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Maine library to show art that irks

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / November 12, 2007

A controversy in Kennebunk, Maine, over collages made of old American flags, including caricatures of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, continues to rustle through the small coastal town near the Bush family's estate and vacation retreat.

First, the Kennebunk Free Library canceled G. Bud Swenson's art exhibit after receiving complaints that his artwork was offensive because it was fashioned from old US flags. At the urging of the library trustees, library officials reversed their decision - but then abruptly removed the caricatures the day of the exhibit's opening last week, saying the two caricatures violated "normative community standards."

Now the trustees have intervened again. They announced Friday the library would display the caricatures, along with the rest of the exhibit, in the interest of free political and artistic expression. Swenson, a 65-year-old carpenter who has been an artist for 40 years, said yesterday he was deeply disappointed by the initial decision and is delighted his entire exhibit is now on display.

"I really give the library credit for having the courage to put the show on," he said yesterday in a phone interview. "The political tensions in this town are on edge, and I knew this would be controversial, so I'm ecstatic about the outcome."

Part of an exhibit called "Portraits in a Time of War," Swenson's caricatures depict President Bush with a simpleton grin, while Cheney appears callous and detached. Swenson declined comment on the caricatures, but acknowledged he is a staunch opponent of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.

"I'm not a big fan, let's just put it that way," he said. "I shredded some old flags, but Bush and Cheney shredded the Constitution."

Swenson said the Bush family's ties to the area, with its compound just down the road in Kennebunkport, has heightened local divisions over the war and his presidency. He said the artwork, which he creates from sections of used flags he purchases at flea markets, conveys the anguish of military combat, in battle and on the home front.

"I wanted to show that people suffer in time of war," he said. "I believe it's the responsibility of artists to document the times they live in."

The 13-member board of trustees said in a statement it believed the community could "handle the controversial exhibit" and would ultimately be "better off for embracing intellectual freedom."

"We respect and understand that there are extremely strong feelings on all sides of this issue, and we all recognized the importance of this decision," said Kate Manahan, president of the trustees. "There is considerable statutory and case law that supports this decision, and that formed the basis of our conclusion to permit the exhibit."

The trustees were responding to two formal requests for the caricatures to be displayed. The vote was not unanimous and followed an "passionate yet civil" debate, the statement said.

In light of the controversy, the trustees scheduled a forum on the exhibit for Nov. 16. The exhibit is expected to be displayed until Nov. 29.

The library's director, Janet Cate, could not be reached for comment. On Nov. 7, Cate was quoted in the Portland Press Herald as saying that the caricatures did not meet "normative community standards," and on Nov. 8, she was quoted in the Portsmouth Herald as calling them "excessively inflammatory."

The dispute has rippled well beyond Kennebunk. Svetlana Mintcheva, director of the arts program for the National Coalition Against Censorship, wrote to the library to insist that "artworks selected for display in a public library such as yours cannot constitutionally be excluded based solely on content simply because they are controversial or offend some viewers."

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.

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