History is full of famous art heists. In 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. The Scream was stolen, twice, in 1994 and 2004.
Those works were ultimately recovered, but in some other cases, there’s more to the story.
In KUNC’s four-part series, “Stolen,” arts reporter Stacy Nick looks at an almost 100-year-old mystery in Fort Collins, the time a lifted cartoon of a flatulent unicorn made headlines, the repatriation of Native American artifacts and how a vandalized artwork in Loveland ended up bringing people together.
I. A RETURN TO THE SCENE OF THE CRIME
In 2016, Kristi Bohlender got a strange phone call from her husband. He was wondering if she knew anything about the 450-pound bell sitting in their driveway.
Turns out, Bohlender did have a pretty good idea based on another call she’d received from a Fort Collins attorney just the day before.
“It had always been rumoured that the bell from Old Main was still floating out there,” she said. “But the majority of people who I crossed paths with really assumed that it had burned in the fire.”
Others said the bell disappeared from Colorado State University — originally known as Colorado Agricultural College — around 1925.
Purchased in 1894 from C.S. Bell Company in Hillsboro, Ohio, it originally hung in the tower of Old Main, CSU’s first significant building on campus.
Students would climb the tower to ring the bell to announce the start of classes each morning, as well as every victory by the football team, said John Hirn, CSU’s volunteer athletics history archivist.
“The tradition said that when the Aggies won a football game, the freshmen ran to Old Main, grabbed the rope to the bell, and rang the bell all night long,” Hirn said. “So you can imagine that when Fort Collins was a much smaller town that people were getting really tired of hearing this bell ring all night long.”
Hirn knows a lot about CSU traditions and memorabilia. On the concourse of CSU’s Moby Arena, he’s curated the Athletics Hall of Fame. Moments throughout CSU’s 150-year history are displayed in glass cases — from a cheerleading sweater worn by CSU spirit award namesake Larry LaSasso in the 1930s, to the shovel from the 1967 groundbreaking for Hughes Stadium.
When asked what his favorite piece is, Hirn doesn’t hesitate.
“Oh that’s not hard at all, in fact we have it right here,” he said. “The goal post that I helped tear down in 1990 when we beat Wyoming.”
The items have come from all over — some Hirn collected himself, others were donated, some were found on eBay. A few are from what he jokingly calls the “RAM-nesty” program.
“We have a lot of former athletes that never returned things or took their helmet because it was broken,” he said. “And I always tell them, I say, ‘You’re forgiven if you took that from the university, now it’s been 50, 60 years,’ whatever the case may be.”
The bell falls into that category now, Hirn said. He started researching it and its role in CSU football more than a decade ago as he worked on his book, “Aggies to Rams.”
“Now in 2013, the Old Main bell was more of a legend than anything else because it had been missing for so many years that nobody really knew what was going on or whatever happened to it,” he said.
Hirn lucked out when he found one of the few historic photos taken of it. In the 1923 yearbook image, some students have whitewashed the bell with the words “Beat Boulder.”
It was this photo that Hirn used to authenticate the bell on Kristi Bohlender’s driveway.
“When it was stolen out of Old Main, they didn’t just take the bell, they took the mount that it was on,” he said.
Remember that tradition of ringing the bell all night long after football victories? Archival copies of the school’s student newspaper, The Rocky Mountain Collegian, reported the bell’s clapper had been stolen, possibly by rowdy students, or possibly by exhausted residents. Undeterred, the students began using a sledgehammer to ring it, eventually cracking the yoke at the top of the bell.
Dr. George Glover, the university’s first department head of the school of veterinary medicine, wrote a column about it, stating: “Every story must end, and this is the end of the bell. One particular football game was won by the Aggies and when the bell rope was pulled, no sound ensued for someone had stolen the clapper. Aggies are not to be defeated in anything they start out to do, so the freshmen boys took a large sledge hammer and with steady strokes beat the old bell until it cracked and that stilled its clarion notes forever.”
Almost 100 years later, that crack — along with the scroll work on the mount and the missing clapper — proved this was indeed the Old Main bell.
