A statue of a man sitting on an oil drum became an outdoor lunch-hour conversation piece when it spent a month in a downtown plaza. This past week the statue reappeared in the lobby of an apartment building—where it created “a hostile work environment” and was removed after five days.
Some viewers at the West Village Apartments on Howe Street saw a racial message in the sculpture, which depicts a man—painted black—wearing a conical hat—painted white.
In response to their objections, staff at the West Village Apartments on Howe Street moved the statue from the building’s first-floor gallery space into an adjoining closet. After inquiries by the Independent, management ordered the statue removed entirely from the building.
The controversy raises a number of questions about meaning, context, and the nature of art: Who gets to decide the meaning of a piece of art? Can art create a “hostile” environment? Should art be labeled, so as not to be “misinterpreted”? Is “misinterpretation” even possible?
And Is this sculpture racist? (Does it prejudice the viewer to even ask that question?)
The statue’s story began in 2012, when New Haven art activist Bill Saunders (pictured) commissioned a new sculpture mascot for the final year of his alternative arts festival, Ideat Village. Boston sculptor Stephen deFilippis welded together a man modeled after Rodin’s iconic “Thinker,” wearing what appeared to be a dunce cap and sitting on a red oil drum. Saunders installed it in Pitkin Plaza.
In June 2012, the sculpture was the subject of an Independent story featuring interpretations by passersby. One person said the piece was about great thinkers being seen as idiots. Another made a connection to the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz.
At the time, deFilippis said the piece was about oil: “The thought behind it is, it’s a spin on the thinking man with the whole thing with oil and the price of gas. It has to do with that. ... He’s in thought about if this big mess with oil is worth it with the prices, with the war, with all of that.”
The sculpture lived for a month in Pitkin Plaza. After that, Saunders stored it at his house.
Last fall, Saunders contacted West Village Apartments about setting up an art gallery in a large dark-wood-paneled room in the building’s first floor. With the blessing of The Community Builders, which runs the building, Saunders has held five art shows in the space.
West Village Apartments contains 127 units, 80 of which are set aside for the formerly homeless. The remaining 47 are rented to people who make less than $33,000 per year.
Last Monday, in preparation for the opening of the latest show, Saunders installed the sculpture in the center of the gallery. The show is a group exhibit, the return of Ideat Village’s Orbit Gallery—a show open to any and all artists who wish to display their work through the summer.
Almost immediately after installation, Saunders started hearing complaints. One tenant in particular was upset by the sculpture. “He thought it had racial implications,” Saunders said.
Saunders said he met the tenant at the gallery and had a long talk about the artwork. Saunders presented a different interpretation of the piece, that it is about dependence on oil. “I look at it as a guy sitting on an oil can, covered in oil, thinking.”
Fine, but if that’s the case, you should put a label on it, the tenant said, according to Saunders.
Saunders added a sign with a title for the piece—“Thinking About Man’s Addiction To Oil”—and thought the issue was resolved.
But more complaints followed, this time from staff at the The Connection, Inc., a social services agency that provides case-management services for about 40 tenants in the building. The Connection has an office and runs a facility at the Recovery House next door at 48 Howe St.
“Some of their staff members found it offensive,” said West Village Apartments property manager Amy Dzurka (pictured). The Connection staff said the piece was creating “a hostile work environment,” according to Dzurka. People saw the pointed white cap as a connection with the Ku Klux Klan.
“The cultural imprints are there, and people project,” said Saunders.
The Connection staff at the apartment building declined to comment. The company’s spokesperson didn’t respond to repeated calls for comment.
After the initial complaints from The Connection, Dzurka agreed to cover the sculpture. She wanted to avoid covering it with a white sheet, because of the KKK connection. After she couldn’t find a blue tarp big enough, she had the piece moved into a closet adjoining the gallery. During weekday work hours, the piece was hidden by folding tables. Dzurka said she planned to have it on display on evenings and weekends.
Dzurka said she would have simply removed the sculpture, if she thought a majority of tenants didn’t want it there.
“I don’t think it should go,” she said. “There are a few people that are making too much of it.”
She said almost all the tenants with whom she spoke made remarks like, “It looks like a bunch of cans to me.”
“The tenants are fine. It’s the staff,” Dzurka said.
She found an irony in putting the sculpture in the closet, facing the corner like a dunce: “Now it’s kind of a reverse kind of thing. It’s like he’s being punished for being black.”
Following inquiry by the Independent, The Connection contacted Dzurka and asked her to remove the sculpture entirely.
“They called and told me they don’t want it displayed whatsoever. They want it off the property.” After speaking with her supervisor, Dzurka agreed to remove it.
“I need to keep peace amongst my business partners, and if this is what keeps the peace, this is what we’ll do,” she said. “I just hope that any pieces that get displayed—we won’t have any more controversy.”
Dzurka said she’s now concerned that removing the sculpture might set a bad precedent. She’s worried that people might now start objecting to future artwork in the gallery, including the Orbit Gallery show: “My biggest concern that once we do the art show, The Connection staff would start dissecting the art work and ask for it to be removed.”
“I don’t want to set the tone that they can control what’s happening here.”
Reviews From The Tenants
“I thought it was kind of impressive and unusual,” Eric Aranjo, who said he has lived in the building for 10 years, said of the sculpture. “It made me happy.”
Aranjo said he connected with the sculpture because he likes to sit and think in the gallery too. “It made me think of being a thinker.”
It’s not a racist sculpture, Aranjo said.
“It’s somebody sitting on an oil can, thinking,” said tenant Oscar Brown. “I don’t feel threatened by it.”
Tenant Jones Gore (pictured) didn’t think it was racist either. When the sculpture was moved into a corner, he put a poster on the bulletin board in the building’s hallway, with a message from the sculpture’s point of view. “Some people just don’t have enough sense to see that I was just thinking,” the poster reads. “Maybe they should try it!”
“Art is subjective. Fine. But let’s not go so far as to remove it,” Gore said. “It’s art. It’s supposed to generate different thoughts.”
Next door at The Connection, a receptionist said she hadn’t seen the piece, but that it sounded offensive to her. “You would have to be African American to understand it,” she said.
James, the tenant who had the talk with Saunders that resulted in a new label, said he no longer had an opinion about the piece. He said he was tired of talking about it.
Asked if he still considers the sculpture racist, James said, “If you look at it a certain way, I would say yeah. ... I told him my opinion. He put a label on it.”
But any decisions about the building should be left to tenants, said James, who declined to give his last name. “I think it’s ridiculous how people dictate what goes on in here when they don’t live here.”
The first show Saunders put on in the building, of his own paintings, also touched some nerves, Dzurka said. But no one asked for him to remove the artworks.
The show was a set of paintings by a fictional French painter Volonte Morceaux. “Massacre de Merci (Mercy Killing)” (pictured) featured a noose, a black man with no limbs, a pile of bodies, and Dick Cheney sinking in a tar pit, with a red mark on his forehead.
“There were a lot of controversial paintings there,” Dzurka said.
Dzurka said she had been initially nervous to have Saunders show art in the building, but she’s trying to make the building better by including art. “Bringing him on scared me, because he’s got a scary image out there,” she said.
Saunders said he intends to seek permission to install the controversial sculpture on the sidewalk outside the apartment building.
“I feel excited about it,” Saunders said of the stir the sculpture has caused. “Spiders make webs. Bees make hives. This is kind of what I do.”