Mountain City artist challenges the obscene

By Kathy Helms-Hughes


   In Mountain City as well as most small communities in this area, the concept of "art" centers around an oil painting of "The Last Supper," a black velvet of Elvis, or a life-size color portrait of Dale Earnhardt.
   Sculpture is best left to the larger cities or the art department at East Tennessee State University where in Woodstock days, the long-hairs gathered to contemplate the universe and translate it into a work of art.
   Emerson Zabower of Mountain City once studied at ETSU. Graduating in 1968 from York Academy of Fine Arts in Pennsylvania, Zabower majored in commercial illustration then switched to fine arts: painting, sculpturing, acrylic, oil, airbrush and life classes. His work has been exhibited in art shows in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, New York, North Carolina, Upper East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
   That doesn't mean his art has always been appreciated. Sometimes it sends a ripple of shock through the art community.
   In 1997, one of Zabower's oil paintings was the subject of controversy when a showing consisting of 25 paintings went up at an art show at Signature Gallery sponsored by the Johnson City Arts Council.
   "I hung my paintings up and we had a good reception. That was on a Friday night. Come Monday, we find out that one of the arts council members had a problem with 'The Philly Flasher' painting" which was hanging next to a larger painting of a nude female. They're pulling the 'Flasher' off the wall but they're letting the nude female hang? Out of the whole show, there were five nude paintings ... and that was the one that got pulled," Zabower said.
   "I'm basically a realistic painter but occasionally I'll deviate and go into surrealism or abstractism just to break the pattern a little bit," he said.
   Zabower and his wife, Nicole, capitalize on shock value when attending a show by dressing outlandishly, such as the time Nicole wore an all-metal halter top and Emerson leather biker chaps from his Harley days.
   "Even the way we dress is part of the art," Nicole said. "We make a statement. Everybody looks for us to be different." But the creative process and freedom of expression is being sacrificed, Nicole says, by a "corporate" philosophy: "Put it on the wall as quick as you can so we can find a buyer."
   Emerson said, "I see so many artists that get so rigid and stiff in what they're doing. ... I've always made it a point that if I have to work a job to support myself, I will be the painter I want to be. And everybody knows I will paint whatever I want to paint and I will sculpt whatever I want to sculpt. That is my reputation. Where other painters set this block in front of them and say, 'I can't do this because I'm afraid I'm going to lose a little money,' I don't worry about the money."
   The Zabowers say they have seen many artists fall by the wayside after winning their first show because they have tried to be so "business-minded."
   "You never hear from them again," Nicole said. "They sacrifice the creative process and you can see it in their work because it suffers. You start looking at the same thing every year. And people start going, 'I saw it last year, so I've seen it this year.' You never want to hear somebody say that about your artwork."
   Emerson said, "Sculptering is something I've always wanted to do full-time but it takes so much work," whereas a good oil painting he can knock out in a week.
   His sculptures may not sell like hot cakes, but he has made a little money at it. His first foray into sculpture of a nude male was stolen while still a work in progress. It was later found in a ditch off Culberson Road where the Zabowers live, along with the 10 mph speed limit sign he posted. The sign served a dual purpose: a base for the sculpture, and a reminder to speeding neighbors that he has small children playing near the 14-foot-wide gravel road that runs directly in front of his home.
   Zabower's second sculpture, "Nature in Reverse," was intended to be part of an "environment," or series of works based on the reverse progression of death to life. "Nature" features a cow skull mounted atop a block pedestal, after which Zabower worked his way down. The sculpture depicts the skeletal remains of a man peeking out from the belly of a bull. As a realist, Zabower also included the bull's manhood. That's when he began getting complaints from neighbors, including a written one, stating:
   "We are God-fearing people who should not be subjected to such filth. There are children who have to see this obscene statue each time they enter or leave. This is totally unacceptable. We are very embarrassed to ask family or friends to visit us because of this statue ..."
   Zabower said he removed the offending appendage to see whether that was truly the problem. "Next, one of the neighbors called up and said, 'Your sculpture is on my property.' " The land surveyed out in Zabower's favor.
   A few months went by. One day as Zabower was working on "Nature" he was approached by another neighbor who offered to buy it for $500. Zabower declined, raising the price to $1,500. The neighbor agreed but said he wanted it taken down. Zabower told him: "For $1,500 I don't care what you do with it. After it's out of my possession, I'm done with the work. I did my thing."
   He thought the issue was settled. A month later he was served a lawsuit from neighbors claiming a 40-foot easement. Notification of the court date was mailed from Johnson County Chancery Court, however, it went to the wrong address, according to Zabower. He said he found out about the hearing by word of mouth and had Nicole call to ask for a postponement. She said she was advised to send a certified letter to that effect and that they would be advised of the new court date. She did, and the Zabowers waited.
   "On April 18, I get a bill in the mail for court costs and surveyor fees," Emerson said. "I said, 'What's going on here? I've never went to court.' Two days later we get hit with an injunction" barring him from impeding the right-of-way with his latest sculpture, "Death is Certain," which is located near the roadway.
   Hedy Weinberg of the American Civil Liberties Union has stepped in on Zabower's behalf, filing a motion for a new hearing.
   Attorney William Cockett, who represented neighbors, said, "There is a road that goes through his property and my clients have an easement. ... He has placed objects in the right of way and we have sued him to remove them. The judge ordered him to remove them and the case is over, unless he hasn't removed them yet."
   Cockett represented Zabower years earlier when he was accused of violating state obscenity law after painting a picture of a nude woman from the breasts up on the side of his van. The case was dismissed.
   Cockett said the latest challenge "is not a lawsuit about pornography. He wants to make it one."
   Zabower still believes it stems from the all-too-realistic "Nature in Reverse." He said he has had schools bring students to art galleries displaying his paintings, which have included nudes. "I've never once had a problem with kids seeing my work and saying, 'Oooh, look at that.' It's always the adults."