So, where had the bell been for all those years and why was it finally showing up now?
In 2016, Kristi Bohlender had just taken the job as executive director of the university’s alumni association. CSU was building an alumni center to go along with its new on-campus football stadium. They had just made the announcement when that odd phone call from the attorney, a longtime family friend of Bohlenders, came.
“He quickly, after some pleasantries, got to business and asked me:
‘Kristi, what would happen if you got the original bell back from Old Main?'”
Bohlender had a lot of questions but the lawyer didn’t have many answers. Just that he’d talk to his client and be in touch soon. The next day, there was the bell in her driveway.
After doing a little amateur sleuthing, she figured out the identities of at least some of the people involved and learned the wild pathway that the bell had taken to her door.
Through her sources Bohlender learned that once the four male students got the bell down several flights of stairs — exactly how remains a mystery — they realized the severity of what they had done and how steep the punishment would be if they got caught.
“So, as agricultural boys back in the early 1900s would put their minds together, they decided to take it to one of their family farms and buried it,” Bohlender said.
And there it remained for 50 years, right up until the farm was put up for sale, she said. They could have left it there forever but instead, a second generation of the family was tasked with digging it up and finding a new location.
Since then, Bohlender said it’s had a few homes, including across state lines, in barns, even a fraternity house. But with every move came the same conversation: When would be the right time to return the bell?
“And how do we do it and still save face,” she said.
When the family heard about CSU’s new alumni center, they decided this just might be the right time, and Bohlender the right person to make sure the bell once again rang out on game days.
Will we ever know the identity of the culprits or the family that returned the bell? The answer is probably not any time soon. Bohlender says they still live in Fort Collins and are active in the CSU community — but for now, they insist on remaining anonymous.
“I think they really were worried about their standing with the university and the reputation that their family would have,” she said. “It was such a big deal to them that they would never do anything to harm their alma mater.”
When the bell was first returned, the news was kept under wraps. CSU’s campus planner Fred Haberecht was part of the team that helped with the restoration plan and the effort to bring the bell back to campus.
But first, the bell needed to be repaired and, after being buried in dirt for 50 years, it also needed a good refurbishing. Turns out, the bell was still insured.
“There was a question about if there had been any kind of insurance claim or paperwork with it disappearing, and the way it turned out was, it never came off our books in those roughly hundred years,” Haberecht said. “So when it came back to campus — from a paperwork standpoint — it was as though it never left.”
And to make sure the bell doesn’t go anywhere again, they’ve taken some extra security precautions.
There’s no longer a stairwell to climb up to the bell. High in its tower, it’s attached to a rope that can only be accessed by a locked control panel at the base. The area is also under 24-hour camera surveillance, something that wasn’t available in 1925.
As for the original thieves, CSU officials say they have no interest in prosecuting the case. During the bell’s unveiling ceremony in 2017, then-president Tony Frank even jokingly pardoned the perpetrators, thanking them for “protecting it.”
Because as far as the university is concerned, the theft might have actually been a blessing. Remember that one of the rumors about the bell was that it had burned with Old Main?
In May of 1970, during a protest of the Vietnam War, fire destroyed two buildings on the CSU campus: the ROTC firing range and Old Main. Both were believed to be cases of arson, but no one was ever prosecuted.
“It’s hard to condone student debauchery, right?” Bohlender joked. “But in the long term, if you look at it over generation after generation, it is a good thing. I continue to reassure the family … that they did us a huge favor in its safekeeping and frankly, burying it underground probably kept it the most protected that it could have been anywhere. So, yes, if you look at it from that global perspective, it was a fantastic thing that they took it!”
Today the CSU bell once again rings out to mark certain events on campus, including commencement and — much to the delight of CSU historian John Hirn — home football games.
“It’s a great sound and it just hearkens back to our old days, just like Larry LaSasso awards brings you back to the 1930s, (and) we wear orange on orange out days for Ag Day,” he said. “That brings us back to our history — remembering who we were in the past but always going forward, which is what college is all about.”
II. A HIGH-TECH HEIST
Ever hear the one about the potter, Elon Musk and the farting unicorn?
