On June 5th, 2015 my exhibit at the Tonasket Public Library in Tonasket, WA was censored and three pieces were removed from exhibit without my permission. Below is a letter/statement responding to this along with images of the offending works along with commentary/explaination of them. I'm hoping that this story gets out can somehow it will further the cause of artistic freedom.
June 7th, 2015
Tonasket City Hall, The Tonasket Public Library, Library Board, Tonasket Visitor and Business Resource Center (TVBRC), and all other concerned parties.
On June 4th 2015, I was told by the City Clerk Alice Attwood that three of my pieces needed to be removed from where they were being displayed at the Tonasket Public Library as part of the Tonasket Art Walk. Upon visiting the Tonasket Library, I saw that the view of the pieces in question was being obstructed by three or four large posters. I was told by Alice that her and the Librarian were concerned about “the children”. -That my art might “frighten” them and that the work was “inappropriate”. I reluctantly capitulated and told her that I would remove the pieces the next day, but not without asking the simple question: “What if someone found a book in the library that they thought was 'inappropriate' for children? Would it be alright to remove that book from the library?” -I felt that this was a perfectly reasonable question which she seemed to agree with. I also told her that I felt that this was a matter of artistic and intellectual freedom and that requiring me to remove the pieces could be viewed as censorship.
Even after reluctantly agreeing to remove the offending pieces; I was called later in the afternoon by Linda Black of the TVRBC. She proceeded to inform me that she was “very disappointed” that I put these works on display and that it was “completely inappropriate” for me to do so. She essentially talked to me like I was a child that had stepped out of line. She also informed me that as the art walk was connected to the TVBRC (a fact which I was not even aware of until that very day), that I had somehow damaged or put at risk the reputation of that organization; and that it was inappropriate of me to “challenge the city”. She then informed me that I was “kicked off” of the Tonasket Art Walk, which I assumed meant that I was required to remove all of my work from the library as soon as possible. I was at no point prior to putting up my art informed of any official standards that my work should be expected to conform to in order to be considered “acceptable” for display. Nor was I made aware of any conditions or stipulations that I was required to abide by in regards to what I could or could not put on display on the walls of the Public library.
On Friday, June 5th, I went into the Tonasket Library around 1:45pm to remove the three pieces in question. Upon my arrival, I saw that not only were those pieces removed, but three pieces from a different artist whose work was in total contrast to my own were put in their place. I was informed by Alice that Linda Black had taken my pieces and put them in her office at the TVBRC. In short, a few people who gave me no stipulations as to what I could or could not display decided to censor my work, take it off the wall without my permission to another location, essentially absconding with my work; and then attempt to conceal what they had done by putting other art in it’s place. What’s more, they did so with complete disrespect towards both me and my work. In addition to this, I feel that all parties involved, especially Alice Atwood completely overstepped their bounds both legally and professionally in order to do this. At what point was the title of “Art Curator” incorporated into the job of a City Clerk? By what authority does she have the right to remove art from the walls of a City institution and is it part of her job description to do so?
Furthermore, who gave Linda Black the power, the authority or the right to walk in and abscond with art from the walls of a City institution? Never in my time as an artist have I felt more disrespected or been so insulted.
Though I do agree that the pieces in question were a bit darker, edgier and somewhat more controversial than other works which I have posted in the same venue; I never anticipated such a profoundly negative reaction. I felt incredibly bothered and insulted by the censorship of my work. And yes, what happened to my work is censorship. Merriam-Webster’s defines censor (verb) as “to examine books, movies, letters, etc., in order to remove things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society, etc.” Wikipedia defines censorship as “the suppression of speech, public communication or other information which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities or other groups or institutions.” I submit that the deliberate obscuring and/or removal of my art from the Tonasket Public Library conforms to this criteria.
