Mulcahy sculpture creates a ‘PR nightmare’ for Aspen
August 17, 2011
A city of Aspen official said she was caught off guard this week by a sculpture former ski instructor Lee Mulcahy erected on public property that attacks Aspen Skiing Co. owners Jim and Paula Crown.
Mulcahy was one of seven artists invited this month to create a sculpture that was supposed to celebrate bicycles and cycling. The city wanted the art to decorate various public places in the days leading up to the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, which hits town Aug. 24.
Mulcahy submitted a concept on July 5 that adhered to the city’s general theme and the public nature of the exhibit, said Aspen Community Relations Director Mitzi Rapkin. “It doesn’t say anything about political statements or personal opinions,” Rapkin said.
So Rapkin said she was “surprised” Monday by what she saw erected on Galena Plaza, on top of the parking garage and adjacent to the Pitkin County Library.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is not what he submitted,'” Rapkin said. “I just stared at it and thought, this is going to be a PR nightmare.”
Mulcahy’s piece features a pair of life-size images of Jim and Paula Crown side by side pasted onto plywood. They are formally dressed and Mulcahy adorned Mrs. Crown with a fur cuff on her left wrist in both images. A Barbie doll is pasted near Mrs. Crown while tiny toy soldiers painted silver are sprinkled around Mr. Crown.
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Small lettering around the pictures of the Crowns makes general reference to war, the military industrial complex and the Crown family’s ownership interest in arms manufacturer General Dynamics.
On the other side of the plywood is a large face of Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder, apparently painted by Mulcahy.
An old mountain bike is rammed through the center of the plywood. The piece is listed for sale for $25,000.
On the side featuring the Crowns, there is a vague reference to “living wage,” which would be impossible for a viewer to process if they didn’t know the history between Mulcahy and his former employer, Aspen Skiing Co.
Mulcahy was fired last season for what Skico officials said were ongoing performance problems. Mulcahy said he was fired in retaliation for talking about forming a union for instructors. He complained to the National Labor Relations Board but his firing was upheld. Skico has banned him from all property owned by the company.
Mulcahy has focused criticism on Skico and the Crowns for the wages paid to beginning ski instructors, claiming it was not a living wage. The campaign has delved primarily into personal attacks on the Crowns.
Rapkin said she consulted with City Attorney John Worcester and City Special Counsel Jim True on Monday about the Mulcahy sculpture. At this point, they decided not to pursue taking the sculpture down because of protections of freedom of speech.
“Once you get into squelching somebody’s speech on public property – you just can’t go there,” Rapkin said.
She said she left a message for Mulcahy on Monday and they finally talked Tuesday. Rapkin said she told him she felt his actions were deceptive. “I asked him if he would take it down and he said ‘no,'” Rapkin said.
Mulcahy said he doesn’t feel he did anything deceptive. He said it was impossible to describe for Rapkin exactly what he was going to do on July 5 because art is “organic” and evolving. “I just finished it,” he said.
He also contended that an artist statement he submitted to Rapkin two weeks ago so it could be laminated and included with the finished piece reflected his thoughts about differing conditions in Aspen for the rich and poor. That should have provided city officials with an idea of where his art was going, he claimed.
When asked if he knew from the start that he would use the sculpture to make a statement about the Crowns, Mulcahy said, “Yeah, I knew absolutely, but I didn’t know how.”
He said a lot of his art is meant to be political. This piece, and others he has completed, are meant to get viewers to think about how “big money” has changed Aspen.
“I want to effect change in Aspen,” Mulcahy said.
His efforts to ruffle feathers might not be welcomed by everyone in City Hall, he said. “My message may not appeal to the city because they want to please the Crowns or the Skico,” Mulcahy said.
Both the Assange and Crown sides of his sculpture have empty books where people are encouraged to write comments, but they were sparse as of Tuesday at 1:30 p.m.
“Lee, you’re an ass,” said one comment. The only comment in the Assange comment book said, “Huh?”
Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle said the sculpture is another example of Mulcahy finding a way to use the “system” to his benefit.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate,” Hanle said of the sculpture on public property. “It’s Lee Mulcahy trying to manipulate the system for his own personal gain.”
Hanle said he suspects Mulcahy wants to “trap” the city into taking his sculpture down so he could make a big deal about censorship.
True said the city is evaluating case law to gauge if it has any authority to order the sculpture taken down. “There are tough legal questions that float around on this,” he said.
The fact that Mulcahy produced a sculpture different from what Rapkin was expecting might not have any bearing on the issue, according to True. “Does that automatically mean he gives up free speech rights?” True asked.
Worcester said Aspen residents and guests are sophisticated enough to know the presence of the sculpture on city property doesn’t signify an endorsement by the city government.
“I think the sculpture says more about Lee than anyone else,” Worcester said. When asked what the sculpture says, he added that it is “juvenile.”