More than 1,300 people have signed a petition launched Oct. 10 by Aja Adams, a Washington, D.C. artist who identifies as LGBTQIA, is seeking credit and compensation for a mural design she claims was stolen by artist Lisa Thalhammer.
The conflict began in 2016 when Adams said she was approached by Thalhammer to collaborate on a grant application for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The grant involved the opportunity to paint a mural on the Open Arms Housing building, a shelter for homeless women, as well as a monetary award of $50,000.
Located at 57 O Street NW, Thalhammer’s “She Persists!” mural depicts an African-American woman with outstretched hands on a rainbow-colored backdrop. Adams said the winning design submitted by Thalhammer is a manipulated version of Adams’ original mural sketch.
Thalhammer claimed sole authorship after winning the grant, listing Adams and her partner Michelle Stearn as members of the personnel team rather than collaborators on the grant application.
By Adams’ account, when she refused the $10,000 Thalhammer offered in exchange for her work on the mural and dropped the project, Thalhammer agreed to design the mural.
However, according to Adams, the work Thalhammer submitted to the DCCAH closely resembled the original sketch Adams claims she drew in 2016, not the new redesign she had been expecting.
Thalhammer denies Adams sketched the original design.
“Along with the women from Open Arms and others from the community, I brainstormed with Aja about ideas for the artwork, but the fact is that I created and sketched the original concept drawing for my Open Arms mural application,” Thalhammer wrote in a statement to The Hoya.
Adams said she did not receive monetary compensation from Thalhammer for her alleged role in the design. She said she had been blocked by Thalhammer on all forms of communication and was unable to reach out to receive compensation.
However, Thalhammer said she made several offers to speak over Skype and was always turned down by Adams and Stearn.
Since her original posting, Adams has received a widespread online response, with over two hundred shares. Adams said this response has encouraged her to keep fighting for her cause on her Facebook page.
Adams brought up her concerns of copyright infringement in an email to Arthur J. Espinoza, the executive director of the DCCAH. The commission replied by asking Adams to prove her status as co-collaborator of the design. Adams was unable to do so, as Thalhammer had registered the design under her name with the U.S. Copyright Office in August.
The DCCAH will continue to stay out of the dispute, according to DCCAH Chief of External Affairs Jeffrey Scott.
“We take copyright matters very seriously and after an initial review, we determined that this is a contractual disagreement between the two parties,” Scott wrote in an email to The Hoya. “CAH has no plans to take any further action at this time.”
Unable to garner support from the commission after a yearlong conflict, Adams turned to social media last week, posting her story on Facebook and starting a petition on Change.org, a website that facilitates online petitions.
“We ask for your signature so that Aja can receive payment and credit for designing the mural, so that grantor DCCAH and grantee Lisa Marie Thalhammer can be held accountable for exploiting this community of women of color, and ultimately so that we can keep fighting for the creative dignity of all artists,” the petition reads.
In response to people who support Adams, Thalhammer acknowledged the element of race involved in the accusations she is facing.
“And to all the petition signers and critics, I hear your frustration as it involves the color of our skin and inequities that are systemically associated to that. We all, every single one of us, need to take a step back, look in the mirror, and work towards healing ourselves and healing the histories of our lineages. Let’s try to truly become the change we want to see in the world by ending our quick judgements of others,” Thalhammer wrote in a statement to The Hoya.