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Carrboro removes art from exhibit



The Herald-Sun/Jenna Ruttkay


Hunter C. Levinsohn displays her controversial work, "Trying to Make Black and White Out of Red, White and Blue," Thursday at the Carrboro Town Hall.

By Susan Broili : The Herald-Sun
Jul 10, 2003 : 8:02 pm ET

CARRBORO -- An art exhibit at Carrboro's Town Hall has provoked such strong reactions that the town's second-ranking elected official removed one of the works shortly before the Fourth of July celebrations to keep visitors from seeing it.

The reactions to Chapel Hill artist Hunter C. Levinsohn's work continued Thursday, when one town employee had the look of a person who'd caught a whiff of something noxious as she voiced her opinion about the exhibit, which is called "July 4th 2003 Which Way Is Up?"

"I did not like it," said the employee, who asked that her name not be used. "Many of the people who work for the town are offended by the arts display."

The employee said she certainly did not like the work that was taken down. Titled "Trying to Make Black and White Out of the Red, White and Blue," it depicts an American flag with its stars arrayed in the shape of a swastika.

"It seems like the art is always of controversy and leaning toward the same thing -- those not in support of our country," the employee said of the current show and others like it at Town Hall.

The employee said she especially objected to a work of art still on display that shows a bomb coming out of the top of President Bush's head.

"That's a harsh statement there," she said. "That's not peace and love."

Carrboro may be known as a liberal town, but not everybody who lives there or who works for the town feels the same way about things, the employee said.

Complaints from employees and other people figured in Alderman Alex Zaffron's decision to take the swastika piece down on the eve of the town's Independence Day celebration, said Jackie Helvey-Hayes, a member of Carrboro's Art Committee and the coordinator of municipal art exhibits.

Zaffron -- who's also the town's mayor pro tem -- also was concerned because the Independence Day celebration was likely to attract a lot of older people, including some veterans, to a bingo game scheduled to occur in the boardroom where the piece was on display, Helvey-Hayes said.

Zaffron could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Mayor Mike Nelson was out of town while the show was being put up, but when he returned on the Fourth of July, he saw the work and liked it, Helvey-Hayes said.

"He immediately took it into his office and hung it on the wall," Helvey-Hayes said.

Nelson also thought highly of the exhibit, which includes a piece called "Security Alert Purse With Tom Ridge Paper Doll & 6 Outfits." It has one outfit for each color in the country's terrorism alert system plus an outfit made of plastic and duct tape.

Helvey-Hayes said the mayor told her he thought the exhibit was the best Carrboro had ever had at Town Hall.

But the mayor added that he thought it best for the art to stay in his office until early August when he returned from vacation, so the staff wouldn't have to deal with complaints, Helvey-Hayes said.

Then the art will go back up, but in a less prominent place. It'll be accompanied by the artist's statement and a book in which people can write their comments, Helvey-Hayes said.

Since Helvey-Hayes has been coordinating exhibits over the past year and a half, no work of art has been taken down, although some paintings of nudes were displayed in the boardroom instead of in the main entryway of Town Hall.

The job of finding artists to show work at municipal art exhibits at Town Hall and the Century Center should fall to the town's Art Committee, but since that group hasn't met for some time, Helvey-Hayes has been doing it. The selection process has never used a jury, she said.

Artists have either contacted the town or Helvey-Hayes has called artists she knows or has heard about. The unsolicited work has been of uniformly high quality, she said.

Helvey-Hayes said she knew Levinsohn's work, remembered that she'd done a flag series and asked her if she would be willing to display it at Town Hall this month.

Levinsohn's work is thought-provoking and often controversial, Helvey-Hayes said.

Levinsohn wrote the statement about her art in response to the complaints, to help people understand the idea behind her art, Helvey-Hayes said.

In the statement, Levinsohn explained that she created the art in 1990 as a protest against the flag amendment, which would ban flag burning and, she believed, threaten First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.

In an interview Thursday, Levinsohn, who is Jewish, said she had used the swastika because she thought it would make it clear to people that her art is about a type of repression that would threaten the freedoms in this country.

The artist said she considers herself patriotic. On Thursday, she wore red, white and blue, down to her shoes.

Part of being American is having the freedom to criticize the practices of the government when you think those practices are morally wrong, Levinsohn said.

Much of her exhibit is critical of the current Bush administration. "My perspective is that the office of the president is to be treated with honor, but the person in the office is subject to appraisal," she said.

Town employee Annette Rogers, who works in the payroll department, said she was offended when she saw the work being installed, but had a greater understanding of it after she talked with the artist.

"She shared with me that she didn't mean it in a negative way ? that it was about freedom of speech," Rogers said.

But "as a person of color," Rogers said she still found the use of the swastika offensive.

"I looked at it and thought Nazis and skin heads and prejudice," Rogers said.

Rogers said she respected the artist's right to express herself, but did not think the art was appropriate for a government building.

But Levinsohn said she thinks a government building is just the place for it.

Town Hall is "a political place, a public space, the space where you discuss politics," Levinsohn said.

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