Personal Testimony of Events Surrounding Removal of Painting Titled “Butterfly” by Michele Tuohey
On August 10, 2000, “Butterfly” was hung by Curator Oscar Martinez on a wall as part of the exhibition titled “Images and Reflections,” a show of works by Cuban artists.
On August 11, 2000, the exhibition opened to the public upon the opening of the Illinois State Fair. That morning, Mike Oquendo, who was hired by the State to put together all of the Cuban festivities, called Oscar and mentioned that individuals from the Governor’s press office along with some members from the Department of Agriculture had walked through the exhibition that morning and had decided to remove my painting titled “Butterfly.” Oscar told him that what they were doing was censorship and asked him to speak to me and let me know their reasoning for this action. Oquendo called me and told me that the Governor’s press spokespersons and representatives from the Department of Agriculture felt that the painting could be taken to symbolize abortion and because it was an election year the painting could become problematic for Governor Ryan. I told him that the painting had nothing to do with abortion and everything to do with life and that it celebrated my entry into motherhood. He understood this, but had to relay the message from the representatives at the State. I offered to write an explanation of what I was trying to convey in “Butterfly” so that he could place it next to the painting and clarify any issue that might come up. He told me that this would probably resolve their concerns, so I faxed an explanation to him. He called me again to say that abortion was no longer the issue and that now it was the fact that the fetus was on the floor. I explained that the fetus was a symbol of me and, if they looked closely at it, they could see that the face of the fetus was of an adult woman. I asked if I could speak to the Governor’s representatives directly and he told me that I would be receiving a call from them within the hour. I never did. Oquendo called back again to let me know that he had been ordered to physically take down the painting and that my explanation was not enough to change the minds of the Governor’s representatives. He also said that they felt that if the painting were to become controversial that the State did not have the legal resources to defend the painting. They took it down at approximately 10:30 a.m. and the fair opened prior to that. They did not look for any alternative ways to show the painting. It was wrapped up and put away. To my knowledge, there were no preliminary reactions to the painting from the public that might have exercised pressure on Joe Hampton, director of the Department of Agriculture whom I learned from a Chicago Tribune article made the decision to remove the painting.
On August 12, 2000, a lecture and reception took place. Raquel Yossiffon spoke about the art in the exhibition and showed a slide of the painting “Butterfly.” She explained that it had been removed from the show. People in the audience said that they did not find it offensive. In an article in the November 2000, issue of the Chicago Artist Coalition News John Herath, the spokesperson from the Department of Agriculture, said that showing the slide was a fair compromise. There had never been any discussion with me, however, about trying to find a compromise. In fact, when the audience started to question why they had removed the painting a representative from the State replied by saying that it was damaged. It is true that in transit it received a small tear on my white figure in the forefront of the painting, but Oscar placed white tape behind the painting to close it and the tear was never a reason offered to me for its removal. Only the other issues mentioned above were given. There was little deliberation and even less awareness that taking down my work had First Amendment implications.