Signs of a struggle at Inkwell

Island artist petitions to put up beach signs.

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In this file photo, photographer Michael Johnson stands next to one of the signs he created and installed, at Inkwell Beach. — Stacey Rupolo

Last year, in what he says was an innocent act of civil disobedience, Island artist Michael Johnson put up signs at the Inkwell Beach, officially named “Town Beach,” in Oak Bluffs. The signs pay homage to the rich, storied history of the beach and its cultural treasure, the Oak Bluffs Polar Bears.

The Polar Bears are a community group of predominantly African American women who hold early morning prayer and swimming sessions. One of Johnson’s signs features a photograph he took of the Polar Bears mid-session titled “Joy.”

After the signs went up, Caroline Hunter, a 30-year Polar Bear and leader of the group, joined Johnson and other Polar Bears in going before the town parks and recreation department. Johnson and the parks department came to agreement that Johnson would maintain and put the signs up, but take them down between Halloween and Memorial Day.

“We took them down for the winter so they were not damaged and stolen,” Nicole Morey, office administrator for the town highway, shellfish, and parks and recreation department, said.

Once the signs came down, however, Johnson was notified he would need to get approval from the Oak Bluffs sign approval committee and the Oak Bluffs board of selectmen.

Determined to get his signs back up, Johnson has begun an online petition asking the community to sign their names and share their voices of support. He plans to bring the petition before the town selectmen at their anticipated June 12 open meeting. Selectmen are still putting the agenda together, but town administrator Bob Whritenour told the Times he is “fairly certain” Johnson’s signs will make it onto the agenda.

“Though I have respect for procedure and protocol, maybe in the beginning I went into this with a certain amount of artist’s idealism, believing that this art donation to the community would be so appreciated that procedure and protocol might bow a little to art and beauty. There is still a chance that my idealism will bear fruit,” Johnson said.

Johnson said there has been some opposition to the signs, due to the Inkwell name, which is said to have its roots in racism, but Johnson hopes people see his view of the signs and support his cause.

“I believe it’s important that it’s really a sign that evokes positivity and shows Oak Bluffs in the best positive light, as a place that has been more accepting and diverse,” Johnson said. “The name now has been reclaimed. It’s a positive. It’s a place of inclusion, not exclusion. Even with those connotations, it holds the history. I believe it’s better to face your history than try and cover it up. There’s no way you can atone for the past unless you look directly at it.”

Anyone interested in singing Johnson’s petition can visit bit.ly/Inkwellpetition.