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Plan for Statue of Nudes Exposes Seattle's Modesty

THE NATION

Some say the depiction of a naked man and boy, the result of a bequest to the city from a gay man, would be profound. Others find it offensive.

October 02, 2005|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — Stuart Smailes was a jolly, potbellied man, proudly gay, with a walrus mustache and a passion for Broadway shows, merry-go-rounds and calliopes, his friends say.

But most of all, he was an art buff -- so much of a buff that he left a $1-million bequest for a fountain sculpture to the city of Seattle, with an unusual stipulation: It had to include a naked man.

"He was adamant that he wanted the nude figure," said one of his best friends, Tom Luhnow. "Stu loved classical sculptures of nude males. And he really wanted to provoke a discussion about art."

Or, as his lawyer, Tim Bradbury, put it: "Stu wanted to push the envelope."

Smailes has succeeded in that aim.

The Seattle Art Museum announced last week that it would use the Smailes bequest for a fountain titled "Father and Son," created by French-born New York sculptor Louise Bourgeois. It depicts a man and a boy, both nude with a transparent cloak of gushing water, reaching toward each other.

The work is one of several pieces to be installed in the city's 8.5-acre waterfront Olympic Sculpture Park, scheduled to open next year.

Museum officials say the sculpture is profound, but not everyone agrees.

Bourgeois, 94 and internationally renowned, "took the classical subject matter of mother and child, and turned it on its ear," said Lisa Corrin, the chief curator at the museum.

"Nudity in this work is a symbol of emotional nakedness; the two figures stand before each other but cannot touch; they try to see each other, but never see eye to eye; they are separated by bell jars of cascading water, which prevent any contact between them."

Others see it less positively.

"A thinly veiled homage to pedophilia," said John Carlson, a conservative talk radio host in Seattle who was the Republican candidate for governor in 2000 in a losing race.

Or, as the Rev. Joseph Fuiten put it, criticizing the proposed design as "bizarre" and "blatant phallic symbolism" that should be scrapped: "My father never approached me naked.

"When we have children, we teach them that if a child is approached by a naked man, it's simply not appropriate," said Fuiten, the pastor at Cedar Park Assembly of God church in Bothell, Wash., and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Network, an evangelical Christian lobbying group.

Compounding the controversy is a sketch the artist did earlier in her career, also titled "Father and Son," which some critics of the project say has a clear sexual overtone.

Dori Monson, another Seattle talk radio host, has posted that sketch on his station's website, and he said the sculpture was "very odd.... I understand that art is art, but I really question what we're doing here. I don't think it would ever be appropriate for a naked man to reach out to a naked boy."

The museum says the sculpture planned for Seattle has no indication of sexual arousal.

"To look at these figures and see something inappropriate, you'd have to have a very prurient mind," said Corrin, the curator. "It's simply not there."

Smailes, a retired computer analyst for Safeco who was 69 when he died in 2002 and whose bequest was made public early this year, would have been pleased by the fracas over the sculpture, his friend Luhnow said.

"He really wanted to challenge the city," said Luhnow, the director of two singing groups, the Seattle Men's Chorus and the Seattle Women's Chorus. "He thought Seattle was a bit prudish underneath its sophistication, and he wanted to test that. If he caused a little consternation, he would have been delighted by that."

Smailes never married, had no children or siblings, and did not have a partner at the time of his death, his friends say. He loved to travel and especially liked the classical nude statuary one might find in Rome or Paris, and he wanted it in Seattle.

Fuiten, the minister, said his objection to the sculpture was not nakedness per se.

"A naked male figure in art is not news," Fuiten said. "This flap is not about nudity. It's about the nudity of a man and a boy. We do have people in this city who believe boys and men ought to be able to coexist in a naked environment, but nobody who is not a pedophile would be in that category."

Countered Corrin: "It is not inappropriate for an artist to be taking on something that is deeply, deeply human. And for all of us to ask the question, 'What is it that upsets some people so much about the nude male figure, which is one of the most beautiful forms on earth -- whether you are gay or straight?' "

Controversies over naked figures are not new, of course.

Former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft created a flap in 2002 when he had drapes installed over the bare breast in the statue "Spirit of Justice" at the Justice Department's ceremonial Great Hall. (The covering has since been removed.)

And some objected at the unveiling in 2000 of a naked bronze in honor of tennis great Arthur Ashe at the National Tennis Center in New York.

As the controversy over the Seattle sculpture continues to provoke protest and provide talk radio fodder, one thing is clear: Smailes got what he wanted.

"He's probably in heaven right now smiling a very broad smile," Corrin said. "This is exactly the sort of conversation he wanted us to be having."

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