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Laying Down the Lawless


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To the editors:

I would like to make a few observations regarding the recent article [Calendar, January 8] about my sculpture Green Lightning and written by Michael Ervin.

When the venerable New York Times took my quote in which I described the neon elements as "burlesquing the myth of male dominance" and instead printed "he prefers to describe them as . . . symbols of male dominance" it became clear that dealing with journalists was going to be one long, rocky road. It has been. Out of over 90 articles published throughout this country and overseas, two have been accurate. Sorry Mikey, you didn't make it. This is the sorry state of contemporary journalism.

Mr. Ervin in his article left out the most important element of the Buffalo controversy. He did this in a small swirl of confusing facts. Walt's Tree Service did not show up during the first confrontation at the site of the sculpture when I climbed on top to prevent its destruction. Walt's showed up several days later under the cover of darkness and after, as city officials were well aware, all judges had left their chambers. This was during the agreement that I had with city officials that if the sculpture were to remain off, they (the city) would not dismantle it. Sure enough, in the four hours it took my attorneys to get a temporary restraining order, the sculpture was almost entirely destroyed. In the area of $100,000 worth of damage was done to the piece in what was later described by the New York State Supreme Court as actions "abhorrent to the (court's) understanding of the laws of the community."

To win this case in the New York State Supreme Court I had to pay attorneys' fees approaching $20,000. This eventually required the liquidation of my home and studio, personal relationships were lost, I lost my job as a rowing coach at a local high school, and I was repeatedly subjected to death threats. I left Buffalo because it became impossible to live and work there. I now live in Cleveland after giving strong consideration to Chicago. Both cities have in common a warm, generous, and supportive populace.

In the meantime, the mayor of Buffalo, even though being chastised by the New York Supreme Court, has and will do anything to delay that great judgment day when sooner or later the damages to my sculpture and reputation will have to be paid. He no longer uses city attorneys and is using taxpayers' dollars to hire the best that he can in order to avoid further embarrassment.

As for the controversy over the neon imagery used in the piece, Mr. Ervin gives a poignant example of how people see and do not see. In describing the images which are painted on the backs of each of the four boxes set upon the main structure, Mr. Ervin states about one that it is "a black man on his knees praying to a television." Hardly to my eyes. What I see is a man in an old-fashioned bathing suit with green skin, on his knees, within the picture tube of a television. After two days of the controversy in Buffalo the chairman of the Buffalo Arts Commission and David More's superior said, "I don't see what other people are seeing. What are they upset about?"

What happened to me in Buffalo happens all the time. It's called censorship. The framers of our Constitution thought it important enough to make it the First Amendment.

Anyways, I know it's the 80s, come on, Billie. As a woman journalist said to me recently in Boston, "I anesthetized myself to all that years ago. I just don't think about it."

Me. Three years later and trying to start up all over again, I see that it's art for yuppies. Fancy ornamentation for Saabs and BMWs, video draperies for the home, laser clocks for the ceiling, and hologram pets for the children. Anything. As long as I don't have to think. Amen.

Billie Lawless

Cleveland, Ohio

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