Without all the flag-waving, nobody would have noticed the penises.
After all, they'd hung in the Canyon Gallery of the Boulder Public Library for three weeks before the library received its first complaint about "Hanging 'em Out to Dry," one of fifty pieces included in Art Triumphs Over Domestic Violence, an exhibit sponsored by Boulder County Safehouse. And during that time, the show had collected numerous positive reviews, not just in the local media but also in a book that the library set out for viewers' comments -- most of them as heartfelt as the artists' statements about their own work.
An uneven but sincere lot, that work -- still on display through November 26 -- ranged from pieces comparing domestic violence to terrorist attacks (!) to a few very graphic nudes that made Judy Chicago seem like a priss, detailed down to every pubic hair. (When the Canyon Gallery hosted an entire show of nudes -- both male and female -- back in summer 2000, it inspired exactly one complaint. Boulder residents also fondly remember an impromptu snow sculpture from a few years back of a naked lady who reclined on a bench outside the library until she melted away.) And yes, overhead was a clothesline, from which dangled 22 colorful ceramic penises. But no one so much as whimpered about their inclusion until longtime library director Marcelee Gralapp vetoed putting a ten-foot-by-fifteen-foot American flag outside the entrance for fear that it might "offend" someone.
And with that, Boulder hung itself. Again.
In another town, a public library wouldn't dream of exhibiting a string of penises, or displaying portraits of nudes, or even hosting a show that included graphic artistic representations of domestic violence. But Boulder, as we all know, is not another town.
This is a town where the good citizens responded to early coverage of JonBenét Ramsey's murder (fifth anniversary coming right up) by urging a boycott of the Globe and other supermarket tabloids rather than suggesting that the crime be solved. This is a town where, just last winter, a third-grader's science-fair entry was banned because her use of black and white Barbie dolls was deemed politically incorrect.
But since the events of September 11, even Boulder is not the place it used to be. A decade ago, a year ago, Gralapp's refusal to hang an American flag might have gone unnoticed. And still, Gralapp could have forestalled the whole mess by simply pointing out earlier that several flags, albeit smaller ones, were already displayed -- size doesn't matter, after all -- and left out the blithering about "objectivity" that opened the library to criticism regarding what it would hang.
Penises. In broad view of any weekend warrior ready to go off half-cocked, with Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell quickly joining the ranks.
"By its very nature, the subject matter for this exhibit, domestic violence, is provocative," offered Karen Ripley, the library's director of cultural programs, in the city's response to the first penis protests. And by its very nature, a library is the sort of place where tough topics, including domestic violence, deserve to be discussed. But such discussion belongs in books, and arguably in sections that can be closed off to those who'd rather read about the subject than see it as they enter the public facility -- or, more to the point, have their children see as they enter. And ultimately, even the library recognized the need for some prophylactic measures: Last week the show was rearranged to make more "sexually explicit" pieces less visible -- in deference not to kids, but to potentially squeamish adults attending a celebration of the Boulder Planning Department's fiftieth anniversary. Had the penises been put under wraps a little earlier, the next act in this farce might have been cut short.
Instead, on Saturday morning, an anonymous Boulder patriot absconded with the penis piece, leaving a note -- "El Dildo Bandito was here" (what el dicko!) -- and a flag in its place. The library responded by posting its own notice suggesting that anyone with knowledge of the crime contact the police, as well as this comment from "Hanging 'em Out to Dry" artist Susanne Walker, a University of Colorado student: "This piece is not about dildos or sex toys, it is not about whether a large flag should be hung in the entrance to a public library. It is very sad and disturbing to me that an individual can warp and twist the message created by survivors and victims of domestic violence. It is not only an attack on my freedom of speech, but the art space, the issue of domestic violence, women and the victims of terrorism.
"If you want to attack me or my artwork, then confront me with discussion...that is the purpose of this type of art."
On Sunday, the penis pilferer, one Bob Rowan, confessed to KOA radio; he's since discussed his "anger" over the library's anti-flag, male-bashing attitudes with assorted media outlets. The penises remain in the police property room; they will not be rehung. And on Tuesday, Rowan was charged with second-degree criminal tampering, a Class 2 misdemeanor involving tampering "with the property of another with the intent to cause injury, inconvenience, or annoyance to that person or another."
How about annoyance to a cast of thousands? Once again, Boulder rises to the occasion.
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Since we announced our "My DIA Horror Story" contest, the head of United Airlines, the primary culprit in many tales of woe, has stepped down (collecting at least $3 million as a consolation prize); Argenbright Security, the London-based company that has the contract to provide security-screening services at Denver International Airport and numerous other airports, has been cited for hiring felons (including one who let a traveler with seven knives through in Chicago) and violating probation, and has dumped its CEO; and even Denver officials have recognized that while United and Argenbright are nominally responsible for the mess at DIA, the city should perhaps step in and help out, since being listed as one of the country's top three worst-wait airports is one honor this award-happy, tourist-dependent town can do without.
But before DIA took action to cut down those endless waits, our readers suffered injustices ranging from the major (missed honeymoon flights) to the minor (undue attention paid to cheap nail clippers that the traveler was willing to toss in order to get the line moving). Some problems could have been solved with clearer communication (one woman wasted two hours moving from line to line on the instruction of assorted DIA workers, only to learn that she'd been in the correct line in the first place); others by leaving the flask at home (one fellow was forced to take a nip at 8 a.m. in order to prove he wasn't toting poison); still more if everyone had simply removed their clothes and flown naked. Stories of near-strip searches abounded, with women required to lift sweaters and men to unzip flies; one fellow reported that his shoes were lost.
One fashion disaster was reported by a witness rather than the victim herself, perhaps because she was too embarrassed to admit that she's the last person on the planet to wear a dickey. (For those who missed this stylish invention, a dickey is essentially a bib that lends the look, but not the bulk, of a turtleneck). At security, a screener wanded and frisked this woman, then demanded that she take off her overshirt. I can't, she responded, because all I have underneath is a dicky, not a turtleneck. Take off your shirt, the screener insisted. But I'm wearing a dickey, she repeated. Take off your shirt, or we won't be able to let you through. Finally, the woman reached up and removed...her dickey, flinging it into the crowd.
Winner Kathy Cottrell's horror story had everything: people begging her to cancel her trip to New York, scheduled just two weeks after the terrorist attacks; a sister she hadn't seen for four years waiting at the other end; a five-hour ordeal clearing security (she'd arrived at DIA three hours before the flight, the then-recommended time) that made her miss her plane; standing by for another flight, then having that plane sit at the gate for hours. Finally, she landed at LaGuardia -- only to discover that her luggage was still back in Denver, no doubt being searched for dangerous dickeys. When she arrived at LaGuardia for her return -- three and a half hours early -- the trip from curb to gate took a total of twenty minutes.