To see my work, which I have spent many hours laboring over simply covered over, like it was some dirty little secret that needed to be hidden from view was both offensive and disheartening. And then to have it basically stolen off the wall and taken away was almost more than I could handle. Having lived here for nearly ten years, I was under the impression that Tonasket was a tolerant and open-minded place that appreciated new art and new ideas, even if they were controversial. Evidently I was wrong; or perhaps it is simply that certain individuals working for the City of Tonasket feels that they have the right to judge what people (and their children) should or should not see in their own institutions. At what point were our public servants given this type of authority? It is my opinion that this kind of censorship and this flagrant abuse of institutional power for the purpose of deciding what people should or should not see is more consistent with the type of attitude found in Nazi Germany than here in the United States.
I have spent more than a month preparing for this exhibit and have put forth considerable effort into new and interesting works. I have turned down the opportunity for other showings in other venues (more profitable venues) in order to display my work at the Tonasket Library and be part of the Tonasket Art Walk. I have also spent the last few years attempting to establish myself as an artist in Okanogan County and have received a lot of support and encouragement from the community. Furthermore, the last time I displayed at the Public Library, it resulted in the sale of two pieces which generated several hundreds of dollars. For this exhibit, I significantly raised my prices with the idea that the sale of even one of my pieces would be profitable. Though I feel I have every right bring terms such as “lost revenue” into this conversation, I'm not going to cheapen my stance by doing so.
Yes, one of my works depicts a likeness of female genitalia and many people think that children shouldn't be exposed to such a thing. But the fact is that children are exposed to such things and far worse every day via television, video games and the internet. The visual imagery that I hung on the walls of the Library might be seen as frightening or disturbing. But do we not live in a world that is both frightening and disturbing? We live in a country in which various parts of the female anatomy are used as advertising gimmicks and flaunted to sell everything from beer to beauty products and yet, a work of art depicting the very same things is deemed “inappropriate”. Any child with a modicum of intelligence can get past parental controls put in place on their computer and have access to sexual imagery. Any child who has access to prime time television or a gaming console has access to violent and disturbing imagery. -Why then is my art being targeted?
I ask the question again: Are there not certain books within the library which certain people might find much more disturbing or offensive than anything I could post on its walls? If a member of the public, Library staff or the City were made aware of a book that contained images that some people deemed offensive or disturbing; would they remove such a book?
Would it be right for them to do so? How can individuals and organizations who support and trumpet freedom of speech and view public libraries as bastions of intellectual freedom seemingly ignore or overlook another type of freedom, which is artistic freedom?
It is important to remember that throughout the history of human artistic achievement, new and innovative works have often caused such controversies. Even Michelangelo’s David, a fantastic representation of the nude male figure, still continues to draw controversy and protest from among certain elements in society. Though I'm not in any way attempting to place my work on the same pedestal as the work of someone like Michelangelo, it is still important to remember that art is a vehicle for new visions, new ideas and new ways of looking at the world; thus by its very nature, it can offend or bother certain people.
The Tonasket Library, a library where I have at one time worked as a Branch Sub, a place where in the past I have spent many hours volunteering at books sales, a place where I spend a lot of time patronizing is not just a place to me, but an idea; one that I hold to a high standard. To me, the library is and should be a place of both intellectual and artistic freedom. The public library should be viewed and utilized as an intellectual and cultural asset, a gathering place for people and ideas. It should also be willing to support and foster the culture within the community and this should include its artists. Ultimately, if the City, the TVBRC or the Library itself seeks the removal of my art; I will assure my full compliance and cooperation. But I ask this: If certain members of the community wish to censor a local artist, in a public library of all places and are given the power to do so; where does it go from there? Furthermore, what does it say about our community? Is this really the type of message that we wish to send or the type of image our community wants to present? I hope that these questions (which I see as reasonable) will be considered in the future.
I will leave you with a few quotes that I feel are appropriate:
“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth." -President John F. Kennedy, Remarks at Amherst College, October 1963
“Every great work of art is offensive to someone, for a work of art is a protest against things as they are and a proclamation of things as they ought to be. -Gerald W. Johnson
“It is impossible to be truly artistic without the risk of offending someone somewhere.”
-Wayne Gerard Trotman
Ephraim C. Brown
E.C. Brown Anomalies
I believe that it may be relevant to point out to that there already exists a judicial precedent in the state of Washington regarding the censorship of artistic works by city officials. The case was Hopper and Rupp v. City of Pasco and the Arts Council of the Mid-Columbia Region. On February 15, 2001 the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that artists Sharon Rupp and Janette Hopper's First Amendment rights were violated when the City of Pasco, Washington excluded their artwork from an exhibition in city hall because their submissions were "controversial".
