Torn-Down Tuesday: ‘Green Lightning’ sculpture – an amplified hoax?

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Now it’s generally accepted that the neon sculpture “Green Lightning” by Billie Lawless was “pubic art as public art,” although the artist has maintained from the very beginning that “people’s interpretation (of neon panels depicting what most people say look like dancing cartoon penises) is up to them.”

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Billie Lawless shows a scale model of Green Lightning. (Buffalo News archives)

Mayor Griffin famously called the sculpture obscene, and ordered it dismantled. Lawless climbed atop the piece to stop the demolition. One judge ordered that the takedown should not continue, and rebuked the mayor. Another judge ruled in favor of Lawless in a lawsuit against Griffin and the city, but awarded no damages. “Green Lightning” was displayed elsewhere with no public outcry.

That’s the two paragraph version of a story that made for great newspaper copy and TV news live reports for more than a decade, leaving out many twists and turns in the drama.

Looking back at the story and reading the daily news surrounding it as it unfolded, to dispute the notion that artist Billie Lawless pulled a hoax on city and art officials is no more in question than whether those neon sculptures are “dancing dog bones” or male sex organs. At the same time, there also are few who stood by Mayor Griffin’s decision to remove the artwork from city property in the manner he did.

Here are highlights in the “Green Lightning” saga as they unfolded in the pages of The News.

Nov. 15, 1984: A small story ran on page B-13 announcing that a sculpture was to be dedicated in the Elm-Oak arterial that afternoon.

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Nov. 16, 1984: Mayor Griffin orders “Green Lightning” removed. Arts Commission Chairman Sam Magavern said he saw nothing pornographic or questionable about the piece, but said, “If people see something in it that’s wrong, we have to change it.”

Police on the scene to direct traffic during the unveiling the night before were the first to officially raise questions. In a report to his superiors, a lieutenant from the Michigan Street Station wrote, “To my shock, I did not observe a multicolor artwork, but four neon objects anatomically resembling male genitals.” His report continued that traffic came to a crawl around the sculpture and there were several calls to the Michigan Street Station.

The artist Lawless, son of the former Common Council President William Lawless, said the images were based on graffiti that adorned a Bailey Avenue building for years and was deemed “harmless” by all who viewed it. He vehemently denied that any of the figures should be viewed as a sex organ.

“It can be viewed as other objects as well,” Lawless told reporters, with dancing dog bones famously mentioned as one seemingly plausible, but entirely dubious possibility.

David More, Executive Director of the Arts Commission, said, “There is a general consensus that the model actually approved didn’t fully indicate the suggestive nature of the piece now installed.” He went on to say, however, the public perception of the piece may have been shaded by the television coverage of the drama.

Nov. 17, 1984: Lawless stands atop his sculpture as city crews work to dismantle it. In a negotiation with police, the artist agreed to pull the plug on the neon until a judge could hear the case. Members of the Buffalo Police Salacious Literature Unit were under orders to arrest Lawless should he have tried to relight the sculpture.

Buffalo News archives

Buffalo News archives

“People’s interpretation is up to them. Perhaps it has something to do with their minds,” Lawless said.

Magavern reiterated that he saw nothing wrong with the piece, but still asked Lawless to consider changing some of the panels. Lawless said he’d consider.

Nov. 20, 1984: Saying Lawless pulled “a giant hoax,” officials provided a tape recording of an Oct. 13, 1983 Urban Renewal Agency meeting, where Lawless described the neon in his work as showing an “abstracted dancing figure representing life.”

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Lawless attorney Michael Brown snapped back saying, “everybody knew what that thing was,” although when asked what he thought it was, said, “I have not seen it lit up.”

Nov. 21, 1984: With a 6-1 vote of the Urban Renewal Agency, Walt’s Tree Service, a city contractor, began taking down the four panels of the sculpture containing the controversial neon elements.

