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Friday, June 8, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Exiled murals may surface in Centralia

Seattle Times art critic

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One of the more embarrassing artistic controversies in the State Capitol's history is back.

Twenty years after the state Legislature installed two Michael Spafford murals in the State Capitol Building - only to cover and finally remove them - the fate of the paintings once more hangs in the balance. Some lawmakers found the "Twelve Labors of Hercules" too modern, a few even considered it lewd and the controversy captured headlines and kept editorial writers busy for years.

Centralia College officials see the exiled paintings differently, and are pushing to install them in the theater of their new, 66,000-square-foot building. They've made a bid to remove the Spafford murals from their climate-controlled storage and place them in an elegant, 500-seat performance hall. The hall, to open this summer, includes walls specially shaped and positioned to accommodate the 11-by-46-foot paintings.

Removal of the Spafford paintings from the House was the endgame of a 12-year fiasco involving drapes, lawsuits, videotapes, and endless debate about the aesthetic merits and the meaning of the work. By the time the murals were finally taken down in 1993 - at a cost greater than the original purchase price - they had been covered with curtains for years and most of the sitting legislators had never seen them.

It all took place during the years when Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., was campaigning against funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Conservatives argued taxpayer money should not fund offensive art. Our local squabble was seen as part of a larger battle between First Amendment rights and the personal taste of the lawmakers.

The whole mess started in 1980, when Michael Spafford was commissioned to paint four panels for the House and Alden Mason two for the Senate. Both were University of Washington professors and respected artists.

The artists submitted their proposals in 1980, but none of the legislators attended a reception when they were put on view. Then, when installation of the murals began, lawmakers were surprised to find modern art on the walls. Some didn't like the stark black and white of Spafford's murals and others thought they could discern sexual intent in the struggling, abstracted figures depicting Hercules' mythical exertions.

Mason's murals were taken down in 1988 because the lawmakers considered the contemporary style and color inappropriate. They also voted to remove Spafford's murals, which had been covered with draperies for most of the time since 1982 and were finally put in storage in 1993.

"I think it's accurate to say that most, all, legislators did not put much thought into the process," said Brian Ebersole, who took over as House speaker in 1992, when the murals already were draped.

Ebersole, now president of Bates Technical College in Tacoma, says he voted to keep the murals, but others were adamantly against them. Mike Padden, then a Republican state senator from Spokane, told The Times in 1982, "They don't go with the architecture," adding, "Some people have suggested the King County jail would be an appropriate place."

Many people were outraged at the treatment of the artists. The late Jacob Lawrence, one of the country's most admired painters, withdrew his own mural proposal for the Capitol building in protest.

By the 1990s, the lawmakers' wrangling over the paintings had cost the public more than half a million dollars, including legal expenses.

So how does Spafford feel about his murals being resurrected by Centralia College?

"I'd be very happy to work out an arrangement so they could just destroy them," said the Seattle resident. Spafford said he created the work specifically for its location in the House Chambers and doesn't want it hung anywhere if it doesn't go back there.

One of the Northwest's most esteemed artists, Spafford holds a master's degree from Harvard and is winner of a Tiffany Foundation grant and two Rome Prize fellowships. The City of Seattle commissioned Spafford to create an artwork for the city's Northwest Special Collection, designed to honor high achievement by regional artists and he was one of several artists who made murals for the now defunct Kingdome. When he started the State Capitol project, Spafford saw it as the pinnacle of his career.

Now, he's given up on the murals. Legally, he has no control over the fate of the work, but says he does have one final trump: He can deny authorship of the work and insist that his name not be used in connection with it.

But where does Centralia College come into all this? College President Henry Kirk and Seattle architect David Leavengood, who designed the new building to accommodate the murals, have a longstanding interest in providing a home to the paintings. "This type of opportunity is rare," Kirk says.

The Mason murals, removed from the Senate chambers, are already hanging at Centralia's campus library, obtained on a long-term lease at no cost to the college. They were installed in 1990 after a judge determined that it was a suitable space for them, on the condition that they are returned to the Capitol Building if lawmakers want them back.

"It's (getting the Spafford murals) very cost effective," said Ebersole. "Murals of this caliber would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions." The college is seeking to lease them on the same terms as the Mason art.

And, for the state, it may provide a way to wiggle out of its quandary. "It's a tragedy that they are now in a tomb, a warehouse," said Ebersole. "To keep them closeted is the worst possible outcome."

Whether that happens is up to state administration and the courts.

"We believe our site exceeds, or at least matches, the criteria for hanging the paintings," says Kirk, who went through the same process when the college obtained the Mason murals.

Certain conditions for the murals' safety and proper viewing must be met before they can be displayed. No state officials were available to comment on the likelihood of the transaction.

Seattle Times staff reporter Sheryll Poe contributed to this report.

Information in this article, originally published June 8, was corrected June 8. Brian Ebersole took over as speaker of the state House in 1992.

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