April 30 2014 12:00 AM

Williamston artist’s sculpture sparks orgy of debate in sleepy college town

Williamston sculptor Mark Chatterley´s primordial, rough-skinned ceramic figures inhabit private homes, galleries and public squares, from New York to South Korea. Last week, a cozy clinch of Chatterley´s “blue people” fired up a small revolution closer to home, in the mid-size town of Adrian, about 60 miles southeast of Lansing.

“It´s the first time we’ve ever had a big discussion about art in this community,” said Garin Horner, professor of art and design at Adrian College. “Adrian was destined to cross this bridge. I´m happy it´s happening.”

The sculpture, “Blue Human Condition,” went up April 21 as part of a public art program, the Adrian Art Discovery Trail, a 3-year-old program funded by private grants. Two days later, the cluster of faceless, sexless figures was covered with a blue tarp after city officials got complaints from people who thought it looked like an “orgy.” The city announced that the sculpture would be removed, but backtracked in the face of public support for it. Monday afternoon, Adrian city administrator Shane Horn announced that the blue people would be moved to Yew Park, a small downtown park, some time Tuesday, “weather permitting.”

The hornet´s nest of buzz over Chatterley´s sculpture came as a surprise to many, including the artist.

“I’m thrilled by the support from the art community,” Chatterley said. “That alone is worth the whole problematic thing. People realize how ridiculous it is.”

As soon as the blue people went under wraps, a groundswell of support for the sculpture swept the conservative town, including letters and calls to city officials, stacks of comments on a news website and an online "Save the Blue Humans" petition that garnered more than 600 signatures.

Chris Miller, Adrian´s economic development coordinator, said the, the tide turned from “20 to 30” complaints about the sculpture to “overwhelmingly favorable” public support over the weekend.

“I think it´s great,” Chatterley said. “You´ve gotta love it. I had no idea this would be a controversial piece.”

Chatterley would have liked to see the sculpture stay in its prime spot near the police department and the public library.

“The police building protected it,” he said. “I don´t want the same thing happening to it that happened in Lansing.”

In June 2012, Chatterley´s half-ton totem of stacked ceramic thinkers, “Meditation Tower,” was smashed by vandals during its run as part of Lansing´s Art by the River program. Miller said complaints focused on the Adrian sculpture´s proximity to the library and high visibility to children. He thinks Yew Park, close to downtown but tucked among trees and buildings, is a good compromise.

“People still have every opportunity to appreciate the artwork,” Miller said. “And people that don’t want to see it won’t have to.”

Chatterley wasn´t trying to be edgy. He said the sculpture is meant to show how people need to support one another.

“If I was doing wild monkey sex with these things, I would have nothing to stand on, but that´s not what I´m doing,” he said.

Chatterley took some flak four years ago for a sculpture at the Krasel Art Center in St. Joseph, but he said that sculpture was “more suggestive” than “Blue Human Condition.”

“I´m used to working in big cities where galleries that handle my work know what to expect,” Chatterley said. “I only run into this kind of thing when I put it outside in small towns in Michigan.”

Since last week, when it looked as if the city of Adrian might get rid of the sculpture, Chatterley got invitations to bring it to three other cities. Three galleries have contacted him about doing shows. “Even though the whole thing has been blown out of proportion, it has been sort of fun,” he said.

Adrian hosts Adrian College, Siena Heights University and a campus Jackson Community College — but Horner said the two worlds are “isolated” from each other.

“The sculpture controversy has served as a bridge from the colleges to the city, in a strange way,” Horner said. “Now we feel like this is something we can engage with.”

Chatterley has done workshops and exhibitions at Adrian College, but this was his first taste of real public exposure in the city.

“It´s an interesting town,” he said. “It´ll take a while, but they´re coming into their own. They´re putting sculptures up around town and people are noticing, which is great.”

Horner takes his students to Europe to show them how highly the arts are appreciated there. He pointed out that the city of Adrian is named after the Roman emperor Hadrian, but has a long way to go to catch up with the art-loving (let alone nudity-friendly) ways of past millennia.

“We´re at the beginning of something and it´s going to be an uphill battle,” Horner said.

Chatterley launches a new exhibit of paintings and sculptures at Lansing Art Gallery on Friday. The show is called “Getting’ Dirty” (see page 22), but the title is no cause to rustle one´s trench coat. It only refers to the ink splats and coffee spills that Chatterley sometimes exploits in his paintings.