When a canal piping project completed last year left a concrete retaining wall near Brookswood Boulevard, parents and administrators at two southwest Bend elementary schools saw a blank canvas crying out for student art.

But instead of artwork, their students got a civics lesson that might lead to citywide changes for murals.

Pine Ridge Elementary School, which has an art teacher position paid for through PTA fundraising, and Elk Meadow Elementary School, which focuses on learning through art, planned to collaborate on the mural. About 200 fifth-grade students from the two schools designed the mural this year, starting small and scaling up their eclectic aquatic-themed drafts until they filled a space as large as the retaining wall.

“We had trout swimming in the river that happened to be next to the Titanic, that happened to be next to mermaids and sea turtles,” said Ned Myers, assistant principal at Pine Ridge Elementary School.

The schools had support from the Central Oregon Irrigation District, which owns the wall, as well as from the Bend Park & Recreation District and the two neighborhood associations in the area.

But the schools ran into a problem: In Bend, murals are allowed only in the Makers District, a small area along First and Second streets between Greenwood and Olney avenues. The retaining wall in southwest Bend isn’t included, and students couldn’t legally paint their mural on it.

Now, the city of Bend is looking at expanding its mural code, clearing the way for artistic displays throughout the city. Bend’s planning commission will discuss murals April 22, and a new code could be on the books by this summer.

That will be too late for this year’s class of fifth graders, Myers said, but they’ve been learning how local government works through the school’s discussions with the city.

“We know that we’re going to get a mural on that wall,” Myers said.

Bend has permitted murals in the Makers District since late 2016, and artists who want to paint them have to follow a few rules. The murals must be on a building or retaining wall; artists have to have an agreement with the property owner; they need to obtain a city permit, and the art must stay up and maintained for a five-year minimum.

During the three years that the code has been in effect, only two or three permits have been issued, Bend Senior Planner Pauline Hardie said.

Some unpermitted murals, including ones painted after the city passed its 2016 code, exist outside of the Makers District.

Outside of the Makers District, building owners can paint wall signs that could resemble minimurals on their buildings. They have to follow city codes that limit the placement of signs and total area that signs take up.

Earlier this month, the Bend City Council decided to send the mural code to the city’s planning commission to review the idea of allowing murals throughout the city, despite concerns from Councilors Bill Moseley and Justin Livingston about whether it could result in depictions of cigarettes, alcohol, illicit drugs, nudity or sexual acts.

Other cities in Oregon, including Portland, allow murals and haven’t seen issues, City Councilor Barb Campbell said.

“There are not any obscene murals in the state,” she said. “That for me makes me think that the invisible hand of the market takes care of this by requiring the business owners themselves to permit this thing.”

The schools asking for the code change aren’t going to paint anything questionable, Myers said.

“We’re fifth graders at an elementary school,” he said. “We’re going to stick with fish and trees.”

While most on the council said murals almost certainly won’t be used for lewd displays, Moseley said he wasn’t sure.

“We have naked bike rides in the community now that we can’t regulate,” Moseley said. “We say it’s not going to happen, but it always makes me a little cautious about what’s going to happen.”

If cities allow murals or other public art, they can’t regulate the content that appears on them, said Gary Firestone, a former Bend city attorney who’s returned temporarily to work for the city. Oregon law doesn’t differentiate between commercial and individual speech the way other states do, so Oregon cities can’t limit ads the way municipalities in other states can.

Cities, including Portland, have city-run programs that allow artists to apply for funding to create murals. In Portland, artists can receive up to $5,000 in the form of a city grant.

Because the city decides whether to pay for the art, rather than whether to allow it, those types of programs can be a way around the state’s prohibition on regulating content, City Attorney Mary Winters said. Free expression means people have the right to paint what they want, but it doesn’t mean they’re entitled to public funding to create that art.

Council direction for the planning commission includes permitting murals only on concrete walls or surfaces, to avoid them being painted on surfaces like the backyard cargo containers that have been described as nuisances in some neighborhoods. The commission will consider a five-year sunset on the code to ensure the council looks at it again.

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, jshumway@bendbulletin.com