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The summer of 82, when Petaluma battled against “risky” art

35 YEARS AGO

The colorful jumble of steel-welded art that has bedecked the Petaluma Museum’s lawn since Thursday has been hauled away because of liability problems, a frustrating development for two local artists but a popular one with some neighbors of the museum.

The impressionistic “environmental art” exhibition by local residents Tim Read and Guy Scohy has attracted considerable attention from passersby. Depending on who is doing the talking, the reaction to the display of sculptures has been either enthusiastic or stunned. “We’ve had a lot of positive responses,” said Claudette Azvedo, president of the Museum Association. “The exhibit has brought a lot of attention to the museum and increased our foot traffic.

On the other hand, Russ Brosamle, owner of The Lapidary Center directly across the street from the Museum said he is still waiting to hear one positive comment about the art work.

“One person came in and said, ‘Did you find out how many died in that car accident?’” chuckled Brosamle, referring to one crumpled-looking piece situated prominently outside the stately Museum building. “And another guy came in and said, ‘I see they’ve dredged the river again.’”

Aesthetics aside, the decision to remove the exhibition was based in part on fear of litigation that might result from an injury related to the weighty art.

Argus-Courier, Tuesday, August 3, 1982, written by Jeff Weber


In 1982, Petaluma suffered an acute “art attack,” when a display of metal sculptures by two resident artists, Tim Read and Guy Scohy, so inflamed public conversation and City Hall ire (see excerpt of article from August, 1982), the brouhaha led to the swift (sort of) removal of the large art pieces from where they’d been installed in front of the Historical Library and Museum.

These days, it’s hard to see what the fuss was about, since similar artworks – bright hunks of metal attached together in interesting ways – have become common throughout Sonoma County. Still, whether the pieces were removed because they challenged traditional aesthetics (as many believed) or because they posed a safety risk to the public, with potential lawsuits and financial ruin (what then-City Manager John Scharer contended), there’s no doubt the now 35-year-old controversy, which unfolded gradually over the month of August, was the talk of the town for several weeks.

The Argus-Courier contributed at least a couple of strong editorials during that period, as the City of Petaluma demanded the removal of the artwork, and then waited as the artists worked to get their hands on a crane large enough to lift the pieces. (The one they’d used, the property of legendary Petaluma sculptor Mark DiSuvero, had been taken out-of-state for use in the installation of one of DiSuvero’s own sculptures). In one of those editorials, by then-Editor Ralph B. Thompson, a reference was made to a “Peanuts” cartoon, in which Charlie Brown and friends were barred from playing baseball on the field they’d always used, with the warning that the owners were at risk of a lawsuit should one of the Peanuts kids be hurt. In the cartoon, Charlie Brown says, “What’s happening to the world?”

“What’s happening, Charlie Brown,” replied Thompson, “is that there is too much law and not enough life!”

To Tim Read, 71, who left Petaluma in 1991 and now lives with his wife, Sandy, in Silver City, New Mexico, there is no doubt that the legal concerns expressed all those years were not the real reason the art pieces were so quickly sent packing.

“People took one look at them, and they got upset,” he says. “People were shocked. We didn’t intend to shock people, but that’s what art used to do. It used to shock and upset people pretty easily.”

Eventually, DiSuvero’s crane was returned to town, and Read oversaw the removal of the pieces. Most of his own were smaller, and were inside.

“I actually only had one, out front,” he says. “The rest of them ended up out near Two Rock, in various people’s yards and ranches. A lot of them are still there, I think. You can see them as you drive by.”

As Read recalls, the controversy actually turned into a good thing for him and Scohy, publicity wise.

“The papers were all running stories. The chronicle ran a story about it,” he says. “We were suddenly famous. For an artist, controversy can be good, because it means people notice you.”

According to Read, Scohy — a renowned chef who’d founded the now-shuttered restaurant DeSchmire, on Bodega — was so disappointed by the response of City Hall that he and his wife Carol left town the next month. They eventually landed in upstate New York, where Scohy continued to work and exhibit his sculptures till his death in 2010.

35 YEARS AGO

The colorful jumble of steel-welded art that has bedecked the Petaluma Museum’s lawn since Thursday has been hauled away because of liability problems, a frustrating development for two local artists but a popular one with some neighbors of the museum.

The impressionistic “environmental art” exhibition by local residents Tim Read and Guy Scohy has attracted considerable attention from passersby. Depending on who is doing the talking, the reaction to the display of sculptures has been either enthusiastic or stunned. “We’ve had a lot of positive responses,” said Claudette Azvedo, president of the Museum Association. “The exhibit has brought a lot of attention to the museum and increased our foot traffic.

On the other hand, Russ Brosamle, owner of The Lapidary Center directly across the street from the Museum said he is still waiting to hear one positive comment about the art work.

“One person came in and said, ‘Did you find out how many died in that car accident?’” chuckled Brosamle, referring to one crumpled-looking piece situated prominently outside the stately Museum building. “And another guy came in and said, ‘I see they’ve dredged the river again.’”

Aesthetics aside, the decision to remove the exhibition was based in part on fear of litigation that might result from an injury related to the weighty art.

Argus-Courier, Tuesday, August 3, 1982, written by Jeff Weber

As for Read, he’s continued to work as well, doing what he calls “Big Head Sculptures,” two of which are on display at the Naples Museum of Art in Florida.

“We have a simple life, here in New Mexico, but Sandy and I like it,” he says. “Petaluma was nice for a while, though. And all of that stuff with the sculptures, it was kind of fun. We had fun with the scandal, in a way. The best thing you can ever do, as an artist, is show your stuff and have everybody talk about it. And it got people stirred up about art, which is always good.”

(Email David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)