It sounds like the beginning of a very bad joke, but it’s actually the true story of how sometimes imitation, as it turns out, is not always the most sincere form of flattery.
Tom Edwards has been a potter for more than 40 years. It started as a hobby in college but after making $500 at a craft fair, he realized this could actually be a career.
“That was almost what sort of started me, like, ‘Hey wait, people pay you to make what you love to do?’” Edwards said at his studio in Evergreen, Colorado.
In 1983, he created a line of pottery featuring a cartoon dog named Wally called “Wallyware.” It was an instant hit and remains his biggest seller. Over the years there have been lots of different characters. His most famous — and infamous — is a whimsical design from 2010.
“The mug says, ‘Electric cars are good for the environment because electricity comes from magic,’” Edwards said. “And it’s got a unicorn and a rainbow, and the unicorn is farting and it’s got a cable going to an electric car. So the unicorn fart is powering the electric car.”
The joke was a subtle jab at how many people think electricity is “clean” energy, he said, despite the fact that, in Colorado, much of it is generated by coal. It sold well and had a lot of fans, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
In 2017, Musk tweeted out a photo of one of Edwards’ unicorn mugs to his more than 30 million followers, along with the comment: “Maybe my favorite mug ever.”
“It was pretty cool to have this eccentric, corporate dude say he likes your mug,” Edwards said. “And of course, being Elon Musk and Twitter, I sold probably about 100 mugs just through that tweet alone.”
About two months later, Edwards saw another sales bump, and that’s when things got weird. It wasn’t another case of Musk tweeting his appreciation for Edwards’ work. It was Edwards’ work. Everywhere.
“They had taken a copy of my cartoon, and they had installed it in the (operating) system of all the Tesla cars,” said Edwards of the flatulent unicorn icon that now appeared on the car’s screens.
Except no one from Tesla had ever consulted him about it, much less paid him to use his work.
“And the problem being is, that’s not kosher for copyright,” Edwards said.
Dave Ratner would agree. The former band manager for Denver-based funk band The Motet became an attorney after he realized what artists really needed was a lawyer.
At a recent art and law seminar Ratner presented in Colorado Springs, he taught local artists how they can legally protect their work from similar situations.
Ratner was not involved in Tom Edwards’ case, but the subject of copyright infringement is something he knows all too well. It’s a big part of his work with the Creative Law Network. The legal firm specializes in working with artists.
But while he can rattle off legal precedents all day, Ratner said that’s not necessarily a subject that a lot of artists know much about.
That’s exactly why Colorado Attorneys for The Arts (CAFTA) put on the event. The nonprofit offers artists pro-bono legal aid, as well as education on things like drafting contracts and copyright infringement.
Brett Patterson and his wife, Leanna, make up the psychedelic-folk duo Snake and the Rabbit. They were hired to perform during the seminar’s lunch break, but stuck around to pick up some helpful hints afterward.
Patterson has an MBA, so he says he’s pretty confident when it comes to business dealings like event contracts.
“But as far as like, legal royalties and copyright law and what do you really need to do to make sure your stuff’s good to go — no, I don’t know that stuff very well,” he said.
Patterson said a session like this would have come in handy a few bands back when a verbal agreement almost cost them an album.
“Our last drummer at the time insisted that he engineer all the recordings,” he said. “And then he quit the band — and kept all of the recordings.”
Patterson threatened to get an attorney and luckily was able to get his intellectual property back, but he said it easily could have gone the other way. Thanks to the internet, it’s gotten a lot easier for artists to showcase their work — and harder.
“The digital revolution is a beautiful, wonderful, terrible thing,” Ratner said.
“The digital revolution has changed everybody’s creative industry.”
Now, millions of people across the globe can take your work, and make it theirs, he said. Thankfully though, while the internet is relatively new, copyright law is not.
“Copyright exists to encourage people to create,” Ratner said. “Because by giving artists protection over their creation, they can then go basically make money off of them.”
Unfortunately, it often costs money — sometimes a lot of money — to fight copyright infringement. Which is one of the reasons CAFTA exists.
