Friday night marked the opening of Thomas Henkelsen’s controversial retrospective Peppermint, in the Dearborn Gallery. At first glance, one wouldn’t imagine the show to ruffle any feathers – the 110 paintings and collages on display span an art career from 1959 to 2013 and arc from outsider/amateur artist to photorealist to abstract expressionist – all referencing an obsession with peppermint ice cream. At first glance, the viewer can watch the evolution of an artist – a flip book of progress and deconstruction – and think “what’s not to love?” But it is the life of Mr. Henkelsen that disturbs and throws into question almost every aspect of his art-making career. It is by far the most polarizing and controversial show yet exhibited at W3, and from the protesters on the street to the heated conversations in the gallery above, Peppermint asks a plethora of questions about the relationship between artist and their works, and the challenges of celebrating, or even liking work made by individuals with bad ideas and unpardonable crimes.
In an attempt to diversify the voice and work exhibited at Walden Three, we work with a rotating cast of leading guest curators – art dealers, museum curators and risk-taking art producers from British Columbia to Eugene, Oregon. Of the 20+ yearly exhibitions we host at Walden Three, only a handful are selected by our staff. We would like to think that we have a few good ideas of our own, and receiving more than a hundred unsolicited proposals and artist inquires a month, there is no shortage of work to consider. Peppermint was one of these unsolicited letters of interest, and as controversial as it may be, it was just too rich a territory to ignore.
Thomas Henkelsen was a priest in Yakima, Washington from 1955 to 1988. Maybe you’ve heard of him. He is currently serving 178 years in Walla Walla State Penitentiary on 57 counts of child molestation. It was a big story when it broke in the early 1990s, but like much of the news (or news of that sort) we forget about it and move along to the next tragedy or war or snip of celebrity gossip. Thomas Henkelsen is 21 years into his sentence, and strangely, amazingly, he has become an exceptional, and exceptionally complex painter.
Henkelsen was brought to our attention by a tri-cities artist named Bobby Grutt. He is no angel himself (serving time in the 1980s-90s for drug possession, forgery and armed robbery), but has been volunteering and teaching art therapy within the penal system for the past decade. Mr. Henkelsen was a prolific student of Mr. Grutt’s, and as Mr. Grutt wrote in his introductory letter, “a raw, troubled talent that cannot be ignored or eclipsed by the crimes of his past.” His letter and CD of Mr. Henkelsen’s 1,254 works became a pebble in our shoe – we couldn’t get it out of our mind, and in the fall of 2011, drove east to visit Bobby Grutt and the incarcerated Henkelsen. Never before have we approached an exhibition with as much caution, legal counsel, trepidation and community outreach, but driving back to Seattle after that first meeting, we could not deny the emotional complexity of his work and the importance of the conflict it presented. We want to exhibit shows that made people struggle and argue and cry and recalibrtate their understanding of art and the world at large. Peppermint fell squarely within that mission, despite the black eyes and moral conflicts it has inflicted.
What makes his paintings, and motivations rather sinister is that peppermint ice cream is what he would give to his young victims after molesting them. It was his way of “making things right” and “making the kids happy” (his words). In some way, his hundreds of paintings of peppermint ice cream cones are offered to the world – or anyone that will give them the time – in an effort to make up for the bad he has done. In a very real way, 100% of the sales from this exhibition at Walden Three will go towards the victims and their families. Thomas Henkelsen will not receive a penny from this exhibition, though W3 did honor his singular request – that all visiting guests be given a single scoop of peppermint ice-cream.
Somewhere within the trajectory of Mr. Henkelsen’s incarceration, his mouthwatering ice-cream paintings lost their seduction. His forms twisted and melted, became diseased, abstract and often repulsive. His color palate remained primarily pink and white, but the shapes and forms mutated, corrupted, and decayed like a promise broken. They are by far his most compelling work, but they are not the images that little boys reach for. To see the arc of his work, you can’t help but suspect a sense of guilt, of recognition, of remorse.
Should galleries and museums be showing the work of a confessed child molester? Should galleries and museums (and libraries and record shops) exhibit or sell works by artists that have committed crimes, propagated bad ideas or were ‘bad people’ in their time? Is it an immoral act in itself? Sure we are raising money to give to his victims, but will it be viewed as celebrating him, forgiving him, validating him as an artist? As David Lister observed in the catalog, “Artistic creations must be used and judged in their own vacuum, free from their creators’ weaknesses, moral failings, even criminal acts. It is not that long of a road from boycotting paintings to burning books.”
The opening reception was a packed and somber affair. There were ex-cons and religious groups, relatives of the victims (to our knowledge none of Mr. Henkelsen’s victims were in attendance) and twenty-something girls dressed in plaid schoolgirl uniforms. The Dial posted record drink sales (the most common response being “I need a drink!”) 23 ice cream cones littered the gallery floor (and three hit the gallery wall) but when the dust settled and the doors were finally locked, we had raised over $175,000.00. There was no after hours celebration, no high fives – the show still feels like a pebble in our shoe. As it should – it is a complex and disturbing and bitter pill to swallow.
Oscar Wilde wrote, “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.” But what do we do with the immoral artist – is contemporary culture qualified to make those distinctions, and can we separate the artist from the art? Is there a place in the world for brilliant painters, designers, writers, etc. who commit crimes, propagate hatred, or are just bad people? Can we forgive, can we love the art and hate its creator? Is buying, exhibiting or endorsing the art in some way forgiving its creator? Making us an accomplice to their crime? These are the conversations that ran hot and contentious and unresolved – in the gallery, on the street and into the homes and workplaces of all that witnessed it.
Join us next week in the Denny School of Art as instructor Jed Dunkerley navigates Peppermint and the uncertain waters of censorship and morality in art. Guillermo Vargas, James Brown, George Michael, John Galliano, Authur Koestler, Fatty Arbuckle and Seattle’s own Charles Krafft to be discussed.