A city contractor dismantles Green Lightning. (Buffalo News archives)

A city contractor dismantles Green Lightning. (Buffalo News archives)

The work began after 5 p.m., but Lawless was tipped off — and was given a temporary injunction by State Supreme Justice Vincent Doyle. The court order arrived after two panels had already been taken down.

Lawless says he’ll “definitely pursue legal action” against the city for damage to “Green Lightning.” “They cut it with torches and just started to dismantle it,” Lawless told reporters.

“I don’t know if Walt is a specialist in dismantling art, but they severed it as if it was a limb off a tree,” said Lawless.

David More, the Executive Director of the Arts Commission, handed in his resignation over the debacle.

“Billie Lawless has perpetrated a hoax on the city,” More said.

Nov. 22, 1984: The News was in contact with several neon contractors who refused to bend the tubing for Lawless as he put together his sculpture.

“There is no doubt Billie knew what it was,” said Larry Woods of Neon Graphics in Clarence, who declined the job when offered. “I accused him of trying to pull something off. I never thought he’d get this far with it.”

“He said they were dancing dog bones,” reported the owner of Wilcox Bros. Sign Company, “but I’ve never seen a dog biscuit that looked like that.”

The neon elements were crafted in Albany, because none of the shops in Buffalo would do the work.

Nov. 23, 1984: Another controversial Western New York sculptor, Larry Griffis, voiced his outrage in an interview with News reporter Michael Beebe.

“To cut it down, what the hell kind of mayor do we have? What kind of city do we have?”

Griffis says it was pretty clear to him what the piece would show.

“I saw it in the shop. I thought it was just as explicit in small scale as it is now. One problem might be the kinetic (moving) portion of the fourth panel. That makes it so explicit.”

Nov. 24, 1984: The Buffalo News Editorial Board writes, “Mayor Griffin was entirely correct in objecting to the ‘Green Lightning’ sculpture in Downtown Buffalo, but he drew a deserved rebuke from State Supreme Court Justice Vincent E. Doyle for not seeking court approval before ordering the work dismantled.”

Nov. 27, 1984: Changing his earlier stance that he saw “nothing wrong with the piece,” Buffalo Art Commission Chairman Samuel Magavern signed a letter to funders calling the work “pornographic and vulgar.” Magavern also credited Mayor Griffin’s having acted “promptly and effectively” to block the display. He also told patrons that he felt duped. “We feel badly that he used us.”

Several patrons reacted to the letter with concerns that Lawless, having “pulled one over” on the city, should leave him feeling ashamed of himself “because he is really hurting other artists who want to get help from the city.”

Not all reaction was negative. One sponsor called it “stimulating, refreshing and sophisticated.”

Dec. 5, 1984: An op-ed written by Lawless and partner Kathie Simonds describes the artist’s inspiration for the figure in question. He says it was graffiti — spray paint on an imitation brick wall on Bailey Avenue, and that it had been there for years.

Saying the entirety of “Green Lightning” had not yet been explored, Lawless and Simonds say, “Ironically, the sculpture has fallen victim to its own controversy.”

Explaining what they envisioned the piece to mean, Lawless wrote, in part, that is was “burlesquing male dominance and myths attendant to male dominance.”

Dec. 11, 1984: After some criticism in the community for not printing photos showing the controversial elements of “Green Lightning,” News Editor Murray Light responds in his “Your Newspaper” column by saying, in part, “The News did not print the pictures of the illuminated neon panels because this paper does not think they should be seen in a family newspaper or should have been displayed publicly.”

Feb. 8, 1985: The city-owned plot where what’s left of “Green Lighting” still stands, was noted as a spot where city crews had been dumping snow that had piled up during the Blizzard of ’85.

May, 1985: Lawless says the “Green Lightning” controversy hasn’t hurt him financially, but most of his sales are in places like Philadelphia and Boston. “Buffalo’s shortage of yuppies is the problem,” Lawless told reporter Jane Kwiatkowski, “because young people in Buffalo just don’t buy art as they do elsewhere.”

