Earlier this summer, Colorado resident Mike Mechau was summoned for a conference call with federal officials in Washington. The June 2 discussion centered on a topic that hits Mechau smack in the family jewels: the fate of his late father’s possibly best-known painting.
For decades, Frank Mechau’s colorful mural titled Dangers of the Mail has been displayed publicly along the concave wall of a fifth-floor elevator lobby inside D.C.’s historic Ariel Rios Federal Building, presently the headquarters of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
But the son is now worried that Daddy’s 13-foot-long pièce de ré#sistance might soon wind up, as he puts it, “in the basement of the Smithsonian.”
About as old as the opulent Depression-era building that houses it, Dangers of the Mail depicts a frontier landscape teeming with half-naked, dark-skinned, spear-wielding natives who are wreaking havoc on the unlucky passengers of an overturned stagecoach. Several white-skinned males lie dead or dying. One white guy is getting stabbed in the back. A group of white women have been stripped of their clothes; one is being strangled, and another is about to get scalped.
Though every bit as Americana as any John Wayne movie, Mechau’s impressive massacre scene has in recent years provoked the protests of several would-be censors, including more than a few EPA employees, some of whom are of Native American descent.
And they’re not all too fond of five other Western-themed murals in the building, either. A Mechau painting called Pony Express, located in the same lobby, shows natives stealing horses. And Ward Lockwood’s Opening of the Southwest, also on the fifth floor, features a wild-eyed face-painted Indian taking a bite out of a live snake.
“They’re so revolting to me,” says one Oneida-descended EPA staffer in the agency’s American Indian Environment Office, who goes by the tribal name Bob Smith. “I am as sickened as a Jewish person would be in looking at Nazi death camps.”
Smith admits the artwork is somewhat thought-provoking: “Why are these women naked?” he ponders while viewing Dangers of the Mail. “Who took their clothes off? Was it the Indians? Did they strip them down? Or did the Indians stumble onto some kind of orgy?”
But he argues that Mechau and the other artists have skewed historical facts to present an inaccurate, stereotypical image of Native Americans as savages. Take Mechau’s depiction of scalping: “People that were alive were not scalped,” says Smith, who formerly served as the director of a tribal museum in Oneida, Wis. “You had to wait ’til their hearts stopped pumping. I don’t know if you’ve seen a head wound. It sprays blood all over the place. You wouldn’t rip somebody’s hair off with a knife when they’re still breathing.”
Historian James Axtell disputes the blood-spray theory. “People living, unconscious, and dead were scalped: The amount of spurting blood made no difference to a warrior in a big hurry to collect his trophy and to hightail it back home,” e-mails Axtell, a professor at Virginia’s College of William and Mary and author of The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America, which devotes two chapters to scalping.
Axtell, though, has his own issues with Mechau’s mural. “What IS wrong and stereotypical is the naked women: they would all be clothed, unless they were caught in the ole swimming hole. Women in general were *not* scalped,” he writes.
What’s worse than being seen by your peers as a bunch of murderous, sexually predatory, kleptomaniacal serpent-gobblers? How about toadies to the French? In this era of freedom fries, Karl R. Free’s French Explorers and Indians, displayed on the building’s 7th floor, suggests natives’ “passivity and submission towards the French,” according to a press release from the nonprofit Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which represents Smith and other offended EPA employees.
To be fair, the paintings don’t speak to the valor of the early white settlers, either. The light-skinned stagecoach riders in Dangers of the Mail come off as hapless pussies who easily succumb to a seemingly less sophisticated bow-and-arrow people dressed in feathers and crude bikini thongs. Hailing from proud Anglo-Saxon ancestry, S&T is a bit offended, too.
What to do about these pieces of potentially race-baiting artistry? Well, for years now, the Lawyers Committee, the Society of American Indian Government Employees, and the EPA’s own American Indian Advisory Council, among others, have been floating an idea: Get the abhorrent art out of the building.
“It is a workplace,” says Sarah Crawford, an attorney with the Lawyers Committee, who argues that the artworks’ present setting might violate federal civil-rights law. “A museum would be a more appropriate venue,” she says.
Of course, mural-removalists aren’t the only ones clamoring for the EPA’s attention on the matter. Supporters of the artworks, including members of painter Mechau’s family, are lobbying for the pieces to stay put.
