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When Ugly is Suspicious

Landscape of Fear

by KEN AVIDOR

I always keep my sketchbook/journal and sometimes a digital camera handy in case I see a person or something in the landscape that I can record and take back to my studio to use in my artwork.

October 24th, a warm sunny day, I was riding my Schwinn Suburban north of downtown Minneapolis near the entrance of the Cedar Lake Trail. I just started sketching and photographing a big, roadside billboard when a a little white vehicle pulled up. The window rolled down and a uniformed security guard told me I couldn’t take pictures of the "the ramp".

I told him I was taking a picture of the billboard and I asked him what law said I couldn’t take pictures of a parking ramp, assuming I did want to take a picture of a parking ramp. The security guard says "taking pictures of the ramp endangers safety".

I said the First Amendment of the Constitution protected my right to draw or photograph the American landscape we all live in and look at every day. I asked him if he would have told Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Picasso to move on as well. He responded by calling the cops and turning on the flashing lights on top of his little white vehicle. I really didn’t think the police would bother with this call, so I started sketching the billboard in my journal.

Ten minutes later, a squad car pulls up and two bemused officers step out to question me. They agree that I have a right to photograph and draw the billboard, but they advise me that I would be behaving less "suspicious" if I didn’t draw something "ugly" like the billboard, but instead drew "something nice like the IDS building."

Up to that point I thought that all this had something to do with terrorism. But if a terrorist was photographing and sketching potential targets, wouldn’t the IDS building, the tallest building on the skyline be a more likely target than a lowly municipal parking ramp? According to the officers that questioned me, the problem boiled down to aesthetics…I guess "ugly" billboards and the parking ramp in the background are not on the MPD list of approved subjects for artistic depiction.

It was really bizarre to have to listen to these art critics with badges telling me which subjects I should portray in my artwork to avoid ‘suspicion". The cops were very nice and polite, but I couldn’t help remembering that there’s a bunch of people being held in Guantanamo and elsewhere "under suspicion" of being terrorists.

I have been stopped before for photographing and sketching in public. Usually this happens in the privatized landscape of suburban strip malls. This is the first time I’ve been harassed for sketching on a sidewalk in Minneapolis, a city of galleries, museums and universities. I always thought Minneapolis was too smart to succumb to the terror frenzy. If sketching and photographing something "ugly" is "suspicious" in this tiny liberal outpost, we’re in big trouble.

KEN AVIDOR is an artist in Minneapolis. He can be reached through his website, Avidor Studios.