The sculptor behind the demon-eyed, rotting-toothed bronze vision of Lucille Ball in upstate New York had a lot of ’splaining to do this past week.
Dave Poulin created “Scary Lucy,” a statue of the beloved I Love Lucy star that has been publicly displayed in her hometown of Celoron, New York, since 2009. The frightening incarnation of Ball’s iconic ‘Vitameatavegamin’ scene has disappointed town residents since it arrived.
The casual observer can only conclude that an attempt to capture her brilliantly hilarious facial expression in that piece of television history went awry.
In the 400-pound bronze sculpture, the woman who is considered one of the greatest American comedians ended up being commemorated in a sculpture that bears more of a resemblance to the Bride of Frankenstein.
“It looks more like an extra from The Walking Dead,” writes Buffalo News art critic Colin Dabowski, who adds that “despite the fact that its deranged grimace and jagged teeth inspire more dread than reverence—tour buses still stop at the park.”
A Facebook page devoted to its removal, “We Love Lucy! Get Rid of this Statue,” was created in 2012, but only in the past week has the campaign to remove the ghoulish Lucy picked up steam.
According to Dabowski, “an anonymous Facebook post turned up the heat on a long-simmering debate over the sculpture.” A report in the local Jamestown Post-Journal on a community effort to raise funds to remove and replace the statue sparked an outpouring of national support.
Hell hath no fury like an online brigade of Lucy lovers. After initially saying he would replace the statue for $8,000 to $10,000, Poulin said in a letter to the Hollywood Reporter on Monday that he “takes full responsibility for ‘Scary Lucy’” and offers to “remove the current statue with the promise of creating a new beautiful and charming ‘Lucy.’”
The gracious offer appears to have been rejected. Just like Ricky’s constant rebuff to Lucy’s attempts to perform at the Tropicana, Celoron Mayor Scott Schrecengost appears to have turned down Poulin’s offer, saying a new sculptor had been chosen and he was “ready to move on.”
While the brouhaha over the statue is a credit to how universally cherished Lucille Ball is, public sculptures have a unique way of stirring anger and mobilizing the masses, especially when they serve commemorative purposes.
Outrage was abundant when the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was unveiled on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2011. “The mound’s isolation from any other tall objects, its enormity and Dr. King’s posture all conspire to make him seem an authoritarian figure,” wrote Edward Rothstein in The New York Times. He said the memorial turns King from “the minister into a warrior or a ruler.”
A giant statue of Marilyn Monroe’s subway scene from The Seven Year Itch—the epitome of classic Hollywood, if ever there were one—also faced it share of controversy when it was presented in Chicago in 2011.
The 26-foot-tall Monroe by J. Seward Johnson Jr. was seen not as a tribute, but rather “an object of male consumption” that is “downright creepy and sexist,” wrote Abraham Ritchie in Chicago Now.
The problem was a “transitory moment is creepily frozen in time,” and thus, “the eroticism of the actual scene is drained out as the moment last eternally.”
In London, a statue tribute to writer Oscar Wilde by Maggi Hambling was roundly mocked. Wilde’s head emerges from a sarcophagus with a place for people to sit with, perhaps, the wittiest man who ever lived. However, TimeOut London said “the resulting effect of a clown drowning in a coffin full of pasta has failed to attract (sober) company.”
Wilde himself may have appreciated the salacious vulgarity in the Cristiano Ronaldo statue in the soccer star’s hometown in Funchal, Portugal. It depicts the soccer star with a rather massive erection. So eye-catching was the bulge that people barely noticed that the face on the statue looked almost nothing like Ronaldo.
While many laughed off the Ronaldo tribute, one statue of U.S. tennis legend Arthur Ashe horrified viewers when it was unveiled at the U.S. Open in 2000.
The 14-foot statue of a nude African-American man playing tennis by Eric Fischl baffled and upset Ashe’s many admirers. While Fischl made it clear the statue was not supposed to be of Ashe, per se, it rubbed people the wrong way for being too sexual and not accurately depicting how tennis is played.
“I think it’s disgusting. They’re going to honor Arthur Ashe? Why can’t they have a statue of him? Always things like this. It’s awful,” one U.S. Open guest told the Los Angeles Times.
While art and controversy are integrally tied, sculptures may face greater ire from the public. “Sculpture is easy to attack. You can’t take down a building, but you can take down sculptures,” says Harriet Senie, the director of museum studies at City College of New York and author of The ‘Tilted Arc’ Controversy: Dangerous Precedent?
Tension “may be more aggravated in the case of sculpture because that’s out there in the world we live in, in three-dimension,” says Glenn Harper, editor at Sculpture magazine. “You have to walk around it. Two-dimensional work is a little easier to ignore.”
Another element that adds to the high public emotions tied to sculptures is that “the history of the monument is closely related to the history of sculpture,” explains Harper. “People tend to think of sculpture as memorializing something and get more upset if the resemblance isn’t there or, as with MLK Jr., if the figure is abstracted.”
The balance between creating a sculpture that both accurately resembles—and yet adds new emotional value—to a person’s legacy is a difficult balance. “It can either appear to be abstract to convey the spirit of the person or it can just be a portrait. It’s a tough trick,” says Harper.
That attempt to balance between portrait and art led to “Scary Lucy’s” downfall, according to Harper, who was hesitant to criticize too much from only looking at photos.
“It’s simultaneously distorted and generic,” he said. “It’s not realistic enough and not abstract enough at the same time. It just doesn’t convey the specificity or historic quality of the person.”
Neither Harper nor Senie was surprised that a sculpture in a town of just over 1,100, according to the most recent Census, managed to enrage not only locals but the nation.
“Sometimes, works of art act as a magnet for every other grievance or discontent that’s around,” says Senie.
She compares uproar to public works to a disproportionate customer outburst at a salesclerk in a shop. “It’s as if there’s a trigger to something else that’s clearly been bothering them. Art, because it carries so much symbolic content, has that kind of magnetic effect.”
“Art can provide the concrete catalyst that can really draw attention to something that’s already there,” says Harper. “That’s one of the strengths and difficulties of public art. It will crystalize the good and negative of what’s happening in the public space. Sometimes, the public will adopt and come to love things, and other times something ends up being done.”
It appears to be the latter for Celoron.