- Associated Press - Sunday, November 8, 2015

AMARILLO, Texas (AP) - The stark white form of a mythical winged horse stands out against a faded blue background on a diamond-shaped sign in front of an abandoned house in the San Jacinto neighborhood, one of hundreds of quirky, seemingly meaningless traffic signs posted throughout town.

Financed by capricious billionaire Stanley Marsh 3, the fake traffic signs might be the largest public art project in the nation. But they are not without critics, and now a group is calling for their removal in the wake of the sexual assault allegations brought against Marsh 3 at the end of his life. The polarizing prankster and philanthropist died June 17, 2014, and the criminal sex abuse charges brought against Marsh 3 in 2013 were dismissed a month after his death.

“Some of those signs, without knowing anything else, seem fairly innocent,” said Wayne Dolcefino, a Houston-based investigator who has launched the “Erase the Marsh Madness” social media campaign urging people to remove the signs.

But the signs take on a more sinister tone for those who allege they were sexually abused by Marsh 3, Dolcefino told the Amarillo Globe-News (http://bit.ly/1RtIRb1).

Dolcefino and attorney Chad Pinkerton represent eight plaintiffs in a civil suit filed against Marsh 3’s wife, Gwendolyn “Wendy” Marsh; son, Stanley Marsh IV; longtime associate David L. Weir; former employee Drew Mason; the Marsh estate; McCartt & Associates and Amarillo Protective Services LLC. The suit claims they played a role in facilitating the sexual abuse of teenage boys, or should have known what was going on. Pinkerton previously worked with Houston attorney Anthony Buzbee in a similar lawsuit filed against Marsh 3 by 10 men in 2012. That case was settled out of court in February 2013.

Amarillo Police Department has also recently confirmed that it reopened the investigation into the case more than five months ago.

Plaintiffs represented by Pinkerton said in an interview last month that the signs triggered crippling memories.

Some have suggestive phrases such as “They didn’t have on any underpants at all” or “There’s good times coming boys.”

“Imagine if you were a victim of sexual assault and every day you have to see pictures or memories of the person who did it staring you in the face,” Dolcefino said. “If the Marsh family wants to have a museum and put it behind closed doors, fine.”

In 2012 - after Marsh 3 had been ruled incapacitated by a court and his wife was made his legal guardian - police recovered 17,600 tabs of Viagra and computers with pornography on them during a search of Marsh 3’s offices on the 12th floor of Chase Tower, according to police reports.

“Anybody who went into that police property room and looked at the evidence would be disgusted at Stanley Marsh’s behavior,” Dolcefino said. “I call on the mayor and the City Council to immediately take action so that these images are taken out of public view so the victims don’t need to look at them.”

Kelly Utsinger, a lawyer at Underwood Law Firm and a representative for Wendy Marsh and the Marsh estate, did not respond to three phone calls and an email seeking comment for this story. Additionally, Bill Kelly, attorney for Marsh IV, declined to comment on the sign issue.

Those who support the signs said they make Amarillo unique and point to examples such as the “No two signs are the same” pair near the corner of Southwest Seventh Avenue and South Virginia Street, or one with a poem from 18th century pastoral poet Oliver Goldsmith that claims it’s from the 20th century near the corner of Center Avenue and South Maryland Street.

Friends and colleagues said Marsh 3 never revealed the exact number of signs placed through the city, but Cher Krause Night, an author who studied the signs for a book titled “Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism,” estimates the number at 5,000.

Marsh 3 never clearly stated his reasons for creating the signs.

“It is intentionally ambiguous to make you wonder, create and discuss art,” said Jon Revett, who helped design and install the signs and is now an assistant professor of painting and drawing at West Texas A&M; University. “We would tell people a variety of reasons that we did it.”

Revett and others were members of the Dynamite Museum, an Amarillo art collective of which Marsh 3 was a member and patron. Revett painted and placed many of the signs.

The signs spur discussions of the relationship between the artist and the public, an artistic concept called relational aesthetics, he said. He disapproves of removing the signs.

“It’s kind of insulting to me because it was a group of artists that did the signs,” Revett said. “People from out of town see the signs as very interesting, and it makes Amarillo a little more fun.”

In a 2010 interview, Marsh 3 discussed the dual interpretations of the signs.

“The signs always come as a surprise to you. It’s like an Easter egg hunt,” Marsh 3 said. “And no two people are going to see the same sign the same way.”

Revett’s colleague, WT assistant art history professor Amy Von Lintel, said the signs can be considered conceptual art or anti-elite art.

“I think they’re all this kind of ironic approach to art,” she said. “Marsh’s infiltration of art in the urban space in Amarillo was an innovative idea, subverting the traditional and authoritarian nature of the gallery. In the gallery, the art is on sale, it’s a materialist item people buy and sell. The signs weren’t that. They were something else.”

Von Lintel teaches beginning-level art students about Marsh 3’s art projects. She said that, like many famous artists, Marsh 3 was deeply flawed. For example, the Italian painter Michelangelo da Caravaggio killed a romantic rival in a failed castration attempt, and French painter Paul Gauguin took three underage Tahitian brides, abused them and infected them with syphilis, she said..