One of the 11 lightning bolts that were part of the sculpture had gone missing, but was found in a South Buffalo backyard. The 8-foot high, 500-pound sculptural element had been swiped as a prank.

Lawless works to fix damage done to Green Lightning. (Buffalo News archives)

Lawless works to fix damage done to “Green Lightning.” (Buffalo News archives)

June, 1985: Acting State Supreme Court Judge Wayne Feeman ordered that the city not take any further steps to remove the sculpture, but also indicated that if Lawless relit the panels, that it could be removed as a public nuisance.

June 12, 1985: The News Editorial Board again took on the “Green Lightning” controversy.

“Aside from its artistic merits, which are a matter for art critics to decide, the sculpture placed many of its viewers, and the home city of its creator, in an untenable position.

“A great many people in Buffalo and elsewhere are not comfortable with displays as garishly suggestive as this one. That’s why they don’t normally appear in such prominent places — anywhere. If Lawless placed ‘Green Lightning’ in an art gallery or sculpture park, that might not have presented a problem.

“But it is on public land, in the center of one of the city’s busiest traffic corridors. The city was left with the choice of offending many of its own citizens or opening itself up to charges of prudishness and parochialism by suppressing an artwork.”

The editorial goes on to say that Mayor Griffin’s unilateral decision to dismantle the piece — condemned by a judge — only added to the sensationalism surrounding the work.

June, 1992: Both Lawless and Mayor Griffin testified at the trial where the artist sought damages from the city.

In claiming $500,000 in damages, Lawless said the removal of “Green Lightning” “was like an assault on me.” A psychologist testified Lawless felt victimized by the city.

Griffin said he thought it was “bad art,” but ordered it down over fears it could become a “public nuisance,” creating traffic problems.

“I’m no connoisseur,” testified the mayor, “but I felt the structure was an embarrassment to downtown Buffalo,” and could also do damage to the city’s reputation.

After the two-week trial, the jury found that the city failed to take proper legal steps before dismantling “Green Lightning,” but didn’t award Lawless any monetary damages.

With the lawsuit finished and the case over, News Critic Jeff Simon wrote in part, “As I understand the decision in the Billie Lawless ‘Green Lightning’ case, the jury decided: 1. That Mayor Griffin acted like a jerk tearing it down. 2. That Lawless acted like a jerk putting it up. 3. Therefore, it’s all moot. ‘Tsk, tsk’ on the mayor and no money for Lawless… Justice seems to have been served.”

After years on display in Chicago along the Eisenhower Highway, “Green Lightning” is now dismantled and stored at Lawless’ Cleveland studio.

The patch of grass where controversy erupted remained empty for 20 years — until a new corporate headquarters helped spark a different sort of interest in the neighborhood.

“This is the gateway to downtown as you exit the 33,” Mayor Byron Brown said at a 2014 news conference announcing plans to build Catholic Health’s new headquarters where 20 years earlier “Green Lightning” had stood. “To have all of these jobs coming to downtown Buffalo builds critical mass, more people working in downtown, and more people working downtown will be there to support businesses that are located in downtown Buffalo, so it’s very good news.”

Any chance to see if Buffalo’s sensibilities have changed?

“If they want to bring it back? Any time,” Lawless said in 2014. “And if they want to pay for it, that’s not a problem.”

But for Lawless and his erecting “Green Lightning” in Buffalo in 1984, it seems that it was less about the metal and lights and more about the reaction from the very beginning.

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon is a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. The operator of Buffalo Stories Tours writes about the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo special at blog.buffalostories.com and daily at buffalonews.com/history. The storyteller and historian has written six books, worn bow ties since the 80s, and spent 20 years working in Buffalo radio and TV, climbing his way to news director at WBEN Radio. Since then, he's been an adjunct professor and produced PBS documentaries. Steve's Buffalo roots run deep: all eight of his great-grandparents called Buffalo home, with his first ancestors arriving here in 1827.