Sculptor takes cathedral to court 10-ton statue of angel causes legal spat over working area


WASHINGTON - It started with an angelic sculpture, but ended with a legal slugfest in small claims court earlier this month between the august Washington National Cathedral and a former artist-in-residence.

At stake was $5,000 that sculptor Robert Mihaly said the cathedral managers owed him to cover the cost of shipping his angel back home to Raleigh, N.C., and other damages that came when they threw him off the cathedral grounds in May.

A self-taught sculptor and painter, Mihaly had been working for months in a stoneyard near the cathedral, transforming a 10-ton piece of Vermont marble into an angel intended for use as a grave monument.

He received no pay, but was given a studio, a phone and office space. In return, the cathedral hoped visitors could watch Gothic stonework being shaped.

But Mihaly's angel was too large for the cathedral's carving shed, which had a plate-glass window for visiting sightseers. So, last fall, cathedral employees built a large plastic-covered structure for Mihaly to work on the angel in the adjacent stoneyard.

By February, the cathedral managers had decided the tarp was an eyesore, and had it torn down, over Mihaly's protests. Mihaly proceeded to put up his own tarp, and as the months passed, something other than Christian love began to fill the air.

Finally, the cathedral terminated him, and he sued the institution.

In court, Mihaly argued that he had lived up to the agreement because visitors could enter the stoneyard and visit him, and could also look over the fence.

But the cathedral managers said the stoneyard was too dangerous. So dangerous, in fact, that they asked Mihaly to buy liability insurance and posted a sign on the 6-foot-tall fence that said, "Keep out."

Jane Miller, the cathedral volunteer manager who recruited Mihaly, said the artist had missed the spirit of the agreement.

"There was no promise [for working outside] made to Mr. Mihaly," she said. "We were simply trying to be accommodating."

But Mihaly said that the accommodation was an oral agreement and that the cathedral simply hid behind a written document because their managers found it inconvenient to maintain what they considered an eyesore.

"I really think it's a kind of arrogance on their part," he said

In the end, small claims commissioner Dennis Doyle sided with the cathedral.

Doyle said he saw little evidence to support Mihaly's passionate claims of broken promises and damages suffered.

While the artist may have failed as a lawyer, Doyle said it was a shame that such a reputable institution and a promising artist had ended up slugging it out in his courtroom.

"I find it ironic that these two parties, who are both known for their sensitivity and outreach, are here," Doyle said. "There is something definitely wrong with this picture."

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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