the work’s co-author? The final mural is strikingly similar to the composition tendered by Adams, but also recognizable as a Thalhammer painting.
Another debate centers around the work: Is a mural a painting or an exercise in project management? Thalhammer saw the mural through to completion, whereas Adams and Stearn bounced early on: Their contributions were all up front. Thalhammer, a veteran artist with experience navigating the system in D.C., applied for and won a grant that Adams says she herself might not have received on her own. Presumably, any related educational or advocacy work falls on Thalhammer. As would any potential fallout—like the unlikely dust storm that “Boxer Girl” kicked up.
From DCCAH’s perspective, the question is settled: The agency has no plans to intervene. Adams says that Thalhammer owes her about $6,000. More than that, though, she wants to see a public forum discuss race and labor in the arts and queer communities.
“We expect our government and even the artists we work with to have dignity for other artists in the community,” Adams says. “Discussion, payment, acknowledgment. That would be good for me.”