LOVELAND, Colo. — Kathleen Folden walked into the Loveland Museum/Gallery Oct. 6 with a crowbar hidden under her clothes. She walked up to a now-infamous anti-Catholic painting and used the crowbar to repeatedly strike the plastic casing that was supposed to protect the rare print titled “The Misadventures of Romantic Cannibals.”
She yelled, “How can you desecrate my Lord?”
Folden, a 56-year-old truck driver from Kalispell, Mont., hit the protective cover so hard that at least one caller reported gunshots to a 911 operator. After breaking the plastic, Folden began hacking away at the painting.
“It was very dramatic and upsetting,” museum art curator Maureen Corey told the Register. “People were yelling at her to stop, and someone tried to stop her. She finally ripped part of the image out and went to the corner and began ripping it to pieces. Then she calmed down, sat on a bench and waited for police to arrive.”
The image had been the object of large peaceful protests initiated by Deacon Ed Armijo and his pastor, Father Frank Garcia, of St. John the Evangelist Church in Loveland, an artsy community north of Denver.
The obscene painting and its destruction have become the center of a First Amendment flap. Some complain Folden violated the First Amendment rights of the artist to create and display a controversial message. Those critical of Loveland city officials say government violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment by denouncing a specific religion with a government-sponsored insult to Catholics and other Christians.
“Because it is city-owned and operated, the decisions of the Loveland Museum Gallery are the decisions of government,” said Martin Nussbaum, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based attorney who represents Catholic dioceses throughout the country and specializes in church-state conflicts. “When government decides to prominently ridicule the founder of a particular religion through pornographic images under the guise of artistic expression, such state action almost certainly violates the Free Exercise Clause’s prohibition on targeting a particular religion for special burdens and the Establishment Clause’s requirement of government neutrality among the various religions.”
The pornographic artwork, created by Stanford University art professor Enrique Chagoya, went on display the first week of October in the art museum that’s owned by the city government and partly funded by the state.
In multiple cartoon-like panels, the painting depicts what appears to be the head of the Virgin Mary on the body of a scantily clad cocktail waitress. Another panel features the head of Jesus on an obese female body in a one-piece bathing suit riding a bike. The most controversial panel shows Jesus in a pornographic depiction, next to the word “orgasm” written in English.
“The artist created this as criticism of the Church’s handling of the sex-abuse scandal. I tend to align myself with his views,” Corey told the Register.
Nussbaum said those words alone, from a city employee, provide clear evidence the display was chosen to denounce the Catholic religion. He said the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that governments shall neither advance nor denounce religion.
“With that statement, the curator is saying ‘I did this with intent,’ and the intent was to denounce the Catholic Church,” Nussbaum said.
Deacon Armijo said he initiated protests after seeing the painting. He obtained a protest permit from the city government, and the protests quickly grew into multidenominational events.
“I have researched this artist,” Armijo said. “He refers to his own style as ‘Mexican pornography.’”
Armijo said a Spanish sentence near the sex scene describes an act of sexual intercourse with “someone that did not want to be seen.”
“I believe the artist was describing sexual intercourse with the Church,” Armijo said.
Chagoya did not return calls to the Register.
Armijo said another phrase near the sex act said “for 18 years or older” in Spanish.
“When I was in the museum, children were looking at the painting and giggling about it,” said Armijo. “It was the kind of image you would expect to see in Hustler magazine, not a public museum.”
Corey said city employees and elected officials in Loveland respect free speech, and she favored keeping the display because it inspired discussion. She could not tell the Register what was written in Spanish near the sex act.
“You would be better to ask someone who’s fluent in Spanish,” Corey said.
The city charter in Loveland defines pornography as something “so offensive on the face as to affront current community standards of tolerance.” Yet Loveland City attorney John Duvall, responding to complaints from the public, determined the display did not meet that standard. Three members of the City Council voted to remove the display from the museum after citizens packed a council meeting to complain, but four other members voted to keep it in defense of the painter’s First Amendment rights.
What About Muhammad?
As the controversy played out along Colorado’s Front Range, callers to talk radio frequently asked: Would the city display a painting that featured Muhammad receiving oral sex? After all, Islamic clerics have ordered the deaths of authors and artists who have portrayed Muhammad irreverently. And when a Baptist preacher in Florida planned to exercise his free-speech rights by burning Qurans in September, the president of the United States, the secretary of state, other federal officials and much of the media establishment begged him not to.
“I cannot speculate on what we might do regarding a painting that doesn’t exist,” Corey said, responding to the Register’s question about Muhammad. “To do so would invite debate about something that doesn’t exist.”
Folden faces charges of criminal mischief, a Class 4 felony. She was released Oct. 7 on $350 bail. County officials told the Register she was not speaking to the media on the advice of her lawyer. As she left jail, she declined questions but told reporters, “Just remember: God is real.”
Deacon Armijo said he wanted to resolve the conflict peacefully and would have tried to talk Folden out of destroying the painting had he known of her plan. Armijo said he has never heard of Folden and never met her. She was not part of the protest, which had shut down moments before her attack because the permit was good only until 4pm.
“But it’s gone, and I’m glad our children will no longer be exposed to it,” Armijo said.
A statement appearing on the town’s website said the destroyed artwork was a print, not the original, and that the remaining scraps of it are being held by police as evidence. It said the print will not be replaced at the museum.
Jeanette De Melo, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Denver, said Archbishop Charles Chaput and officials of the archdiocese had no involvement in the controversy other than to support Father Garcia and Deacon Armijo in their protest.
Said De Melo in an e-mail to the Register, “The illegal activity that happened yesterday is regrettable and not condoned by Father Garcia or the Church.”.
Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.