Controversial artwork removed; Professor says potential for violence led to decision

News Article for University of Alaska, Anchorage newspaper The Northern Light

Jessica Keil (maiden name)
Northern Light Features Editor

A sculpture depicting a Ku Klux Klansman was erected in the Arts building on Wednesday, but was taken down two days later after repeated threats were made to tear it down if it was not voluntarily removed.

It was created by engineering major Tony Hamilton for a project in Professor Ken Gray’s beginning sculpture class. The assignment was to create a work using natural materials like wood, fiber and rope for inclusion in an exhibition titled “Nightmare Images.”

Hamilton’s sculpture depicted a white-draped KKK figure with outstretched arms, clutching a cross in one hand and an American flag in the other. He says it was not created to condone KKK views, but to oppose them.

“I made it because I’m appalled by David Duke getting 30 percent of the votes in Louisiana elections for governor,” Hamilton said. “And he is still running for president. I want people to think of what he’s doing and what he stood for when he was in the KKK.”

But Hamilton did not anticipate the myriad of emotions his piece, titled “The Real Beast,” would stir.

“It caused more controversy than I thought,” he said. “I thought I had made my meaning a little more obvious.”

For some, the meaning didn’t matter, they just wanted the sculpture to come down.

One of the main criticisms of the sculpture was that it was not clearly labeled at the outset of the show, which featured other “nightmare” works from Gary’s class.

Linda Lopez said she had left her music class in the Arts Building and was on her way to the vending machines on the second floor when she first saw the sculpture. She was shocked. She thought the work should have been labeled. Without clarification, the sculpture seemed to say UAA condones what the KKK stands for, she said.

“If it was titled, it would be art, but since it isn’t it’s appalling,” Lopez said.

Another criticism was the question of whether it could be called art.

“Take it home and put it in your front yard,” said psychology major Clara Bynum. Bynum verbally confronted the artist and attacked his usage of the KKK to make his point.

“You don’t have the power to change people’s minds,” she said. “This isn’t art, it’s propaganda!”

Approximately 30 people milled about in the foyer of the Main Stage Theatre, where the show had been set up. Some came because friends had called them; others happened upon the scene when they left their classes and heard the commotion.

“People aren’t gonna see it as freedom of speech; it’s gonna hurt people,” said music major Emily Wentzel. “People shouldn’t be hurt. I feel it’s really rude of someone to put it there.”

Wednesday’s confrontation, though it drew a crowd, including police and media, ended with no resolution.

On Thursday, a public meeting was called by Minority Student Services. The meeting was held in K 166 and was mediated by Celeste Havis, who works at the Advising and Counseling Center.

“All of us have felt the brunt of the beast, whether we’re white, black, or whatever color,” Havis said. “We have all felt the brunt of the beast and I say to you, now is the time for the healing to begin. Now, because it’s the only time we have. The future is not guaranteed.”

The meeting ended with an agreement that the sculpture would be taken down on Wednesday, Dec. 11. However, it was removed by Gray on Friday, Dec. 6. In a telephone interview the next day, Gray gave his account of what occurred.

When he left the Thursday meeting, it was his understanding that a compromise had been reached. The exhibit, which was to have remained up for two weeks, would be taken down a week early in “a ritualized, symbolic way – in a sense, dismantling racism,” he said.

But while at work Friday he was informed there was a commotion; angry students were on their way to destroy the work, he said.

Gray told Franklin Berry, the Minority Student Services director, that if it appeared the situation was going to get violent, Gray would take it down himself.

“Franklin came up to me (later) and said, “I’m sorry, they’re intent on destroying the work,” Gray said.

Two people intent on having the work come down were Bynum and a non-student, Harry Lord. Gray said he waited, hoping they would be dissuaded from violently removing the artwork, but he was not assured they would leave the sculpture alone.

“They weren’t vigilantes,” he sad. “They wouldn’t sway to the opinion of the majority.

“It’s a terrorist act. It’s a hard word, but this is a travesty. They’ve emulated the very sentiments we’re trying to oppose.

“But taking the piece away hasn’t rid UAA, or Anchorage or the nation, of the beast. I realize this monster racism is still there; we can only keep these lines of communication open. Whiel the piece was there, we were talking, now it’s gone we need to remember it,” he said.

USUAA president Michelle Parks said she is glad the sculpture was taken down.

“I don’t have a problem with the artist,” she said. “I have a problem with the art department and UAA’s lack of policies, the lack of sensitivity by the administration and the art department. I felt like a target.

“The next time it could be someone who is gay, or someone who likes the color orange.”

Parks questioned whether the administration really takes the needs of the students into consideration.

“Are students a priority? I think not,” she said.

“Everyone should be upset. This is the reason we need multicultural education. As much as I hate that word, we need it. If we had diversity, we wouldn’t have problems like this.”

Gray, however, was disappointed by the outcome of the situation and admitted feeling some bitterness.

“I’m afraid I didn’t see eye to eye with Michelle Parks,” he said. “She condemned it before even seeing it. She said she didn’t care what the artist’s intentions were. How can you not take the artist’s intentions into consideration?

“She was talking about student rights. Well, Tony is a student too. What about his rights? I thought her response was very one-sided.”

Parks, however, was adamant in her feelings on the sculpture.

When I walked up and saw that thing, I took it as ‘Michelle Parks does not belong at UAA;’ not Michelle Parks the president, Michelle Parks the student,” she said.

“Where does artistic freedom end and harassment begin?”

Controversial artwork removed 1 of 2


Controversial artwork removed 2 of 2


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