The artists, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington, sued the city. "The City broke its agreement to exhibit these artists' works," said cooperating attorney Paul Lawrence, who is representing the artists for the ACLU along with attorney Daniel Poliak. "It's not the business of government to censor art because some people may find the art controversial."
Judge McKeown stated: "We do not endorse Pasco's cramped view of what constitutes censorship, and we find none of the city's reasons for excluding the artwork compelling. Although children may pass through the hallways of the building, the city concedes that the works are not obscene, and it is beyond peradventure that the works have serious artistic value. And the city offered no evidence to suggest that children would be harmed by, or even saw, the works. The mere fact that the works caused controversy is, of course, patently insufficient to justify their suppression."
The findings of the Court shows that from a legal and constitutional standpoint, the City of Tonasket was in the wrong when they removed my art work from walls of the Library.
The Blood Goddess
Ephraim Brown / E.C. Brown Anomalies
24”H x 31”W x 3.5”D
For a few years, I’ve been interested in doing a “vampire” piece but it took a long time to figure out how I was going to make something that was powerful and poignant but not cliché. The Blood Goddess is not a traditional vampire. I wanted to create a unique mythology behind her. I originally wanted to incorporate a caption either on the piece or on display next to her: “She has always been there, hiding behind our history; quietly and secretly reigning over her empire of blood.” The idea was slightly inspired by the images of Kali Ma, the Hindu goddess of death but also by Akasha, the Queen of the Damned in Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles series. However, I wanted her to have a face that was simultaneously striking and introverted. I have a good friend in Tonasket who had such a face and I managed to convince her to pose for the plaster facial mould. Though the mould didn’t come out perfectly, the distortions in the plaster only added to the piece and made the face much more poignant and frightening. The blood bags are not only to convey her constant need for blood, but also hints that her reign continues into the modern era and her ability to obtain them denotes a great deal of financial or political power. Yes, her appearance may be frightening, but in a way that I feel is beautiful and thought provoking. Two years in the making, this piece presented numerous technical and logistical challenges in its design and execution, much of it in the metalworking aspect but a great deal of time and energy was put into the face as well. The Blood Goddess has been one of my most challenging pieces.
Deus intra purgamentum est
(God is in the trash)
Ephraim Brown / E.C. Brown Anomalies
29”H x 12”W x 3”D
This piece could be interpreted in many ways. But for me, it represents the search for the holy within the refuse and squalor of modern life. Cigarette butts, dirty needles, drug paraphernalia and filth represent the reality of the squalor found in many cities while the portrait of Christ below a photo of a stained glass window represents religious transcendence. Sacred images surrounded by filth also alludes to the idea of corruption. The ostentation and wealth of modern Christianity in an era of mega-churches along with the emphasis on personal wealth by millionaire preachers catering to the rich while others live in squalor has been hotly debated in recent years. This piece is meant to reflect that the religious establishment of today is similar to what Jesus himself spoke of in his time: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. Matt 23:29
The phrase “He lifts the poor from the dust and the needy from the garbage dump.” (1 Samuel 2:8) also comes to mind.
The mere fact that Jesus is traditionally portrayed as having been born in a manger and that he spent time with those who were social outcasts at the time (Lepers, Prostitutes, Tax Collectors, etc.) indicates that if he lived in the modern era, his presence would be found in back alleys where prostitutes and heroin junkies hang out. This sentiment is very seldom echoed within the austere cathedrals, mega-churches and million-dollar mansions of modern christianity where instead of humility and compassion we see hypocrisy, corruption, arrogance and greed.
This concept came to me years ago when I listened to the song If God Would Send His Angels by U2 which contained the following lyrics:
“God has got his phone off the hook babe
would he even pick up if he could?
It's been awhile since we saw that child
Hangin' round this neighbourhood
See his mother dealing in a doorway
See Father Christmas with a begging bowl
Jesus sister's eyes are blistered ...
