In Aspen, Lee Mulcahy's wage protest continues with a hilariously insulting public art installation

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These days, down the hill in the city, Aspen has the reputation of being a resort Mecca for mostly celebrities and the über rich -- and anymore that's mostly true, but it would seem there's at least a few vestiges of the counterculture that for years sustained pseudo-pranks like Hunter S. Thompson's chuckle-inducing run for Aspen Sheriff back in 1970. Take, for example, Lee Mulcahy, a populist wage-war-wager who fought the law -- and while the law has apparently won for the time being, Mulcahy's still got some hilarious highjinks up his sleeve.

It's the latest development in an all-out feud between Mulcahy and Aspen's Skico (which operates Snowmass), his former employer, a feud that came to head with his firing from Skico in February of this year. But there had been very public friction between the two for months beforehand, most of which, at least publicly, hinged on Mulcahy's attempts to create a ski instructors' union based on Skico's going rate for rookie ski instructors; the pay is $69 per day, and Mulcahy pointed to the disparity between that and the rate of over $600 per day the resort demands of paying customers.

In January, Mulcahy laid down the straw that broke the camel's back. Here's why he got fired, according to this letter penned Skico president and CEO Mike Kaplan and sent to the Aspen Times, Mulcahy alleges, before he had even been informed he was fired:

As of today Mr. Mulcahy has been terminated from his employment with the company ... By way of background, it is our view that Lee Mulcahy's recent statements to the media about the wages of entry-level ski instructors, is a poorly-disguised attempt to distract attention from his own work-related misconduct. Aspen Skiing Company has repeatedly demonstrated that our ski/snowboard pros are the most highly compensated pros in the business. In fact, our research through National Ski Areas Association and the Mountain States Employers' Council show that pay rates for all of our front line positions are at least in the upper quartile of compensation levels, if not the absolute highest wages offered in comparison to others ... Unfortunately, Mr. Mulcahy has chosen to attempt to discredit all of these efforts for the sole purpose of diverting attention away from the true issue, which is the fact that Mr. Mulcahy no longer meets the standards required to be a ski pro with the Ski and Snowboard Schools of Aspen.

Mulcahy would beg to differ. "Mike Kaplan, he's the shrewdest dude on the planet, but he's completely immoral," Mulcahy maintains. "Let's be socially responsible, was all I was trying to say, because you can't come into our little village like a carpetbagger and run this whole thing like a corporation. James and Paula Crown, because they're so insulated, they don't think their doo doo smells." (We'll get to James and Paula Crown in a minute.)

"So they call me a class warrior because I said be fair? Is that vicious? They thought it was vicious, and because that was considered vicious, they just come out with all guns blazing," Mulcahy continues. "When they fired me, they released a letter to all their employees and both papers. That was the way they honored me for my 15 years of service, by firing me to the Aspen Times. The article is hilarious.

"Look," he further acknowledges, "I broke a rule. But basically it was corporate bullying at its finest."

Basically, it was mad dramz.

Because in fact, Skico did more than just fire Mulcahy; it also banned him from every inch of its premises at Snowmass, including its hiking and skiing areas -- a ban Mulcahy takes exception to, pointing to the fact that Snowmass is National Forest Service land that Skico leases and operates. Thus, says Mulcahy, he pays taxes on the land and is entitled to use it (he also says the Forest Service backs him up on this). "Am I not an American?" he wonders. And Mulcahy didn't take the firing lying down, either; he immediately appealed to the National Labor Relations Board. Back in April, the NLRB rejected that appeal.

So, just to sum up, Mucahy is basically beaten. He's lost his job, he's lost his appeal, no union has formed and even a good chunk of his colleagues are against him. The really great part is what he does next.

See Mulcahy is also an artist, and when a commission opportunity arose last month to create a bicycle-based sculpture related to the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, which rolls through Aspen on Wednesday, Mulcahy jumped at the opportunity. He submitted a fuzzy idea and it was accepted -- but the result, which went up earlier this week, was evidently not what the city had in mind. "I just stared at it and thought, this is going to be a PR nightmare," Aspen Community Relations Director Mitzi Rapkin told the Aspen Times.

Remember that earlier reference to James and Paula Crown? Those are the people who own Skico, and in a petulant, childish, genius move, Mulcahy basically used his piece to call them fascists; on a large plywood background, the piece features a life-size diptych of the Crowns, side by side, the lady adorned with a fur cuff and accompanied by a Barbie Doll. On the other side is a huge portrait of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. And that's pretty funny, but the real pièce de résistance is the old mountain bike crammed perfunctorily through the center, simultaneously a satisfaction of and "fuck you" to the requirements of the commission.

"I was deliberately obtuse," laughs Mulcahy. "The painting, they didn't ask what was going to be on it, and I would hope they wouldn't, because art in a public place should be just that: art. The idea of some public relations person from the city approving it is offensive to me."

For it's part, the City of Aspen -- after some reportedly intense internal deliberation -- has opted not to take down the sculpture in deference to the First Amendment; it has, however, moved it to a considerably less conspicuous location, Mulcahy observes. He also reports that it's been vandalized and the Barbie Doll stolen.

All things considered, the tribute to Assange is probably more appropriate than even Mulcahy would give himself credit for; a social justice crusader so relentless in his quest for rightness that it renders him oblivious to detractors -- some of them sincere -- Mulcahy is an Assange on a smaller scale with lower stakes, ambiguities and all.

And maybe in one other way, too: Mulcahy provided spaces on both sides of the sculpture for people to leave comments. Currently, one of them reads: "Lee, you're an ass."

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