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3 min

Library in Tillsonburg backtracks on censored art exhibit

Sculptures covered with bed sheet, gay artist outraged

"Making Love" Credit: R. Bruce Flowers

A library in the small community of Tillsonburg, near London, Ontario, has removed the bedsheet covering a display case featuring the sculptures of a local gay artist.

London-based artist R Bruce Flowers says he is disturbed and saddened by what he sees as blatant homophobic censorship of his work. He says it’s horrifying this still happens in 2010.

His sculptures in the foyer of the Tillsonburg Public Library, four intricately carved pieces, spent weeks covered with a bed sheet. One sculpture depicts two men laughing in a joyous embrace, an image that could just as easily be two close friends or siblings, he says. The exhibit is part of the Oxford County Art Project: Art in Public Spaces initiative.

“These are very innocent images,” says the retired teacher and full-time sculptor. “A child would just see a warm hug or two hands.”

He says the curators of the exhibit chose “exceptionally family-friendly” pieces from his extensive body of work.

The exhibit was unveiled on Nov 29 and at first everything seemed fine. There was tremendous response from library patrons, Flowers says, and reviews were very favourable.Then a local newspaper published a positive review of the work in a story about the public art initiative, he says.

“[The article] mentions that I’m an artist that creates celebratory images of same-sex partners,” he says. “The local Baptist church took great offence to the work as soon as they found out I was a gay sculptor. It seemed to have contaminated the work. Suddenly it was all negatively eroticized.”

Soon after, the curators noticed that someone had covered the exhibit with a bed sheet. On the sheet is a sign inviting people to “view the sculpture behind the sheet.”

Flowers doesn’t know who is responsible for covering his work. “I know some of the librarians were very upset because they saw this as a censorship issue,” he says.

On Dec 10 library manager Richard Sulkers, who was not available to comment to Xtra, met with curators to examine the Oxford County Art Project contract with the library.

“The contract clearly states that the space in the foyer of the library was donated for an art in public spaces initiative,” he says. “So they removed the sheet. But when they left, the sheet went right back up again.”

Then, on Dec 14, the town’s mayor and a local councillor attended a meeting to discuss the next steps, he says. At the meeting, the library board passed a unanimous motion to host the exhibit – uncovered – until Feb 28.

“What was really frightening about this whole thing is, it’s not like they came and studied the work, analyzed it, and then were offended by it,” he says. “No. It’s just because I’m a gay sculptor.”

Throughout the controversy, letters and calls from shocked locals continued to roll in to the library and the local newspaper, creating a scandal in the town of 14,822 people, he says.

Coming to his defence, London area gay, lesbian and trans rights activists began rallying around Flowers and putting pressure on the library to end the censorship.

“But so many in the queer community in this area couldn’t speak up because they’re closeted,” he says. “It’s created this enormous dialogue in the community. It’s really all just homophobic censorship coming out of this New Hope Baptist Church.”

Tillsonburg’s New Hope pastor John Friesen says he hasn’t actually seen the exhibit in person, but knows it’s not “reflective of family values.”

Friesen evaded Xtra’s questions, saying he doesn’t think he had any influence on the library’s decision to censor the work.

“People in the community I talk to, they are not pleased either,” he says. “It’s not portraying family values. Do you see a man and a woman and children?”

Tillsonburg News letter-writer Greg Friesen – pastor John Friesen’s son – said he finds it “appalling” that the library would be so insensitive to put something “as controversial as homosexuality” in the public library.

“Since when did a public library become a place to showcase any sort of sexuality?” Friesen asks. “When I go to the library with my children, I don’t want to be seeing, let alone explaining, homosexual intimacy to my children.”

Friesen did not return calls from Xtra.