THE HIGH STREET never looked so low”
The combination of religious imagery intermingled with squalor, trash and heroine addiction has also been utilized in songs such as Mutiny in Heaven by the Birthday Party (lyrics by Nick Cave):
“If this is Heaven I'm bailin’ out
I can't tolerate this old tin-tub
So full of trash and rats!
Felt one crawl across my soul
For a second there, I thought as was back down in the ghetto!”
“If this is Heaven I'm bailin out!
I can't tolerate this old tin-tub
My threadbare soul
teems with vermin and louse
Thoughts come like a plague to the head in god's house!”
The idea that god, spirituality and transcendent experience can be found amongst that which has been thrown away or abandoned by society is nothing new and such imagery has appeared in many places. There have also been many allusions to heroin use and religion in modern culture. Imagery involving heroin use to depict the “bottom of the barrel” has even appeared in Christian works. Calvary by Stephen Sawyer is a perfect example of this:
The Blessed Bleeding Virgin Goddess
Ephraim Brown / E.C. Brown Anomalies
16”H x 14”W x 3.5”D
As the Vagina or Vulva is the place where all life begins, many cultures and religions view it with great reverence. Hence, it has been depicted in a multitude of artworks going back to the beginning of history. In Hinduism is it is called the “Yoni” (Sanskrit: योनि yoni, literally "vagina" or "womb") and is a symbol of the Goddess or the Divine Mother. This sacredness is even alluded to (though briefly) in Christianity: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! (Hail Mary Prayer) and in Psalms 22:9-10:
“Yet You are He who brought me forth from the womb; You made me trust when upon my mother's breasts. Upon You I was cast from birth; You have been my God from my mother's womb.”
Artistic representations of the connection between the vulva and the blessed virgin are nothing new.
Below are couple of examples:
The Holey Vagina Mary. Hymen intact.
by Heather Buchanan
Goddess by Alfred J. Quiroz
My intention with this piece was to make a slightly more elaborate representation of what could be called the Madonna-Vulva Concept and turn into a three dimensional piece within a niche-like enclosure that emulates shrines found throughout the world. This piece was one of the first in which I had access to a CNC plasma cutter which enabled me to create elaborate designs and embellishments and cut them out of sheet metal. The enclosure, the corner pieces and the ornate scroll work were all based on my designs. This piece was an enormous challenge and I am very proud to display it, not only because of its poignant imagery;
but also because it truly represent the full measure of my artistry and metal working ability at the time. It is also one of my favorites because of the colour scheme. I wanted to create something colourful and eye-catching but with a good patina; something vibrant and majestic but that also looking slightly weathered, like it had been hanging in the back of an old church waiting to be restored.
I have been asked many times why I often incorporate religious imagery into my work. I have had religion almost spoon-fed to me in various ways since I was a child and have practically had religious imagery crammed down my throat ever since I can remember. -They were part of my cultural upbringing. I therefore submit that as I have had these images foisted upon me from an early age, I have earned a bit of artistic license in how I use them as an artist. I was told that these three pieces might “frighten” children. But I have had images of people crucified on crosses and burning in eternal fiery torment forced upon me ever since I was old enough to remember and it was by adults who didn’t even question whether or not such images would frighten me, or what types of long-term psychological damage might occur as a result. And people have the nerve to call my work frightening and disturbing?
As strange and unsettling as some of these works and the concepts behind them may be; they are a part of me. They come from my heart and soul and my ability to create and share them helps me to cope with my existence in a strange, terrifying and disturbing world. -One that is also full of immense beauty. But if we only allow ourselves and others to see art that is pretty, pleasant and “acceptable” to our own standards of beauty and our own social mores; we are not only bury our heads in the sand and allow our minds to fall into entropy and complacency; but we also deny reality. Art makes us uncomfortable and that is why it’s so powerful. It forces us to confront our own demons, our own insecurities and our own discomforts and that is why it makes so many people uncomfortable.
I hope this explanation of the three censored pieces are satisfactory in regards to why I would be motivated to hang them in a public library.
Commentaries and Explanations of the Works in Question