In some small, conservative town, it might not be surprising to find concerned citizens debating plans to erect a nude sculpture by a local artist in the town square.
But this is Venice, a freewheeling Los Angeles coastal community of street performers, Muscle Beach bodybuilders and skaters in thong bikinis and an artists' haven for decades. The sculptor is no would-be Michelangelo but renowned Venice artist Robert Graham.
And the neighborhood in a tizzy over his stainless-steel female torso was home to the most popular bare-it-all beach in the county until public nudity was banned in the mid-'70s.
Now, 30 years later, some vocal Venice residents want a new ban on public nudity -- and this time the naked offender is a sculpture.
The Los Angeles City Council approved the yet-to-be completed artwork, a gift to the city from the artist and Venice donor Roy Doumani, last June.
But earlier this month a handful of Venice residents filed appeals with the city to block the sculpture's placement in Windward Circle, a traffic circle ringed with funky eateries, wacky gift shops and chic boutiques.
Although only six appeals were filed, they could hold up the project for months or scrap it altogether.
In keeping with the community's contrarian reputation, unexpected alliances have formed on both sides: Conservative church leaders have joined with staunch feminists in opposition; some old-guard activists have connected with ambitious developers to defend the torso.
Real estate agent Sylviane Dungan is among those seeking to block the sculpture.
"I have owned my house in Venice, a block from the Windward Circle, for 24 years, and I lived in it for 14 years," Dungan writes in her appeal to the city. "I deplore the representation of a woman as a headless bust, a shiny sexual object."
Last month, both sides were out in force at a hip sushi restaurant, where several dozen residents engaged in a heated discussion.
The meeting included some of the town's most colorful regulars: homeless activist "Dr. John" Michel with his long white beard and a hatband printed with marijuana leaves; Cal State Long Beach history professor Arnold Springer, who has worn women's clothing since the mid-1980s as a challenge to the "taboos of gender and fashion."
One attendee pleaded with the group to wear business clothes to an upcoming public hearing about the project "so we don't look like a bunch of Venice bohemians."
The discussion zeroed in on indecent exposure. But some residents worry that something more serious is at stake: They say intolerance toward a sculpture by Graham -- creator of such high-profile public art pieces as the doors of downtown's Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and the nude torsos outside the Memorial Coliseum -- may have broader implications for the future of public art in their community.
"While Venice has been famous for many years for the artists it has nurtured, almost none of their art is on public display in our community," said Mark Ryavec, a member of the Venice Forum neighborhood group. "We need to support these cutting-edge artists; it is a palpable visual statement about what Venice has been for so many years -- an artist's community."
Two of Venice's most visible pieces of public art -- Jonathan Borofsky's bearded "Ballerina Clown" and Claes Oldenburg's giant binoculars -- are on private buildings. Mark di Suvero's 60-foot-tall sculpture "Declaration," also known as the "V," was installed in 2001, but on the boardwalk, not in the town center.
Esquire Jauchem, a 20-year Venice resident and producer of the annual street festival Venice Beach Carnevale, says banning any artwork in Venice would set a dangerous precedent. "I happen to think that 'V' thing is butt-ugly, but you don't see me marching in the streets," he said. "I think the torso is beautiful, but I would fight just as hard if I found it unattractive."
Some community leaders hoped the Graham piece would be in place for Venice's Fourth of July centennial celebrations. Entrepreneur Abbot Kinney established "Venice of America" on that date in 1905.
But on April 1, Pastor Steven Weller of the evangelical Venice Foursquare Church and members of the congregation gathered at Windward Circle to pray for the project to be canceled.
The day also marked the deadline to file appeals with the city, and, in a move that wields more political clout than prayer does, Weller and five others not affiliated with the church filed letters asking the city Department of Public Works to deny the request for the required coastal development permit.
The idea of placing public art in Windward Circle dates back about two years. It was the dream of the late Diane Bush, a founder of the Venice Action Committee, launched in the 1970s. She died in January.