“I don’t think it’s bad for us at all to be mindful of some of the history of relations with these people,” says Mike Mechau. “We should be informed of the many trials and tribulations and even, in some cases, atrocities that they fell victim to. And at the same time, we need to be able to admit that they also, perhaps understandably, did savage and atrocious things, too.”
If there’s one thing that both sides can agree on, it’s the government’s wishy-washy handling of the controversy. The feds’ response, Mechau says, “has been timid and uncertain at best.”
Bombarded with complaints about the murals almost as soon as the agency moved into the former U.S. Post Office building five years ago, EPA brass initially resorted to the same makeshift fix embraced by former Attorney General John Ashcroft when he took issue with the sculpted Spirit of Justice’s bare right breast as displayed in the Justice Department’s Great Hall: They simply covered ’em up.
Calling the murals “deeply troubling and inappropriate for display in EPA’s workplace,” Clinton-appointed EPA Administrator Carol Browner in 2000 ordered the offending artworks obstructed from view. And for a short while, the murals were blocked by various displays, including one collapsible science-project-looking exhibit highlighting the 10th anniversary of the agency’s Indian Environmental General Assistance Program. Browner intended the blockage as a temporary fix “until we are able to reach our ultimate goal of removing them from public view,” according to a Nov. 9, 2000, memo from her office.
Eventually, some of the murals were removed. For touch-ups. Under Browner’s successor, Bush appointee Christine Todd Whitman, the paintings were refurbished and ultimately returned to their original, offensive locations. After Whitman’s reign ended, Assistant Administrator Morris X. Winn held fast to the agency’s on-the-fence art policy, announcing in an Oct. 31, 2003, memo that the murals “will remain in place” but behind some form of barrier. “Appropriately sized screens,” Winn wrote, would again be placed in front, “shielding them from direct view.”
And that’s just what bugs Mike Mechau. “The amount of time that the view of those murals has been unobstructed has been very limited,” he says.
And the obstructions displease the removalists just as much. Viewers can easily walk around them to see the works, leading Smith to argue that “it appears that the agency is reinforcing these stereotypes and, by keeping [the artworks] up there, they’re perpetuating them.”
The half-assed compromise has not quieted the tension in the building. According to building manager Shawn Proctor, Dangers of the Mail was slashed up by a vandal about two years ago. Since then, security cameras have been installed in each lobby where the works are located.
The EPA can’t take full responsibility for its reluctance to go one way or the other. The agency’s landlord, the federal General Services Administration (GSA), has played an equally obstructionist role.
According to GSA, both the building and its artwork are protected by the National Historic Preservation Act. Removing the murals, which were commissioned specifically for display in that particular building, “would be what we consider an adverse effect to a historic setting,” says GSA Regional Historic Preservation Officer Gary Porter.
And it wouldn’t be what the GSA considers easy. “It’s not like you’re simply taking a painting off an easel,” notes Proctor. Two murals are painted fresco-style right onto the wall itself, and the ones that are canvases are tightly affixed. When the works were previously removed for restoration, he says, the GSA “had to cut into the wall.”
To even consider a permanent removal, GSA announced this past March, it must first go though a bureaucratic rigmarole of committee meetings and a public-comment period. “We’re going to be meeting with members of the public, EPA employees, people who have a demonstrated interest in the artwork—you know, talk it through, see what the best solution’s gonna be before we actually take an action,” says Porter.
During the initial June 2 conference call, representatives of Indian-rights groups continued to press for removal. “The issue is not just limited to employees of the building,” noted Gilbert Pasqual, head of the EPA’s Native American Advisory Council, according to written minutes of the meeting. “Tribal leaders, who are considered heads of state, are forced to see these murals when they visit the Ariel Rios Building. It is unacceptable for them to have to view these images.”
Supporters of the murals, meanwhile, warned that dumping the works could set a chilling precedent for public art. “Any decision GSA makes is likely to be far reaching, going way beyond these specific works of art,” said Frank Mechau’s son Dorik Mechau.
The GSA’s Porter predicted that the process “may not have a quick resolution.”
In the meantime, the GSA has proposed yet another temporary fix for Dangers of the Mail—something that building managers hope will literally shed more light on the divisive artwork, which is presently shadowed by towering poster boards detailing the ongoing regulatory consultation process. According to a March 15 memo, GSA will soon install “a translucent screen that will provide better viewing conditions.”—Chris Shott
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