St. John photographer-artist Constance Wallace's collage portraits of a dozen Cruz Bay men have proven to be real show stoppers — again.
Wallace says she received a telephone message on Friday night, Dec. 17, after the opening of the show at the Elaine I. Sprauve Library and Museum, telling her to take it down on Monday. She did so — and accepted an invitation to relocate the show to the new offices of the St. John Community Foundation across the street, where it will open in a few days.
Six years ago, Wallace was invited to exhibit earlier prints of the same subjects at the Chase Bank in Cruz Bay. A week after the show opened, she was asked to remove it. At the invitation of the owners of Bamboula in Mongoose Junction and Island Hoppers in Wharfside, she then divided up the works, to hang in their shops.
What is it about these photographic works of art that caused such controversy in 1993 and has done so again in 1999?
Not what they show, but who.
In the big picture, the debate is about artistic license, freedom of expression and other First Amendment issues — the kind of concerns that prompt civil libertarians to warn that if it happens to her today, it could happen to any of us tomorrow.
But close up, the controversy is about the fact that St. John is a very small community in which everybody knows most everybody else.
And they know that some of the Cruz Bay men whose portraits Wallace produced are not sterling citizens. As St. John administrator Julien Harley put it Wednesday, "You have a few guys there that have been into drugs."
One or two, people seem to think, can currently be found doing time on the mainland, although no one contacted by the Source could say precisely who or what for.
"Kids need better role models," Sprauve librarian Carol McGuinness stated.
Before the opening on Friday, in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Friends of the Library, Wallace spoke by telephone with Simon Caines, coordinator of library and cultural services for the Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums under the Department of Planning and Natural Resources. She says he told her that pictures of anyone convicted of a felony would have to come down. "To my knowledge, none of the people have been convicted," was Wallace's response, and the exhibit opened intact.
The opening "seemed to go well and was very well attended," Wallace said. Caines came "and said he liked the show," she said. That night, she found the answering machine message from McGuinniss, who was off island, asking her to take the show down on Monday.
Harley said he was asked on Tuesday by PNR assistant commissioner Claudette Lewis — Caines' boss — to check out the show. "I went to see it because Ms. Lewis told me to go and look at it," he said.
As far as Harley's concerned, "Art is what people see it as. This is one photographer's work, but everybody will have their own interpretation." However, he added, "because of this being a hot item, I think a lot of people are going to go see it, whereas they wouldn't have otherwise."
He says he understands the concerns raised by those opposed to having the portraits hang in the library. "Most of the kids that use the library see these guys on the street," he said. "What I'm hearing is that it's sending the wrong message. But also, now, I believe more people are going to go and see it."
Wallace says she knew only two of the 12 men before she approached them about taking their pictures in 1992 and 1993. She decided to shoot the series because she had long been fascinated by the "very flambouyant, colorful" dress style of many St. John men "that seemed to say ‘look at me.'" All of those she approached readily agreed to pose, she said. "They were flattered — finally someone was looking at them — ‘You see what I'm wearing.'"
The dozen portraits include a stonemason, a resort groundskeeper, a maker of coconut bird feeders, two gas station attendants, a musician, a man boarding a ferry with his cellular phone tucked under his shirt, a proud owner of a custom convertible truck, a Motor Vehicles Bureau employee, a man on the beach, and a guy leaning against a sign showing off his threads. Most are dressed in casual, colorful garb. Some outfits are lavishly accessorized with gold chains and handfuls of rings.
Wallace says she was asked to take down the bank show six years ago for several reasons: Customers in line kept asking the tellers about the works. People were coming in to see the art who were not there on bank business — including some of her subjects and their friends. And, yes, there were complaints "that some of those depicted were drug dealers."
McGuinness said Wednesday she had received complaints "about the character of some of the people" depicted and that she asked Wallace to take down the pictures of any subjects who were in jail, until she could return from off island to resolve the matter.
Caines, contacted by the Source, said the matter had come to the attention of Lewis but declined any further comment. He said he would get back to the reporter but had not done so by the close of business Wednesday.
There is no law against publicly displaying the images of suspected or convicted criminals. The news media do it all the time. But, Harley said, there also is no local policy on the criteria for determining the suitability of artwork for exhibition in public buildings. He thinks that needs to change.
"Somebody made a call on this," he said. "It's going to happen again. If there's not a concrete policy in place, now is the time to do it. Otherwise, it's going to come back and bite us in the butt."
Wallace said she's not fighting the library decision, although she considers it an attempt by library officials to censor her art. "I was invited; I can be disinvited," she said. Besides, the new Community Foundation office in the Tradewinds Building offers better space: "They just painted it — white walls, very gallery-looking."
Blazine wasn't taking sides in the controversy. "What has compelled me," she said, "is that I have a new office with art on the walls, and a portion of any sales will be donated to the foundation."
The collages range from $150 for a small unframed piece to $700 for works mounted archivally under glass with Italian carved hardwood frames.


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