Ends in sight in art ban controversy

Published May 28, 1994|Updated Oct. 7, 2005

1942 was a special year for Paul Eckley Jr.

Shortly after the young pilot joined the forces in the Pacific, he was shot at while sleeping nude in the hot Java sun. Later that year, he commandeered an elephant to dislodge an aircraft, was photographed for a National Geographic magazine story and married his college sweetheart.

Fifty-two years later, Eckley put the memories on canvas. The Clearwater artist was invited to display his painting, 1942, at a Memorial Day exhibit at the Oldsmar City Hall.

But last week, the colorful realist self-portrait was rejected on grounds that it violated Oldsmar's recent ban on nudity in City Hall.

The offense? The rear view of two unclothed soldiers running from Japanese bombers overhead.

"I was shocked," Eckley, 76, said Friday. "That was a humorous scene. I was 145 pounds, barefoot and naked, running with my tin hat banging on my head."

The city didn't see the humor and denied Eckley a spot in the exhibit.

Rosemary Wiseman, Oldsmar's vice mayor and a member of the public art committee, said she had no choice.

"We had a directive and we were supposed to be following that," she said. "We were told in no uncertain terms: no nudity."

For the past two years, the north Pinellas city of 8,600 has embraced the arts through festivals, auctions and concerts. A sign outside City Hall reads "Oldsmar Art Gallery." Inside, paintings line the walls and a glass donation box asks visitors to support the arts.

But at a City Council meeting in March, Oldsmar officials drew the line at how far they would go to support the arts. Although few complaints, if any, had been voiced about an exhibit containing some oil paintings of nudes, city officials voted to ban nudity from City Hall for good.

Eckley is the first artist to be rejected since the paintings of Clearwater artist Claudia Saunders, which inspired the rule, were removed from City Hall.

Oldsmar Mayor Jerry Provenzano said the rule does not define nudity beyond "an unclothed human body."

"If you walk into the Louvre or the Sistine Chapel and you see a piece of artwork with nudity in it and are offended, you have the option of leaving," he said.

"If you walk into Oldsmar City Hall to pay a water bill and are offended by a piece of artwork, you don't have that opportunity. We have to stay on a relatively vanilla plane when it comes to the art we display, although we certainly don't want just fruit bowls and seascapes."

Eckley, who is a member of the Bay Area Professional Association of Visual Artists, has exhibited his work at the Gasparilla Sidewalk Art Fair and at other area festivals. In 1942, he crafted a vibrant realist snapshot of one man's memories of a year in the life of a war.

The work revolves around a present-day self-portrait. At one side of the 4-foot painting there's an image of soldiers pushing an elephant to dislodge an aircraft wedged on a railroad track in India.

Below it, he depicts a B-17 engulfed in flames after a Japanese attack. Across the canvas, Eckley painted his wedding to his wife, Helen, his sweetheart from art school.

What caught the Oldsmar art committee's eye was the image of two soldiers running naked from enemy aircraft. Although the image is small, and the young men are seen only from behind, the art committee said the buttocks violated the ban on nudity.

"It was a very difficult position to be in," said Wiseman, who said she did not find the work offensive. "It's one thing to sit there and make policy, but it's another thing to carry it out."

Surprised and disappointed, Eckley removed six other paintings from the exhibit. He plans to appeal the decision _ and the directive _ at an Oldsmar City Council meeting June 7.

"It could turn other artists off," he said of the ban. "Not only that, I think it's a step back for Oldsmar."

"When you say no nudes, you mean no nudes. You can't even have the Venus de Milo, in their interpretation."