By Ted Waddell
MONTICELLO May 23, 2003 They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
But for someone at the Sullivan County Government Center, a painting with a strong anti-war message featuring a trio of winged little cherubs dropping a hand genrade on a couple of sleeping Iraqi babies by controversial artist Franciszek Kulon was a bit too much.
The cherub on the left is holding an American flag, the centermost cherub is holding the grenade pin, while the cherub on the right is clutching Jolly Roger, the skull and crossbones signature flag of pirates.
Rising toward the heavens are chunks of shattered, steel-reinforced concrete, while two dark-skinned babies sleep below, blissfully unaware of the events about to unfold. Minaretted buildings are portrayed at the edge of the work, a piece of art with a distinctive anti-war message.
County officials yanked the painting off the wall and stored it in James Lyttles office. Lyttle is director of the countys Office for the Aging, a department that provides general oversight for the senior artists program at the government center.
Although widely reported in other media as having personally taken down the painting, Sullivan County Manager Daniel Briggs was actually on vacation in Myrtle Beach, N.C. with his brother and an old high school chum at the time Kulons work was taken off the wall. (In fact, according to Briggs, they wound up staying at the same hotel as the county sheriff.)
So when the county manager returned to work on Monday, he got the word.
On Tuesday, in the wake of 10-12 complaints about the painting, he went down to Lyttles office to take a firsthand look.
Its inappropriate for this venue, said Briggs. This is not a gallery, its a showcase for the artwork of our senior citizens.
In 1983, Bob Pointer and his wife Sandee of Callicoon founded the Senior Citizens Art Program International (SCAPI).
Pointer worked with county officials to establish a program where local artists could display their works at the government center, thus transforming the otherwise stark concrete walls into a gallery.
Subsequent to Bob Pointers death in 1996, the gallery took on a more official tone, as the public space was renamed the Robert E. Pointer Art Gallery.
Briggs recalled walking the halls with Pointer, at times discussing the appropriateness of certain works. Over the years, a few works have reportedly been taken down or moved to less in-your-face locations, including a work featuring a Nazi swastika, nudes and bloody, dismembered bodies.
I agree that everyone has the right to express their opinion, said Briggs. I could care less what the message is, but it [Kulons painting] is inappropriate for this venue.
On Friday, everyone was all set to celebrate the 20th anniversary of SCAPI. But instead of plenty of speeches, America the Beautiful and homemade cookies, it was all about freedom of speech, First Amendment rights, and the return of the stripped painting.
As the celebration got underway, Sandee Pointer stunned the audience when she announced that she was stepping down as coordinator of the art program at the government center.
In a surprise move, Kulon put down his video camera and retrieved the banned painting from outside the building. Throughout the rest of the event, the work was the centerpiece of conversation until it was whisked away by the artist.
A petition, reportedly initiated by a group of folks in Mamakating, made the rounds, picking up scores of signatures to return the painting to its former spot.
The petition reads, County Manager Dan Briggs ordered the removal of a painting by Franciszek Kulon from the current art exhibit at the government center because it contains an anti-war message. We, the undersigned, are strongly opposed to this type of censorship and urge the Sullivan County Legislature to re-hang Kulons painting.
Nothing is wrong, said Kulon. What I did, I did in an objective way. . . . Every war has a lot of bad things.
There are a lot of forceful power struggles, he added. The country is full of Americans with guns.
Leni Binder, chair of the county legislature, was decked out in a patriotic scarf and buttons, ready to help celebrate the anniversary.
Instead, she found herself fielding brickbats from the artists and involved in a heated conversation with Pointer about freedom of artistic expression.
Hanging the art on the walls makes it [the government center] more interesting, said Binder. Before, it was like a prison going to DMV.
It gives the seniors a place to display their work in a public forum, [but] the reality is this is a public building, and everyone cant just come in and hang their pieces.
The minute you deal with art, youre going to get controversy, said Binder, in what was probably the understatement of the night. I would hate to see the whole art program dissipated because of a lawsuit. . . . Im afraid of throwing out the baby with the bath water.
Asked her personal opinion of the banned painting, Binder, a longtime activist, replied, I dont like anything that depicts the blowing up of babies.
Theres nothing wrong with that painting its beautiful, said a visibly fuming Pointer. If theres no freedom of art, what the hell have we got?
Early this week, word began to spread of a pending lawsuit filed against the county alleging abridgement of Kulons First Amendment rights.
According to last-minute information obtained from the Sullivan County Attorneys office, a preliminary hearing regarding the issue will happen before a federal judge in NYC tomorrow.
In a previous conversation with County Attorney Ira Cohen, he said that Kulons attorney, Steve Bergstein of Chester, has threatened a lawsuit . . . but it has not yet been filed.
I think Mr. Kulon wants to bring a lawsuit against the county just for the publicity, said Cohen. I feel the matter can be resolved without litigation.
According to Cohen, the impending lawsuit would be filed under Federal Section 1983, claiming that we violated his First Amendment right of expression.
The pending legal action also includes unspecified compensatory and punitive damages against Briggs for his malicious and reckless violation of Kulons Constitutional rights.
In papers reportedly filed in the U.S. Southern District Court, Kulon seeks a permanent injunction from removing artwork from the gallery because of content and viewpoint, except in cases of defamation and/or obscenity.
Cohen said the painting was down for about a week, and then the artist picked it up and took it home.
Nobody asked him to take it, said Cohen.
He said the painting was taken down by an unidentified Sullivan County Department of Public Works (DPW) employee.
Bergstein did not return numerous phone calls from the Sullivan County Democrat.
On Thursday morning, Pointer made good on her promise of removing more than 100 paintings and other works of art acquired by Pointer and her late husband to feed some starving artists.
Taking a break from removing the artwork, Pointer paused to say that yanking Kulons painting days before the anniversary celebration was the last straw.
She was still sore about losing my closet and desk while on vacations over the last three years, adding that this was the straw that broke the camels back, and Im taking my artwork out of here.
Nobody knows me anymore, she said plaintively, looking back at empty spaces on the government center walls.