“A lot of artists face a financial disadvantage or a power structure that makes it challenging for them to take on or work against a large corporation,” Ratner said. “Copyright law doesn’t care. Copyright law doesn’t say that a corporation gets more protection than an individual. This is why we created CAFTA — to try and balance the playing field a little bit.”
Artists can often feel powerless against copyright infringement issues, he said, whether it’s because they don’t know enough about the law or they don’t have enough money to hire someone who does.
Which is why potter Tom Edwards eventually realized that he couldn’t fight Tesla on his own. So in January of 2018, he resolved to do two things: make a vision board focused on how he wanted this issue to turn out and get a lawyer.
Edwards said letters were sent, and largely ignored. His daughter Robin, a musician who goes by the stage name Lisa Prank, even got into a Twitter feud with Musk over the issue. Edwards also went to the media. The alternative weekly Westword broke the story, with news agencies across Colorado and around the world soon following. It was a real-life David and Goliath tale.
“So basically we won our battle in the media,” he said.
That helped. After several months of negotiations, Edwards’ and Tesla’s attorneys eventually settled for an undisclosed amount. Edwards said he was happy. He’d won. And two months later, the gassy unicorn was removed from Tesla’s cars.
“In the end I’m kind of sad it’s not on the car anymore,” he said. “But I understand. They paid for it, so they can do whatever they want with it.”
Edwards also learned a lot more about copyright infringement issues. Now he even gets calls from other artists, asking for advice. Later this year he’s talking about the issue at a ceramics conference, a development he finds interesting.
“I don’t have the answer,” he said. “My one advice to people would be, if you do get your work stolen, really work it hard and pursue it, don’t say, ‘Oh I can’t,’ because that was my first reaction.”
Today, Edwards still makes those farting unicorn mugs, although he’s added a few new designs. His latest is a unicorn farting into an astronaut’s air hose in outer space. It says “Follow your dream.”
He’s also got a new line of character decals for his pottery, all fair use and free of copyrights. Including one of Nikola Tesla.
III. THE LONG JOURNEY HOME
When many people think of an art heist, they might imagine a museum closed for the night.
A shadowy figure slinks through the room, outsmarting the high-tech security system and getting away with a giant diamond or a famous painting.
But the truth is, a lot of stolen art and artifacts are actually already in museums, and they have been for a long time.
Chip Colwell is the senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. He’s also the author of the book, “Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture.”
Colwell got his start in archaeology. But now, sometimes he spends his days giving items from the museum’s collection back — like the Apache Gaan mask.
“Gaan is a mountain spirit to the Apache people,” he said. And the mask is a very sacred object to them. The museum received it as a donation. The donors had purchased it from an antiquities dealer.
The dealer — well, he hadn’t exactly gotten it reputably.
In a 1964 letter, the dealer wrote: “If we don’t have it, we can get it. There are certain ceremonial items, which for obvious reasons, we prefer not to discuss in an open letter like this. But we will write about these in a personal letter if so requested.”
“So the collector knew he was dealing with very sensitive materials that he probably shouldn’t have been trading in,” Colwell said. “And yet, he was.”
The mask is one of thousands of culturally sacred pieces — including human remains and funerary items — the museum has returned during the past 30 years as part of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.
When it passed, Colwell said a lot of curators feared the federal law would mean the end of museums, that they’d be emptied out.
The anthropology department’s huge archival space, lined with nearly two-story-high shelves so heavy they have to be moved through a crank system, is proof that wasn’t the case. There are still about 80,000 items in the museum’s collection, including an intricately woven fish trap from the Tolowa tribe of what is now California.
Once, during a tour with a group of Tolowa elders, Colwell said one of them spotted the trap. It turned out he was the one who had originally made it. He’d woven it for a friend 40 years ago. The friend sold it, and eventually it was donated to the museum.
“Before this 1990 federal law, NAGPRA, came into place, it was pretty rare for Native peoples to come into museums to form collegial relationships with curators,” he said. “But because of this law, for the first time, many Native peoples and many museum people had to talk and work together.”
