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Published: Friday, July 11, 2003

Art display creates a tempest in Town Hall
After town workers complained about an American flag that was part of a politically themed art display, it was moved.

Hunter Levinsohn's American flag drew complaints from Carrboro workers as well as visitors to Town Hall.


CARRBORO -- Things are quiet in Town Hall this time of year, what with the Board of Aldermen on summer recess and a number of officials and staffers away on vacation.

But although you can't tell it by the silent meeting rooms and empty offices, there's something of a tempest blowing in Carrboro's municipal building.

An exhibit of politically themed art work by local artist Hunter Levinsohn has aroused significant antipathy among a number of town employees, to the extent that one piece was removed last week from the Board Room wall on which it hung and placed in a more out-of-the-way location, Mayor Mike Nelson's office. The show, organized by the Carrboro Art Committee, is scheduled to remain on display through Sept. 15.

"I've heard a lot of town employees talk about the show, and I haven't heard a single one say anything positive about it," said one town employee, who didn't want to divulge her name. "People are upset. I don't care for the show, either. We have to be here all day with it, and we have to deal with the people who come in to complain about it.

"What bothers me is that people assume that because it's in Town Hall it represents all of us. It definitely does not."

The show includes a number of mixed-media works that are unabashedly critical of the Bush administration: "Bush's Bomb Bag," for example, features an image of the president encasing a host of toy warplanes and bombs, and another piece called "Wolf in Sheep's Clothing" depicts Bush's visage peering out of a wall hanging in the shape of a sheep's face.

Most of the works are hanging in the halls of Town Hall and are unavoidable to visitors; "Bush's Bomb Bag," for example, hangs directly over the water fountain.

"The Art Committee thinks it's more liberated and says it stands for peace and love," the employee said. "But that piece with President Bush and cabinet members with the bombs and everything, that doesn't represent peace and love. Art in a workplace should be pleasant and attractive, not this kind of thing."

Other works in the show include impressions of the American flag in a number of contexts. One of those, an image of the flag in which the stars are in the shape of a swastika, aroused particular complaints from employees and visitors.

"Some people were really concerned about it, so by a mutual agreement between the Art Committee, Mike Nelson and the artist, it was removed from where it had been hanging and put on the wall in Mike's office," said Alderman Alex Zaffron, the mayor pro tempore. "If you look at it, it's immediately evident why people went through the roof. Displayed in context and with some explanation, it's a powerful piece that is designed to get discussion going. But for now, it'll stay in Mike's office."

Levinsohn said she created the flag piece, titled "Trying to Make Black and White Out of the Red, White and Blue," during the first Bush Administration in response to a proposed constitutional amendment that would prohibit burning or otherwise damaging the flag.

"The flag is a symbol of American freedom and justice," said Levinsohn, who is Jewish. "The flag amendment seemed to me to be an assault on our First Amendment right to freedom of speech. It seemed to violate the very freedom the flag symbolizes. The piece was intended as a protest against the flag amendment.

"The swastika has to do with trying to get across the idea I was trying to get across on that issue. It has nothing to do with my feelings about the flag or the country."

Levinsohn is no stranger to controversy. Much of her art expresses a strong political or social point of view, and she once had a piece removed from Chapel Hill Town Hall, albeit for olfactory rather than political reasons: It was made of 45,000 cigarette butts, and employees complained about the smell.

She said she understood that some people might be offended by the work in Carrboro Town Hall, and she supported moving the piece to Nelson's office. Its original location made it virtually impossible for anyone in the main hall to avoid seeing it.

"I'm fine with moving it," she said. "I do like the fact that it has generated so much comment and conversation. That's healthy. People are entitled to their opinions. I do hope that when people find an image disturbing or difficult, they'll ask what the artist had in mind and be open to other ideas.

"It always surprises me when people won't accept other people's opinions. But I know that people are sometimes upset by other ideas."

Hanging a potentially controversial work in a gallery is one thing, she said; people go to galleries voluntarily, and if they see something they don't like, they can leave. The employees at Town Hall, on the other hand, don't have that latitude.

"That makes a big difference," she said. "Being hit in the face all day by something that makes you angry or upset -- I think it's completely valid to say that bothers you. I understand that."

Nelson was out of town when the art exhibit went up, and after a few days in town last week he's away again. He said Town Clerk Sarah Williamson called him when the complaints started coming in, and he approved moving the piece into his office.

"I said, 'I haven't seen it, but there's no harm taking it off the wall for a while,'" Nelson said. "I have seen it now. I think the show is the best we've ever had in Town Hall. In the context of what the artist was doing, this is a very strong piece of art. I like it. My initial reaction is to leave it in my office. I'm fine with it being hung wherever."

Dave Hart can be reached at 932-8744 or

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