CARRBORO -- Things are quiet in Town Hall this
time of year, what with the Board of Aldermen on summer
recess and a number of officials and staffers away on
But although you can't tell it by the silent meeting
rooms and empty offices, there's something of a tempest
blowing in Carrboro's municipal building.
An exhibit of politically themed art work by local
artist Hunter Levinsohn has aroused significant
antipathy among a number of town employees, to the
extent that one piece was removed last week from the
Board Room wall on which it hung and placed in a more
out-of-the-way location, Mayor Mike Nelson's office. The
show, organized by the Carrboro Art Committee, is
scheduled to remain on display through Sept. 15.
"I've heard a lot of town employees talk about the
show, and I haven't heard a single one say anything
positive about it," said one town employee, who didn't
want to divulge her name. "People are upset. I don't
care for the show, either. We have to be here all day
with it, and we have to deal with the people who come in
to complain about it.
"What bothers me is that people assume that because
it's in Town Hall it represents all of us. It definitely
The show includes a number of mixed-media works that
are unabashedly critical of the Bush administration:
"Bush's Bomb Bag," for example, features an image of the
president encasing a host of toy warplanes and bombs,
and another piece called "Wolf in Sheep's Clothing"
depicts Bush's visage peering out of a wall hanging in
the shape of a sheep's face.
Most of the works are hanging in the halls of Town
Hall and are unavoidable to visitors; "Bush's Bomb Bag,"
for example, hangs directly over the water fountain.
"The Art Committee thinks it's more liberated and
says it stands for peace and love," the employee said.
"But that piece with President Bush and cabinet members
with the bombs and everything, that doesn't represent
peace and love. Art in a workplace should be pleasant
and attractive, not this kind of thing."
Other works in the show include impressions of the
American flag in a number of contexts. One of those, an
image of the flag in which the stars are in the shape of
a swastika, aroused particular complaints from employees
"Some people were really concerned about it, so by a
mutual agreement between the Art Committee, Mike Nelson
and the artist, it was removed from where it had been
hanging and put on the wall in Mike's office," said
Alderman Alex Zaffron, the mayor pro tempore. "If you
look at it, it's immediately evident why people went
through the roof. Displayed in context and with some
explanation, it's a powerful piece that is designed to
get discussion going. But for now, it'll stay in Mike's
Levinsohn said she created the flag piece, titled
"Trying to Make Black and White Out of the Red, White
and Blue," during the first Bush Administration in
response to a proposed constitutional amendment that
would prohibit burning or otherwise damaging the flag.
"The flag is a symbol of American freedom and
justice," said Levinsohn, who is Jewish. "The flag
amendment seemed to me to be an assault on our First
Amendment right to freedom of speech. It seemed to
violate the very freedom the flag symbolizes. The piece
was intended as a protest against the flag amendment.
"The swastika has to do with trying to get across the
idea I was trying to get across on that issue. It has
nothing to do with my feelings about the flag or the
Levinsohn is no stranger to controversy. Much of her
art expresses a strong political or social point of
view, and she once had a piece removed from Chapel Hill
Town Hall, albeit for olfactory rather than political
reasons: It was made of 45,000 cigarette butts, and
employees complained about the smell.
She said she understood that some people might be
offended by the work in Carrboro Town Hall, and she
supported moving the piece to Nelson's office. Its
original location made it virtually impossible for
anyone in the main hall to avoid seeing it.
"I'm fine with moving it," she said. "I do like the
fact that it has generated so much comment and
conversation. That's healthy. People are entitled to
their opinions. I do hope that when people find an image
disturbing or difficult, they'll ask what the artist had
in mind and be open to other ideas.
"It always surprises me when people won't accept
other people's opinions. But I know that people are
sometimes upset by other ideas."
Hanging a potentially controversial work in a gallery
is one thing, she said; people go to galleries
voluntarily, and if they see something they don't like,
they can leave. The employees at Town Hall, on the other
hand, don't have that latitude.
"That makes a big difference," she said. "Being hit
in the face all day by something that makes you angry or
upset -- I think it's completely valid to say that
bothers you. I understand that."
Nelson was out of town when the art exhibit went up,
and after a few days in town last week he's away again.
He said Town Clerk Sarah Williamson called him when the
complaints started coming in, and he approved moving the
piece into his office.
"I said, 'I haven't seen it, but there's no harm
taking it off the wall for a while,'" Nelson said. "I
have seen it now. I think the show is the best we've
ever had in Town Hall. In the context of what the artist
was doing, this is a very strong piece of art. I like
it. My initial reaction is to leave it in my office. I'm
fine with it being hung wherever."
Dave Hart can be reached at 932-8744 or firstname.lastname@example.org