Art or blasphemy? Sculpture causes controversy

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Some members of the Catholic community have asked Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d’Alene to remove “Our Lady of G and Me,” from display at the gallery. They said it is offensive and it is blasphemy. (LOREN BENOIT/Hagadone News Network)

By MAUREEN DOLAN

Hagadone News Network

COEUR d’ALENE — A piece of artwork being exhibited in the window of a Coeur d’Alene art gallery has rankled some members of the local Catholic community who say it is offensive to their faith.

Bob Runkle, who attends St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Coeur d’Alene, said a network of parishioners from at least two local Catholic parishes have appealed to Art Spirit Gallery on Sherman Avenue to remove the piece — a sculpted depiction of Our Lady of Guadalupe — from display.

“They said it’s free speech,” Runkle said. “We totally support free speech and an artist’s choice, but when it comes to offending

people’s religious beliefs, we should have a choice too.”

Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Roman Catholicism, is the title of the Blessed Virgin Mary who appeared in 1531 to Juan Diego, an Aztec convert to Christianity, in an area that is present-day Mexico City. Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico and her image features prominently in Mexican history.

The art piece on display at Art Spirit Gallery is entitled “Our Lady of G and Me.” Chris Riccardo, based in Helena, Mont., is the artist.

The sculpture depicts Our Lady of Guadalupe in the style of the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday when those who have died are remembered and celebrated. Skulls feature prominently in masks, decorations and candies that are part of the traditional celebrations.

Riccardo’s piece, made of clay and 32 inches high, shows a veiled figure standing with hands clasped in prayer. One breast is exposed along with most of the nipple. Her face appears skeletal with lips sewn shut. From beneath her skirt at the base of the sculpture another person peers out and up at her.

Art Spirit Gallery owner Blair Williams said Riccardo’s works have been exhibited at the gallery several times over the last three years.

This is the sixth time “Our Lady of G and Me” has been displayed in the gallery’s storefront window, but the first time anyone has complained about it.

Williams said several people stopped by the gallery this week and asked that the sculpture be removed.

“They shared that it is their belief it is blasphemy,” Williams said.

The gallery also received several emails and Facebook messages from those of the Catholic faith asking for the sculpture’s removal.

Williams said she considered taking the artwork down, but decided against it. She said she wants all voices to be heard, and she spent time listening to those who stopped by the gallery.

She told those calling for the sculpture’s removal that while the gallery respects their beliefs and their request, Art Spirit is standing behind its artists in their choice of depiction in their artwork. In her response to written complaints, Williams added the following quotes from the American Civil Liberty Union’s webpage:

“The answer is simple, and timeless: a free society is based on the principle that each and every individual has the right to decide what art or entertainment he or she wants — or does not want — to receive or create. Once you allow the government or anyone, to censor someone else, you cede to it the power to censor you, or something you like. Censorship is like poison gas: a powerful weapon that can harm you when the wind shifts.

Freedom of expression for ourselves requires freedom of expression for others. It is at the very heart of our democracy.”

Riccardo, the artist, said in a message to The Press, that as a young boy growing up in the Catholic church, he always found himself drawn to the “beautiful statuary and stained glass” of the churches and schools he attended.

“These iconic images, hovering over us, fascinated me, and as I got older these images found their way into my sculpture,” Riccardo wrote.

He admitted to an ongoing struggle with his own beliefs and faith, but said he respects those who hold true to their faith and religious practices. His sculpture ‘Our Lady of G and Me’ was not created, he said, to offend people.

“It was created to be my spin on those beautiful statues I saw as a child. Art should create some sort of dialogue. If it doesn’t, then it’s not art,” he wrote. “The Virgin of Guadalupe represents the mixture of the different cultures that blended to form Mexico, both racially and religiously. Yes, there are references to the pagan gods in Mexico which is why you will see The Virgin sometimes shown with the Day of the Dead makeup, so I borrowed this detail.”

He said as an artist he has the right to create what he feels inside and show it to whomever is willing to look.

“We love our country because of the rights we are given as citizens. The idea of being able to speak our minds is one of the most important of those rights,” Riccardo said.

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