© 2011 by Jack D. Wilson
Editorial cartoon courtesy of the insightful mind and cutting pen of Jacques Laliberté
Here we go again as the Prescott City Council art police try to impose their concept of what is acceptable art for Prescott. Seems that Kristin Anthony a senior at Prescott College obtained permission from Prescott’s Parks and Recreation department to erect a bench in Granite Creek Park as her senior project.
She submitted a preliminary sketch of what she had in mind. She also offered to provide Parks and Recreation with a final plan but was told that was not needed. Kristin and 200 volunteers worked on the bench for seven weeks. Parks and Recreation employees were out there almost every day and told her how well the bench was coming along. The Prescott City Council has never adopted a Public Arts Policy. Steve Norwood, former Prescott City Manager, put his version together a few years back designating the Parks & Recreation Director and the Friends of the Prescott Library as the ultimate arbiters of what is acceptable public art. This lack of a formal Public Arts policy has contributed to the current dilemma.
Photographs by Jack D. Wilson
The design of the bench included mosaic tile work and some of the mosaic symbols resulted in complaints1 to the City of Prescott. The city received two letters on September 21 and 22. Both letters referred to religious symbols on the bench. The September 21 letter was from a woman that does not live in Prescott. Patti Crouse, Administrative Assistant, also received a telephone complaint from another woman. And Prescott City Councilman Jim Lamerson also received phone calls.
One of those symbols is a Peace Sign. It seems that members of the John Birch Society (which was active in Prescott) believe the Peace Sign has a satanic connection (see Alex Constantine’s blog post on the John Birch Society). There are numerous other symbols on the bench including many crosses, the Star of David, a depiction of Hopi land, etc.
It seems the fascist ideas of the John Birch Society are alive and well in Prescott Arizona. The City of Prescott received complaints about the Peace Sign being a sign of the devil! Anyone can easily find out that view is pure poppycock. It was designed in 1958 by Gerald Holtom as a symbol for nuclear disarmament.
On Friday, September 30th, Terry Lovell discussed the bench on his KYCA radio show. Apparently he stuck both of his feet in his mouth with his commentary as the station has deleted that show from their online archive. Maybe we can persuade the station owner Lou Silverstein to put it back up so everyone can listen to his comments about the bench.
On Thursday, October 7, Terry Lovell received a call from Jacob Devaney about the bench. Lovell stated:
“…that Lamerson and the city council was under the impression that the bench was not a permanent structure. He says it has NOTHING to do with the symbols (but there is a process that things need to go through with the city).”
City of Prescott Response
After receiving complaints about the religious symbols on the bench, the City of Prescott quickly jumped into action (our potholes remain, but this got priority treatment). Apparently Mayor Kuykendall and Councilmen Lamerson felt the symbols were inappropriate (our own local art police). First, Kristin was asked by Parks and Recreation to take down prayer flags and Buddha statue. Then acting Parks & Recreation Director Joe Baynes issued a press release on Tuesday, October 4, 2011: City responds to park bench concerns.
The city basically wanted Kristin Anthony to remove all the mosaic art work, all the offensive religious symbols!
Looking for a compromise – is there a middle ground?
On Tuesday, October 11th, Kristin met with Debbie Horton, Parks & Recreation Director, and Tim Legler of the City of Prescott. Kristin presented a proposal that addressed the safety concerns of the city and that had been vetted by two local mosaic tile experts. Her proposal was rejected. That meeting was videotaped and excerpts have been posted on YouTube:
The Original Complaints
1 On Friday, October 7, I submitted a Public Record Request to the City of Prescott. That request resulted in the production of two letters. The first, dated September 21, is from Sandra Klauer:
That was followed by another letter on September 22 from Althea Friedman:
Both of this letters use similar language and complain about the religious symbols on the bench.
KYCA PM Show on September 30
Terry Lovell on his Friday, September 30th KYCA PM show discussed the community bench. Unfortunately that program has not been posted online on the KYCA PM Archives. It is of interest due to reports that a discussion of “…Buddhists are building a bench in Granite Creek Park” occurred on that program.
Complaints about symbols morph into safety concerns
The original controversy about the bench was because of symbolism (the Peace Sign, the Buddha and other religious symbols) and now it had morphed into a safety hazard. Maybe the powers at City Hall were afraid of First Amendment infringement claims or maybe they were pure of heart. In any case the City of Prescott’s official press release had magically lost any references to the offensive symbolism that had originally prompted the controversy. The John Birch Society claims of satanic symbolism had been replaced with weak arguments about safety and vandalism.
Kristin explained to me the bench was unfinished. It still needed to be sanded and grouted. Once that had been done, the sharp edges would not be an issue.
OK, how about concerns about vandalism? Well, we have a large mural in the Granite Street Garage that contains mosaic work and I do not remember a single complaint about that public art being vandalized (although I have heard lots of other complaints about the garage).
Complaints about safety concerns then morph into procedural questions
After Kristin and others raised the issue of religious symbols being the real issue and offered a solution to the safety concerns raised by the city, then Prescott City Councilman Jim Lamerson reframed the objections yet again:
“…Lamerson and the city council was under the impression that the bench was not a permanent structure. He says it has NOTHING to do with the symbols (but there is a process that things need to go through with the city).”
Since this has not been discussed at a public city council meeting, I wonder how the city council could have reached that conclusion without violating Arizona Open Meeting Statues. These morphings of the city’s objections, or reframing or more accurately “spin control” just hits me the wrong way. And I dig into the real issue next.
Conclusion – a lack of religious tolerance
If we think back to the reasons this country was founded we should all remember a major part of it was to escape religious persecution. If you take a close look at this current public art fiasco, it sure seems to me that we have people trying to suppress freedom of expression because there are religious symbols on the bench that are not to their liking. What ever happened to the rage of having “faith based” programs in communities. Truly sad to have such a small viewpoint. What happened to our motto Everybody’s Hometown?
See the Facebook page: Save The Community Bench
See the web site: Save the Community Bench Web Site
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Jack D. Wilson first visited Prescott in 1995 and has been a resident since 2000. He took a sojourn into politics and was the mayor of Prescott Arizona from Nov. 2007 – Nov. 2009. He now writes a couple of blogs among his many activities.