The iconic mural on the front of The Potter's House in Adam's Morgan may not be around for much longer.
The decision to scrap a D.C. mural is causing some controversy.
Karla Rodas-Israel, or "Karlisima," painted "The Light of the World" in 2010 on the exterior wall of The Potter's House—a cafe, bookstore and event space in Adams Morgan. Founded in 1960 by The Church of the Saviour, the venue is currently closed for renovations, but passersby can still see the mural featuring a purple candle emanating colorful beams of light.
Last winter, the renovation project team announced its plan to remove the artwork, saying it's a "bold spiritual or religious symbol" that could deter potential customers from visiting the space.
Tim Kumfer is transition manager of The Potter's House. He says, "When you see a mural that has a candle that says 'Light of the World' that's directly above a building that's known to be owned by a church, it's fair to say that there could be one particular religious interpretation of that mural that would be pretty prominent."
He says The Potter House, which voted in early 2013 to transfer ownership to Eighth Day Faith Community, is trying to develop a new image as both a quality coffeehouse and a spot where people can come together to work on social-justice projects.
Kumfer says the decision to revamp The Potter's House in part comes down to cash flow. "We've been around for now 54 years and the past 10 have really been struggling with questions of financial sustainability, and even just attracting people to continue to be part of our community," he says. "Our numbers were kind of tapering off in terms of the people who either ate there or attended our community events."
In December 2013, when The Potter's House Project Team first made its decision public, he said, "We are focusing in particular on the theme of bringing diverse people and communities together for new encounters, building relationships and transformative experiences...With regards to the mural, we concluded that there was a greater possibility that it would hinder this goal than promote it."
Although Karlisima created the mural from a Christian perspective—her original design featured an abstract depiction of Jesus Christ—she says there's nothing inherently religious about candles.
"I feel that it's a symbol of hope," Karlisima says. "There's a symbol of light, and it really brings joy and happiness to the people and it's bringing art into the streets, you know, into the city."
Karlisima, who also painted the Presidential Mural on the side of Mama Ayesha's restaurant in Adams Morgan, is currently raising support to save "The Light of the World." In addition to building a social-media presence on Twitter and Facebook, she's also gathering signatures and hitting the pavement on Columbia Road NW, asking people what they think of the artwork.
She says she's spoken with roughly 300 people, the vast majority of whom support her efforts and don't feel the painting discourages people from entering.
"They tell me that it's the opposite," the artist says, "that they feel drawn in, that they are called or they are attracted to the colors and that the symbol of light is welcoming."
Kumfer says during the past two years, The Potter's House went through an extensive discernment process about what would come next.
"We really talked to people with a broad range of cultural backgrounds, racial identities, relationships to the neighborhood...and we heard a lot of things in terms of, there's a real diversity of perspectives on the aesthetics of the mural," he says, adding that people had widely different perceptions of what the mural's imagery meant.
"A lot of people really interpreted the mural primarily through a religious lens, so one of the things that we really want to be really intentional about is The Potter's House was founded by a church and continues to be connected to this community," Kumfer says. "But we've also, since our founding, really been an open, third place where people of all stripes, faiths or no faith, come to spend their time, hang out, have a good meal, make a new friend."
Karlisima doesn't buy it. "Everybody keeps telling me 'it's not a religious symbol. It's universal. The light is universal," she says. "I mean nobody can say it's a religious symbol. They say if you had a cross that would be religious. If you had a Star of David, that would be religious...But the candle?"
The mural was funded through the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities Art Building Communities (PABC) grant. Last week, Executive Director Lionell Thomas issued a statement of support for preserving the public artwork.
"Artistic expression and diversity makes our city great on a multitude of levels, and we support the preservation of this mural," Thomas says in the statement. "We ask for your fullest consideration to keeping the mural in place as a protection on artistic creativity and community vibrancy."
Karlisima says she's confident she'll succeed. "I feel that I already won this battle," she says. "I feel the mural is already saved, because...they cannot ignore the people's response and the people's feedback."
Kumfer says The Potter's House Project Team understands that there are going to be different opinions, but the group isn't going to change its plan. "There isn't ever going to be a unanimous perspective within the community, particularly a community as rich and diverse as Adams Morgan," he says. "So I think we've been really trying to weigh in on the range of perspectives we've heard on the mural, within the Adams Morgan community and also take that alongside these additional considerations we're trying to make."
Kumfer says when the coffee shop reopens, it will continue to support local artists by displaying their work in its gallery space, and by possibly allowing a new, more secular mural to grace its wall.