Moving "The Politician"

Artist Billie Lawless at the original Chester Avenue site of his sculpture. [David C. Barnett / ideastream]
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Billie Lawless climbed out of his pick-up truck with a pair of Ray Bans shielding his eyes from the afternoon sun. He also sported a Mickey Mouse watch on his arm, which somehow seems appropriate for an artist known for crafting whimsical mechanical sculptures, but he said it wasn't that deep.

"It's just because I've never grown up - some part of me," he said.  "Or some part doesn't want to grow-up, but the part that matters, has, unfortunately."

Crafting the wheels [photo: Billie Lawless]

A welcome breeze swept across the parched grass at East 66th and Chester, where the 58-year-old Lawless was inspecting one of his most famous works - a gigantic representation of a child's pull toy, with a satiric edge. It sports a couple of slowly spinning wheels that never go anywhere... two eye sockets filled with flickering TV sets... and a mouth in constant motion that never says anything. He calls this fanciful creation: "The Politician - A Toy".

"My father was a politician, I grew-up around politicians, so a lot of it was self-evident, I guess," he said.

Crafting the mouth [photo: Billie Lawless]

But, officials in City Hall weren't amused when he first proposed the piece in 1994. Mayor Michael White was quoted in the Plain Dealer as saying, "I have seen it. I don't like it." White's Planning Director Hunter Morrison shrugged at the memory.

"To be perfectly frank, Billie Lawless had an in-your-face attitude toward public officials and he got the sort of reaction from the mayor that I think he expected," Morrison said.  "At the same time, the mayor instructed us to treat this very professionally and to address the real issues, not the content issues."

Crafting the tail [photo: Billie Lawless]

Those issues included concerns that kids from the neighborhood, on the other side of Chester Avenue, might get injured or even electrocuted if they started climbing on the piece. Lawless was ordered to install an electrical cut-off switch, and to put a five-foot fence around his creation. While acknowledging the safety concerns, the artist suspected that city officials were trying to stifle his free expression. Morrison said the city has faced such issues before.

"We had worked at the very beginning of the White administration with Claes Oldenburg in a very touchy situation having to do with the relocation of the 'Free Stamp'," he said.

The Free Stamp - a giant rubber stamp bearing the word "FREE" on its face - was crafted by internationally respected sculptor Claes Oldenburg as a tribute to immigrants who settled in Cleveland. It was originally underwritten by British Petroleum, which was then headquartered in the city. But company officials were reportedly uncomfortable with the symbolism of a rubber stamp, and withdrew their support, which drew the scorn of the local arts community.

"We were quite sensitized by some of the real leaders in the arts business about the whole question of artist's rights and what's the appropriate relation between the public body and the artist," said Morrison.

After some closed door negotiations, Free Stamp was relocated next to City Hall, which inspired a few chuckles from local pundits. And since then, the initial controversy over Billie Lawless's "Politician" has also faded over the course of a decade. A non profit group is currently negotiating to get the piece moved to a more pedestrian-friendly location. That's just fine with the reluctant grown-up with the Mickey Mouse watch.

"Any person who is a grown, rational human being can see the humor in it and laugh at it," Lawless said.  "And, if you're a politician and you can't, then perhaps you should be in another field."

Even Hunter Morrison is now a fan.

"I think it's a neat piece, at this point, and the public officials who took umbrage at the time have moved on to other things, so life goes on," he said.

The artist in the belly of his creation [photo: Billie Lawless]

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