Daniel Rubin: Mural feels the heat

Ann Northrup with her Center City work, "Taste of Summer"; the Polenta Man, depicting Marc Vetri, is over her shoulder. Would a real estate developer fit into the picture?
Ann Northrup with her Center City work, "Taste of Summer"; the Polenta Man, depicting Marc Vetri, is over her shoulder. Would a real estate developer fit into the picture?

"Some tension" between landlord and star chef.

Posted: May 14, 2009

When Ann Northrup won the commission to paint a mural on 1312 Spruce St., which has been home to some of the city's most celebrated restaurants, naturally she pictured food.

What she didn't picture was a food fight.

The classically trained artist finds herself in the middle of a nasty dispute over her larger-than-life image of chef Marc Vetri, which has come to be known as the Polenta Man.

It's a nice likeness of the soft-spoken luminary chef, whose Vetri Ristorante has racked up national laurels at that location since 1998. He's shown hauling a copper pot of boiled cornmeal from the fields.

Polenta Man is an endangered species. The problem, says Northrup, is that when she added him to her Tuscan landscape, she didn't realize there was "some tension," as she puts it, between the chef and his landlord, Michael Yelson, who talks of owning "a star of a property."

The tension goes back a bit, to when Yelson's father-in-law was alive and owned the building. Lawrence Levin, Vetri says, would ask him, "Why'd you put your name on the business?"

The naming-rights contest has continued, most recently when Vetri paid to renovate the entrance to the building in stone and deep blues, then bristled when his landlord slapped a Yelson Group sign at eye level.

"Someone slips and falls," Michael Yelson said, "they know who to call."

Art or commerce?

Yelson was in Florida tending to his other business last month when he learned that Philadelphia magazine had, as he put it, "written about my building." Yelson pitches his spray wax for cars on QVC, a product known as Final Detail - "the biggest seller for the past 10 years," says the tanned bantam, whose yellow-accented specs highlight the blond in his feathered hair.

Yelson conferred with his wife about Vetri's image and concluded, "I think it's a very lame attempt for him to advertise his restaurant."

So the official letters started. Yelson suggested in an April 28 missive that Vetri take out a $5,000-a-month billboard on Broad Street.

Another solution Yelson proposed was to make "some sort of monetary compensation" to his real estate corporation to keep the Polenta Man on the wall.

This stirred Barbara Vetri into the mix. She's the chef's mother, who is a lawyer. "Every time she does something, it costs me money," Yelson grouses.

Barbara Vetri seized on the "monetary compensation" line. "Finally your true motives for objecting to the Mural have been revealed . . .," she wrote May 4. "The greed is so fundamentally revolting."

Tweaking the image

This leaves an unwelcome problem for the Mural Arts Program, which raised $30,000 for the piece. Its contracts require landlords to approve designs on their buildings.

When Northrup showed the sketch to Yelson, he liked her portrait of a Tuscan landscape, she said, but called it a bit conventional. She pointed out little quirks - a reveler sleeping one off, a couple arguing, four people in trees. Then she added what she felt was more quirk, including the Polenta Man, which she says represents all the restaurateurs who have toiled in the building, which housed Le Bec-Fin, Ciboulette, and Chanterelles.

Yelson did not find the image of Vetri quirky. Yelson groused, "It's all about him."

So the Mural Arts Program can paint over the image or broker a compromise. Instead of scrubbing Vetri, which Northrup says "would make me sad," she'd like to add people.

Yelson has talked to her about painting his image into the scene. "I'm not on an ego trip," he says. "Just put me in a suit as a developer holding a lease."

As unappetizing as that sounds to me, Northrup is game, if it will save the Polenta Man. "It's totally possible. I'd be delighted to do that. I have no problem with leases."

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.

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