Today, Colorado is one of the leaders in the repatriation process and has close relationships with tribal leaders throughout the country. According to Colwell, that’s solely because of the repatriation process.
“It’s the ability to sit across the table from someone and realize that you have shared interests, shared concerns and yes, maybe you need to make things right by returning something, or ancestors back home, but that’s only one part of what a museum does,” he said. “A museum does so much more, whether it’s through education or exhibits or programs or research. And tribes want their history to be understood. They want it to be appreciated. They want it to be protected.”
These new relationships have also brought tribal members to the table in the design of exhibitions, such as History Colorado’s “Written on the Land: Ute Voices, Ute History.”
Now with the Keystone Policy Center, Ernest House Jr. is former director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs and a member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, which helped to curate the exhibit. He said it was important not only to show their past but also their future.
“Historically when you go into museums in the past 20, 10 years ago (you) would be looking at American Indians from a historical context,” House said. “It’s almost as if … our history stopped in the 1800s. So what the general population sees is that black and white photograph. They see that image of a Native American on a horseback, maybe with some buckskin and long hair. We have not showed a contemporary version of American Indians.”
The History Colorado exhibit does showcase some of those black and white photos, but also recent images of tribal leaders and events, including the annual Ute Bear Dance held each spring. The museum also received a grant to create an educational activities portion to the exhibit that aligns STEM curriculum with Ute history, language and tradition.
In some ways, House said NAGPRA is like this exhibition, focused on reclaiming historical items but also impacting the way museums and native tribes work together going forward.
“Because institutions want to bring in people … They want to increase their visitorship. They want to educate the general public,” House said. “Who better to talk to than who you’re talking about?”
But even after 30 years, there are still lots of items that have not been returned. Both tribal members and museum officials agree the process is not that simple.
Isabel Tovar is History Colorado’s NAGPRA liaison and assistant curator of archaeology and ethnography. She said it takes time to undo what began in the 1800s, when museums and archaeologists around the world were in a frenzy.
“There was essentially a race on to see who was going to get the best collection of ‘fill in the blank,’” Tovar said. “And so oftentimes communities — most times, communities would have no idea where their material and their ancestors had ended up.”
There’s also the sheer volume of items. History Colorado, for example, has almost 6,000 items in its Native American collection — even after returning all of its human remains and funerary objects.
“That we know of,” Tovar said. “Oftentimes you’ll hear people say you can finish your NAGPRA compliance and all that. It’s never really done. There’s always more.”
When dealing with collections that are 100 years old or more, she said it’s not uncommon to not know the story behind items. It’s why the relationships formed with tribes are so critical.
“Something that for the museum was seen as an item without depth of story, all of the sudden becomes something much different,” Tovar said. “And possibly subject to NAGPRA.”
For tribal members, sometimes even talking about repatriating items can take time.
“Because there are things within our indigenous cultures that I’m not allowed to talk about outside of certain seasons, certain times of the year. I’ve not been given that authority by elders or by tribal leaders to do that,” House said. “ So when we’re having some of those conversations about some of the most important objects and important parts of our lives, I just can’t freely talk about that.”
Giving NAGPRA more teeth could aid in speeding up and smoothing the process as well, House said. Colorado has been a leader in closing some of NAGPRA’s loopholes.
The state was the first to establish a protocol to address inadvertently discovered Native American remains and funerary objects found on state and private lands, as well as returning culturally unidentifiable individuals in a more timely manner.
House said that was essential to beginning the process of bringing together more than 45 tribal nations that once called Colorado home. It’s also something that more states need to look at.
“Now you have either extractive industry or oil and gas or whatever it might be looking at digging in certain areas around that state,” he said.
There’s also hope that NAGPRA will have an influence internationally. Currently House said more than a dozen museums throughout the European Union — including the British Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford — are working to learn more about building a relationship with Native American tribes.
House said he remembers growing up hearing about Gustaf Nordenskiold, a Swedish scholar who was one of the first to excavate the ruins of Mesa Verde in the late 1800s.
In October 2019, it was announced that more than 100 years later, the human remains and funerary items he took — which ended up in the National Museum of Finland — would be returned.
