Controversial Cleveland Sculpture Moves Again After Lawsuit

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A 42-foot-high sculpture has left the campus of Cleveland State University after a legal dispute between the artist and CSU. The piece is called “The Politician: A Toy,” and it features a character with flickering TV sets for eyes. The mouth is in constant motion, but never says anything. Its wavy, golden hair blows in the breeze. The sculpture was built in 1995 and has spent over a decade at CSU.  During a recent visit to his east side studio, artist Billie Lawless said his father was part of the inspiration for this piece.

"He was a politician, besides a attorney, a judge, dean of a law school, and so I was always being exposed to that. And I just thought I'd do a quick kind of critical study," Lawless said, adding that it took him less than 30 minutes to come-up with the basic concept for the sculpture. It went from a crude, hand-sized cardboard model to a 36" version, and eventually, to the full-sized piece.

Billie Lawless has some words with the original cardboard model for "The Politician." [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

For more than a decade, this enigmatic sculpture was on view for eastside commuters at 36th and Chester Avenue. In 2008, a deal was cut to relocate it to the CSU campus. But, that relationship soured last fall when Lawless attached words to the fencing around the piece that might be interpreted as criticism of President Donald Trump. When CSU workers covered up the words with a banner, Lawless responded by filing a free-speech lawsuit against the university.  The two sides reached a settlement this past spring. Lawless agreed to remove the sculpture from campus by July 24 in exchange for $50,000 from CSU.

"The Politician" has a new home, just outside the artist's studio at E. 45th Street and Payne Avenue. 

Lawless chuckles at the thought that it's back in the news just as a new presidential campaign is getting underway.

"People project on pieces what they want to project," he said. "So, how they interpret the piece or what they see, I just try to stay out of. It is about how everybody tries to affect everyone politically. We want everyone to see the world exactly as we see it. That's kind of what the piece is about. But of course, politics - the bigger politics - is always very overwhelming, and people do tend to lay that kind of veneer on the piece. So be it."

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