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Man Behind Michelle Obama Mural Flap Says He'll Pay Artist For Her Work

By  Andrea V. Watson and Sam Cholke | April 26, 2017 8:55am 

 Gelila Mesfin (top inset) created an image of Michelle Obama that Chris Devins (bottom inset) used to create this mural on a South Side building.
Gelila Mesfin (top inset) created an image of Michelle Obama that Chris Devins (bottom inset) used to create this mural on a South Side building.
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SOUTH SHORE — An artist and urban planner who used another artist's image to create a mural of Michelle Obama says he spent all the $12,000 he raised online on the project — and donors are now regretting forking over cash to help him. 

Chris Devins, who used a digital image created by Ethiopian-born Gelila Mesfin without crediting her for the mural, said he's prepared to give Mesfin some sort of licensing fee for her work. 

“On Getty images, $175 is the cost to license a basic image, $500 for an exceptional one,” said Devins, of Hyde Park, who put up the artwork of Michelle Obama on the southeast corner of 74th Street and Chappel Avenue in South Shore, across from Bouchet International elementary, which Obama attended when it was known as Bryn Mawr School.

He's prepared to make a contribution to a GoFundMe account — set up by a Boston woman upset that she had given money to Devins — to support Mesfin. He said he is waiting to hear from her attorney to find out the final figure.

Devins said Monday that Mesfin “has no legal grounds to stand on for copyright infringement.”

“Her work is itself considered a derivative work of the original photographer,” he said. “She herself appropriated [photographer Collier Schorr's] image and ‘digitally painted’ over it. You can’t appropriate a bike then sue someone for riding it.”

Neither Mesfin — who credited Schorr for the photograph — nor her attorney responded to requests for comment. 

Meanwhile, Devins said he believes a dedication ceremony in conjunction with the school is unlikely at this point.

"Under the negative circumstances of all the 'stealing,' appropriation, credit-giving ... I don't think the principal of the school is interested in embroiling her school in the scandal with a dedication," he said. "The coverage has ruined it for the kids. They lose out as usual."

Reached Thursday, Bouchet Principal Shontae Higginbottom said the school had nothing to do with the mural or planned events for it.

"The school is not involved in that," she said. 

Devins' original GoFundMe was set up to place the mural on the school.  It originally appeared to resemble a large black and white photo of Obama.

At the time, he thought the cost of the project would hit $15,000, since the original mural would have been larger, he said. But with the smaller image, 10-by-12 feet, it cost less — about $10,500, he said. 

The additional money raised covered GoFundMe's fees, he said. 

A GoFundMe spokesperson said Tuesday that "the campaign organizer confirmed that funds raised were used for paint and supplies."

Devins said he plans to go ahead with sending out the items he promised in return for donating to his campaign. Those included, for a donation of $25 to $99, "a signed postcard of the final mural."  A donation of $100 or more "will get you an 11 x 14 signed and numbered limited edition print of the final mural," the campaign said.

But the largest donor to that campaign, Dan Scott, who gave $5,000, said he was dismayed to learn of the controversy.

“I’m disappointed,” said Scott, an attorney at the Chicago firm of Chepov & Scott. “I certainly didn’t intend to donate to a fund which I thought was a very good cause and have it backfire like that."

He added: “A little tiny mural on the South Side becomes a national story because he’s stealing a design. OK, cool, great, awesome. Never going to do that again.”

Indeed, news of the mural got worldwide attention, including that of Boston resident Lindsey Ward, 32. She had donated to Devins’ fund on Friday, but said once she learned that it wasn’t his creation, she asked for a refund.

Ward then launched a new GoFundMe page with a goal of $10,000 for Mesfin. She said she had been in email communication with Mesfin and that only Mesfin will be able to access the funds.

“When I found out it was work he had actually just plagiarized, I was upset because I had just given money to his fund,” Ward said. “I was really worked up on Friday because I saw the piece and kind of connected with it. I thought it was gorgeous, and I wanted to support it.”

“When I saw that it was this woman, this young black woman from Ethiopia, it just made so much more sense. Like I connected with her a little bit and not this guy Chris Devins. ... I felt really pissed off. There was no connection to him. It made a lot of sense that he didn’t do it.”