“Being able to get these things back to those communities, back to those tribes, back to that area where it originated from, that means so much more than just the return of the object,” House said. “It completes the circle of life. There is something missing there when those items are not back within their homelands.”
“And that’s something that transcends the science, that’s not easy to talk about. But it’s something that has to be respected.”
For Denver Museum of Nature and Science curator Chip Colwell that’s the only way to do business. At the back of the archive room is an unassuming door. It’s locked and only two people have the keys. Inside are items the museum thinks could possibly be considered sacred.
“One thing that Native peoples ask us over and over again is to ensure that these items — whether they’re truly sacred or not — be sequestered,” Colwell said. “They believe this is important for the objects themselves, so that no damage comes to the objects, reducing the chance of theft and that sort of thing. For many people what’s behind that door are immensely powerful things.”
So here these 1,000 potentially sacred items will stay, in a sort of limbo. Waiting for a tribal member to come retrieve them. Unfortunately, some may never be returned or exhibited.
“To know that you have something that perhaps was stolen and that perhaps someone wants back but maybe they can’t get back is a huge burden,” he said.
But, he added, it’s one that museums need to carry to right the wrongs of the past.
“(Museums) were doing their best to try to preserve and protect cultures,” Colwell said. “But they were focused on the object. Today, when we think about preserving and protecting cultures, we think about the people, what do the people need, not just the objects themselves. And sometimes the people today need the object to ensure that their culture survives.”
IV. REPAIRING THE DAMAGE
When it comes to art, vandalism seems to strike a more personal note than outright theft. Maybe because it’s easy to understand why someone would want to steal a work of art — but why someone would want to destroy it is more complicated.
But for one artist, the case of his work being damaged actually lead to new friendships, new opportunities — and even the inspiration for new art.
A decade ago, a touring exhibit highlighting 10 artists who’d worked with famed Colorado printmaker Bud Shark made a stop at the Loveland Museum Gallery. Included in the exhibition was a work by California artist Enrique Chagoya.
“The piece is an accordion book,” Chagoya said. “It’s a lithograph.”
The book, “The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals,” featured a mix of pre-Columbian, iconic imagery with a comic-book style often sold on the streets in Chagoya’s native country of Mexico.
Chagoya’s work often focuses on political or social issues. This one was a criticism of the Catholic Church during the early days of the child sex abuse scandal. On one of the pages was an image that some interpreted as the head of Jesus Christ on a woman’s body engaged in a sexual act.
This wasn’t an accurate description, Chagoya said. But by then, the controversy had spread. A local city councilman had called for its removal, even going on national news programs to talk about the work.
Eventually, he said, protesters began showing up outside the museum, “accusing my work of being sacrilegious, pornographic, and that was not art and the taxpayers should not be paying for this controversial art.”
Chagoya started receiving hate mail and even threats. Stanford University, where he teaches, had campus police escort him to his classes.
“It was something totally unexpected, and it got very intense for several weeks,” he said.
It was unexpected for the museum as well, said Loveland cultural services director Susan Ison. She still has a cardboard box filled with letters and copies of the more than 33,000 emails she received.
One of the tamer ones read: “I thank God and America that we have freedom of speech and freedom of expression. But when freedom of speech is taken out of context, contrary to our forefather’s intent, and is offensive to others than it’s not art and in this case it’s nothing but downright garbage and the so-called artist is with a debilitating IQ.”
But Ison stood behind Chagoya and the work, refusing to take it down. Then, things reached a boiling point.
On October 6, 2010, Ison was at the doctor’s office getting an MRI.
“I was in the changing room getting ready to come back to work,” Ison said. “And I got a call and I picked it up and my exclamations and response to it caused the nurses outside to say, ‘Are you OK?’ and ‘What’s going on?’”
What was going on was that a 56-year old truck driver from Kalispell, Montana, Kathleen Folden, had arrived in Loveland. Wearing a shirt that read, “My Saviour is Tougher Than Nails,” Folden walked into the exhibition hall and, using a crowbar hidden under her jacket, smashed a display case and shredded Chagoya’s work.
