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Nude artwork & piece misidentified as vagina removed, then returned to Wheat Ridge display

It's been a whirlwind June for Kittredge artist Michael McGrath. Three small pieces, including two featuring nudity and a third that was mistaken for a vagina, were removed from a display at the Wheat Ridge Recreation Center. But yesterday, they were back -- following a letter of complaint from the National Coalition Against Censorship.

According to McGrath, he was invited by a fellow artist, Carol Sue Frickle, to contribute pieces to an exhibit at the rec center. The items she approved included a sketch of a nude torso that didn't show any genitals, plus a pair of sculptural pieces less than three-inches by three-inches in size. One features the bare buttocks of a man, with a hint of a scrotum visible. The other depicts the face of a screaming banshee.

McGrath, who believes "the body is God's masterpiece," didn't think anyone would have an objection to the pieces -- but he was wrong. He subsequently received a call from Frickle, who told him that the three items had been removed, allegedly because of the rec center's family atmosphere.

This verdict seemed unreasonable to McGrath, and not just because he didn't see any of them as obscene. Given that two of the three pieces featured nudity, staffers apparently assumed that the banshee "was a vagina," he says, "even though all you have to do is look at it to see that it's the face of a woman."

Still, what bothered him more is that no one from the rec center itself bothered to contact him prior to the pieces' removal. He says he would have removed them himself had they bothered to do so; he stresses that he has no interest in offending. But not giving him a chance to defend the work struck him as rude and disrespectful. So he contacted the Wheat Ridge city attorney, which led to a phone call from recreation manager Julie Brisson; she apologized for not calling him, but not for removing the pieces, he says. And he also reached out to the NCAC, based in New York.

The case hit the coalition's sweet spot. In April, notes Michael O'Neil, NCAC's communications coordinator, the organization sprang to the defense of artist Sylvia Cossich Goodman, whose nude painting had been removed from a public exhibition at the Marin County (California) Civic Center because an employee claimed its presence constituted sexual harassment. The piece was ultimately put back on display.

"One of the best ways to oppose censorship in this country is to facilitate a culture where censorship itself is considered offensive and a violation of community values," O'Neil says. "People need to understand that the First Amendment is a muscle that has to be flexed and used in order to stay functional. So these local battles aren't only about the person being censored -- and they're very hurtful in that respect -- but also about a broader principle. We have to oppose censorship anywhere in order to protect free speech everywhere."

With that in mind, the NCAC wrote a letter on McGrath's behalf to Brisson, with copies sent to the Wheat Ridge city attorney, council members and the mayor at large. The June 6 missive, on view in its entirety below, points out that "nudes are present not only in museums, which schoolchildren regularly visit, but in many public spaces around the country, including in Colorado. Your arbitrary and subjectively determined decision to exclude several of Mr. McGrath's sculptures from public view fulfills no compelling (or even rational) state interest. No one is well‐served by this violation of expressive freedom, certainly not the Wheat Ridge public, which is illegitimately deprived of the opportunity to view and evaluate artistic work for itself.

"We urge you to reconsider your decision," the letter concludes -- and the folks at the rec center did. Yesterday, McGrath visited the rec center to make sure the banshee sculpture had been removed along with the other two, but was surprised to discover that all three were present and accounted for.

No one from the rec center contacted him about their change of heart, just as no one phoned to let him know about their initial removal. Even so, he's happy about the situation's resolution.

"I definitely don't regret contacting the NCAC," he says, "because I think we really need to keep the government out of censorship."

Look below to see images of the two small sculptures. Then page down to read the NCAC letter.

Nude artwork & piece misidentified as vagina removed, then returned to Wheat Ridge display
Nude artwork & piece misidentified as vagina removed, then returned to Wheat Ridge display

 

National Coalition Against Censorship Letter About Michael McGrath

More from our Follow That Story archive: "David Lane: University of Wyoming claims security, not censorship, in William Ayers ban."


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