Finger art riles some in Bolton Hill Institute asks student artist to remove one of fingers

March 07, 1997|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

"Art upsets," as Cubist painter Georges Braque said once. That truth still holds in Bolton Hill, as Maryland Institute, College of Art student Steve Jones found out yesterday when his five "Fingers of Fear" caused a tempest.

In the latest skirmish between art and propriety, Jones, 22, was asked to remove one of the fingers in the pink ceramic and concrete sculpture he had installed on a median strip near the institute in time for Parents Weekend on Sunday. One of the fingers, which has a condom over it, could easily be mistaken for something else, institute officials decided.

Douglas Frost, vice president of development, calls the controversy merely a matter of "community relations." Jones considers it no less than "censorship."

At first, Jones complied and moved the pink finger closer to the school to obscure it from public view when he was told the institute wanted to avoid offending its neighbors, particularly the Roman Catholic church next door.

Later in the day, however, he decided to put it back in its original position covered in a black shroud, as a way to "protest peacefully."

Next door to the Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church and up the street from the Mount Royal Intermediate School and a senior citizens center, Maryland Institute toes a delicate line between animating and shocking the neighborhood.

Sister Jane Coyle, the church's pastoral director, said, "After a prayer service, one of our parishioners told me that the statue was terribly inappropriate, especially in front of a church.

"I did look this morning and it's a condom all right," Coyle said. "I don't know what on earth it's trying to convey."

The artist said the sculpture was not intended to be obscene.

"If they had looked for more than just a second, they would have seen it was a finger," said Jones, who was raised a Catholic in St. Louis.

"You walk through the neighborhood, you see used condoms in the street, you see them on billboards, but because it's a piece of art, it's attacked," Jones said. "A private art school is one place you shouldn't be censored."

As he explains the meaning of his "Fingers of Fear," each represents a different fear.

For instance, a withered thumb stands for a fear of aging, while a finger with a wedding band stands for his fear of "getting hitched and having to compromise."

But the most severe is the fear represented by the condom, of all that goes with sex for the younger set these days: not only the threat of AIDS, but also getting lost in their emotions.

During the five days of its public display, the work generated some comment, earning the nickname of "Mr. Big" from a few of the neighborhood women.

The Mount Royal Improvement Association discussed the artwork at its board meeting Tuesday, said President Deborah Diehl, but did not reach a resolution.

After the institute fielded some calls of complaint, administrators decided to have a faculty member speak with Jones about moving the finger off the median strip, which is public property.

Word of the finger's fate spread quickly through the student body, which numbers about 1,000. A class taught by Ken Tisa discussed the issue.

"If one artist is censored, we're all censored," said Tisa. "It can't be sloughed off. Art is a very easy thing to pick on."

So the story isn't over. As Diehl observed, "Art is intended to provoke, and this has certainly done that."

Pub Date: 3/07/97

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