“There were several people that were behind the front desk, and they heard loud noises that they say — and I believe them — sounded like gunshots,” Ison said.
Folden was arrested, and later pleaded guilty to charges of felony criminal mischief. Typically in a case like this, that would be the end of the story.
But then, something unexpected happened.
Chagoya received an email from Pastor Jonathan Wiggins of Rez Church in Loveland. Wiggins had begun working at the church just three months prior.
The email read: “Over the weekend, I received a phone call from a member of my church. This person was demanding to know why as a Christian leader I did not speak out in support of the protest outside the Loveland Museum about which your artwork is the subject of some controversy. I apologized to this man and told him that I didn’t yet know how to respond. Although I was a little surprised by his call I’m grateful for it because it got me thinking about some things. In short, I’d like to hear your thoughts on what the piece titled ‘Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals’ is intended to communicate.”
Wiggins said he was surprised to get a response from Chagoya just a few hours later. The two corresponded for several days, talking about the controversy and Chagoya’s art. They also discussed their sometimes challenging histories with religion.
“My father was a pastor, he was physically abusive and so I know representatives of faith can mess up and do unethical and abusive, hurtful things,” Wiggins said. “I think some of (Chagoya’s) experience in Mexico City growing up in an organized religious school, he felt abuse was taking place. So in a strange way, we had quite a bit in common.”
The two became fast friends. So when, within days of their email exchange, the artwork was vandalized, Wiggins said his first reaction was one of concern:
“I think my first thoughts were: My friend’s art has been vandalized.”
He added his heart also went out to the people at the museum that day who had been terrified by the act of violence.
Wiggins himself had gotten a taste of that, also receiving letters and threats for failing to speak out against the artist.
But instead of giving in, Wiggins said he decided to double down.
“I wanted to demonstrate my friendship of him,” he said. “I thought he was being very poorly treated … and I wanted to show some solidarity with my friend. And I asked him if he would be willing to do something that honored the idea of the Jesus that I know.”
He asked Chagoya to produce a new artwork. A painting that he would display for the entire congregation to see.
“I think I (told Chagoya) something like, ‘How’s that for controversy?’” Wiggins said, laughing. “Like ‘Let’s do this.’”
And so, Chagoya began work on a new portrait — one showing a loving and compassionate Christ. The painting, titled “Resurrection,” shows Jesus floating above darkened mountains and carrying a banner with the word, “Love,” on it.
“(The idea was) just to remind people that Jesus was very much about love, not about hate,” Chagoya said. “And then the pastor told me there was a passage somewhere in the Bible that Jesus have the banner of love over humanity, so it was perfect. And I didn’t know that when I did the painting.”
The artist was even invited to the church for a special event showcasing the painting in its new home. He says he was a little nervous to attend, at first.
“It was incredible,” Chagoya said. “For the first time in my life I felt like (I) got out of my art bubble into the world outside of the art world and connect with people and have a dialogue that was, in a way, unexpected.”
Ten years later, Jonathan Wiggins is still pastor at Rez Church and Enrique Chagoya’s painting still hangs just outside the sanctuary.
“Actually it’s part of the whole experience of being here, so I think a lot of people just walk by it and probably don’t even know the significance of what they’re glancing at,” Wiggins said.
And what does he think when he looks at it?
“Honestly my eye is drawn to that word,” Wiggins said. “I think that encapsulates the best parts of the way Enrique approached this situation and our friendship. Actually I think this is one of those times that love won.”
There was one other unexpected outcome from the event. In addition to the angry letters and calls, the Loveland Museum also received a lot of support, including $6,000 in donations, Susan Ison said.
Ison wanted to make sure the money went to something positive, something that spoke to its origins. So, the museum bought a printing press. It’s been in storage for the past decade but it will soon make its debut in the museum’s newly expanded studio space.
“You hope that you’re setting an example,” Ison said. “And you don’t go into it thinking about that but then in retrospect, if you stand up for what you believe in, it should be important to someone. I’m very pleased that we did it and I’m sorry that it was so hard on people, but I think we’d do it again.”