When an artist proclaims censorship has happened, the statement is so volatile that it’s the equivalent of shouting “fire” in a crowded building. Art professionals, who are more comfortable with controversial subjects than the general public, have a knee-jerk reaction to it, recalling the First Amendment (visual art became part of “the freedom of speech” in the 1970s). As a result, the gap between what artists create and what viewers see can be miles apart.
Artists Billy Twymon and Devon Turley have accused the Mellwood Arts & Entertainment Center of censorship. The collaborators were asked to remove three large paintings from their exhibition “The Really Big Show” (hanging in Mellwood’s Hallway B). The removed works feature female nudity, sex and religious subject matter.
“The paintings went up around Aug. 23,” says Turley. “They were supposed to hang … until after the Mellwood Art Fair on Sept. 7-8. On Sept. 4, Billy was approached by the management of Mellwood (director of sales and marketing Scooter Davidson) and told (we) would have to remove three of the paintings. Management reported that there were complaints by other shopkeepers at Mellwood. They told her the exhibit was offensive and bordered on pornographic. Many of the fellow artists at Mellwood loved the complete exhibit and share (our) concerns over the censorship.”
Davidson defends the decision, saying the owners and board of the Mellwood complex felt the works were “sacrilegious and pornographic.” “They’re not family-friendly,” she says. “We have children 3 years old and up in the buildings. Other tenants complained; I had a flood of people (who complained).” She says all the people who talked to her personally were artists with studios at Mellwood.
Twymon says his first thought was that he was being censored. “This isn’t the first time Mellwood has dictated to artists,” he says. “They thought children … and Christians would be offended. Scooter said, ‘We don’t want to show nipples.’ Waiting for the 11th hour before the September Fair concerns me. I think (what) happened is that a few of the residents put pressure on Scooter, offended by the woman on the cross.”
“We are private property, we own these walls,” Davidson says. “It’s not for negotiation. This is our image. The Jesus one is horribly offensive — Jesus as a naked female, with erect nipples, with a crown of thorns.”
Hallway B houses businesses including Rhinestone Runway, an organization that caters to child models and pageants, as well as public bathrooms. About five years ago, Mellwood was sued on a related issue. “We were sued because (a father said his) child suffered psychological damage (from the art), and he sued us for the psychiatrist bills,” Davidson says.
The Mellwood board told Twymon he could show the works in his personal workspace (studio 241), just not in the hallway. His counter-argument is that “children will still be exposed to the paintings. Christians, children — anyone that comes through here will still see them. I’m hoping for artists … (not to be) subjected to censorship.” —Jo Anne Triplett