Crossed out at ground zero

Background imagery means Edmonds can’t accept tribute

Herald Writer

EDMONDS — The city has refused a former police chief’s gift of a watercolor by a local artist because the painting, which depicts firefighters huddled next to an American flag at ground zero in New York, contains three faint crosses in the background.

Tom Miller, a former police chief and current city councilman, purchased the watercolor for $374 after he saw it in the window of Main Street Gallery and Gifts in Edmonds.

But the city attorney told him the city couldn’t accept it.

Three New York firemen huddle in the painting’s foreground next to a flag after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. In the distance, three faint crosses streak the sky.

"It’s just a very inspirational painting, and part of that is because of the religious icons," Miller said.

The city’s attorney, W. Scott Snyder, said because the painting contains religious symbolism, the city can’t accept it.

"It’s not city law, it’s based on the Constitution," Snyder said.

"I certainly understand where they’re coming from, but this is a historic problem," Snyder said, "It’s why cities can’t sponsor a Christmas creche and (public) schools can’t have Christmas programs."

Snyder said the city has two choices when it comes to displaying artwork containing religious images: allow the display of all religious imagery or it avoid their display altogether.

"The city has chosen to avoid promotion, which is what the Constitution encourages," Snyder said.

If the city displays artwork containing a Christian symbol, then it must provide a public forum for displaying symbols from other faiths, Snyder said.

"You would have to go out and solicit representational art from different religious segments, but you’re sure to leave somebody out," Snyder said.

The artist, Denise Cole of Brier, said the painting, titled a "Tribute to Hope," was inspired by a photograph of ground zero by New York photographer Ricky Flores.

"I was so struck with the image of the fireman raising the flag," she said.

Cole said that in the course of painting, she realized that the structures in the wreckage at ground zero resembled giant crosses.

"I realized that some of these structures, these picket fence type of structures — they resembled crosses. I said, Oh, this looks like Calvary.

"You can’t help but paint crosses, because they were horizontals crossed by verticals."

Miller, who served as police chief from 1994-96, is a city councilman serving out the final months of his term. He didn’t seek re-election because in a few months his work will transfer him to Southern California. When Miller learned that city officials planned to give him a plaque commemorating his years of service, he wanted to give them something in return. And the painting of firefighters seemed perfect, he said.

When Miller learned that the city would not accept the print, he returned it to Main Street Gallery owner Barbara Koenig for a refund.

"Denise felt really bad that the way she painted it with that little image of a cross would create this kind of problem," Koenig said.

Cole sold the original watercolor to a firefighter in Oregon. But she plans to produce 500 limited edition prints of the painting and donate 20 percent of the proceeds to a World Trade Center victims’ fund.

Cole said she could easily alter the print.

"I could go to my printer and say erase the crosses. It would take him five minutes to do that."

But Cole doesn’t want to make the alteration.

"Is that what our country’s come to?" Cole asked. "To give tribute to our country’s heroes and have it turned down?"

You can call Herald Writer Janice Podsada at 425-339-3029 or send e-mail to podsada@heraldnet.com.

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