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Fluorescent Fence Offensive

Neighborhood feud goes public in Bay.

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When Mary Kay Bernardi decided to paint fluorescent hearts and other shapes on her fence, it was a rather bold move for fashionable Bay Village, where the West Side elite prefer their public art a bit more subdued. Bernardi calls her work "Pennsylvania Dutch." Her neighbors, Ron and Carol Salim, call it "graffiti."

The city sued, arguing the art violated village code requiring "aesthetically attractive" fences. Bernardi prevailed. Undeterred, the city pounced again two weeks ago, banning paintings from appearing on fences that face neighbors. Yet Bay Village Law Director Gary Ebert still seems defeated. "It's difficult," he says. "A lot of times when you try to resolve differences, and it's between two particular neighbors, normally the dispute will still exist."

And so it has. In another era, Bernardi might have been called a feisty broad. Her words are purposeful and matter-of-fact. She's proud of her art, and she "could care less" what her neighbors think. Besides, "Picasso, when he started out, I'm sure a lot of people said 'whoa, throw this stuff out.'"

The Picasso analogy might be a stretch. Even her attorney, John Cartellone, politely describes his client's work as "different." But in the world of modern art -- where leftover garage sale items can be welded together and called an "installation," and where Cleveland's most prominent public work is a giant rubber stamp -- who's to say what's aesthetically pleasing? "One guy thinks it's art," says Cartellone, "another guy thinks it's junk."

Count Ron Salim among the latter. He alternately calls Bernardi's work "gaudy," a "monstrosity," and "the nightmare on West Oakland," adding, "It was basically just an act to piss us off."

The two neighbors have battled over more than creative sensibilities. Their four-year feud began in '96 when Salim landscaped his lot. Bernardi claimed her yard was damaged in the process. Last February, a jury awarded her $4,500 in damages. Then came the work in florescence.

Salim's careful when describing Bernardi, fearing he'll be sued for defamation. He concedes that the new city ordinance won't bring the art down, since Bernardi will likely be grandfathered in. But the fence, he says, is on his property, and he will sue to have it torn down. After all, litigation is an art form in its own right.

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