“Do I think Gauguin’s art should be thrown out of the canon? No,” Von Lintel said. “It’s a profound ethical question. Censorship to me is really destructive. This is in the public sphere now and it’s bigger than Marsh.”

A study of the public perception of these signs was undertaken in 2004 by former city of Amarillo planner Jennifer Evans-Cowley, who is now vice provost for capital planning and regional campuses at Ohio State University, and colleague Jack Nasar, professor emeritus in the city and regional planning department at OSU. Their study, “Amarillo Yard Art,” was published in 2004 in the Journal of the American Planning Association. It identified 2,311 signs and included interviews with more than 1,000 residents.

“There was a distinctive difference with people who had the signs and their neighbors,” Evans-Cowley said. “People said that the signs helped echo themselves. But some parents didn’t want their children reading the signs because they didn’t want to explain what they meant or others said they were traffic safety hazards.”

Evans-Cowley said she found the most signs in lower-income and Hispanic neighborhoods.

“In San Jacinto, there are hundreds. It probably has the densest number of signs,” Williams said. “We gave them to the poor for free. It wasn’t about class, but you don’t see them in the rich neighborhoods.”

Most people enjoy the signs on their property, Evans-Cowley said.

Stacey Hamlin has a sign that says “Whatever Floats Your Boat” at her home on South Alabama Street and Southwest Eighth Avenue.

“I’ve been saying that phrase since junior high,” Hamlin said. “I jumped up for joy when I heard that I was getting a Marsh sign.”

What’s next?

The “Erase the Marsh Madness” group is calling on the mayor and city councilmen to ban the signs, but did not specify a path to that end.

“You could put some restrictions as far as size and location and that might be possible. We do have restrictions for all signs, but not those specific signs,” said Kelly Shaw, planning director for the city of Amarillo.

Shaw said the city has historically not had any form-based codes, which regulate the physical form or image of buildings and property.

“As far as sign regulations go, you try to make sure as best you can that your ordinances are content-neutral or you get into free speech issues,” Shaw said.

On South Prospect Street and Southwest Third Avenue, there is a sign with the full text of the First Amendment.

“I personally think (the signs) are horrible, but it’s a private property issue,” said Mayor Paul Harpole. “As mayor, I am concerned about the legalities of any action we take and my personal feelings stay out of it. We have sworn to uphold the city charter and the Constitution, and that’s what we do.”

Shaw did say that many neighborhoods have deed restrictions, which regulate the look of an area.

The city currently views the signs as noncommercial signs and does not regulate them as long as they are on private property, according to municipal code.

Evans-Cowley, the former Amarillo planner who now teaches at Ohio State, said there are a number of approaches that could be taken to regulate them, if that’s desired. The city could regulate the size, or control where the signs could be put, relegating them to the backyard, not the front.

“In some counties, you can paint your house whatever color you want to and in other places they may put in tighter regulations,” she said.

“(M)y argument is: forget who paid for it. It was a group of artists that did the work, much like the artists that did the Cadillac Ranch. Do the signs have artistic value in the community?”

Many involved in the Amarillo art scene agree the first diamond-shaped art sign in Amarillo was the “Road Does Not End” sign Stanley Marsh 3 put up in his front yard sometime around 1992 after seeing a sign that said “Road Ends 300 Feet.”

After this, another sign saying “Marilyn” appeared in a yard on Monroe Street, and then one with a blue dot on it was planted.

Dynamite Museum members said after a few more signs were placed, people started calling them for signs in their yards. Residents could choose from a list of signs and phrases. City officials were not aware of the signs until they had spread, Dynamite Museum members said. The city discussed them and decided they were not going to restrict them, according to Kelly Shaw, city planning director.

Marsh 3, who died last year at age 76, said money never changed hands for the signs and he financed the entire project. There were no contracts that outlined how long the signs must stay posted in the resident’s yard.

Dynamite Museum members said they designed the signs, which were then painted and installed by Courtesy Signs and Renco Sign Co.

The project lasted eight years, and Marsh 3 ended it in 2000.

Matthew Williams, assistant art instructor at West Texas A&M; University and a former Dynamite Museum member, has catalogued more than 1,500 signs and has identified the artists behind most of them. More than 100 artists worked on the signs, he said.

The project is likely the largest public art project carried out in the U.S., Williams said. He estimated there are about 3,000 signs. He said each sign cost between $800 and $1,200, which means the entire project would have cost anywhere from $2.4 million to $3.6 million.

“The project was made to give people a sense of excitement and adventure when you go out on your everyday activities,” Williams said.

Marsh 3 created a sign that says “The milk train doesn’t stop here anymore,” among others, Williams said.

Williams is now working on registering and authenticating all the signs, and will issue a certificate of authenticity to residents who contact him by email at mdwilliams@wtamu.edu or by phone at 806-420-0148.

Williams said the property owners own the signs, not the Marsh estate.

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Information from: Amarillo Globe-News, http://www.amarillo.com

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