Washington House of Representatives votes to cover up controversial murals in House Chamber on March 7, 1982.

  • By Alan Stein
  • Posted 3/05/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10338

On March 7, 1982, the Washington House of Representatives votes overwhelmingly to tear down or cover over murals by Michael Spafford (1935-2022) called Twelve Labor of Hercules, which were commissioned by the state in 1981 along with a set of murals created for the Senate by Alden Mason (1919-2013). Spafford's murals caused controversy when some legislators found them to be too abstract, while other considered them to be obscene. For the next two decades, Spafford's and Mason's murals will undergo a long and twisting political and judicial odyssey before finding a home at Centralia College.

A Capitol Idea

When Washington's Capitol Building was built in 1911, its architects designated certain areas for the display of art. Over the years, legislators offered various proposals to fill those spaces, but the appropriations were never approved until 1979, when $200,000 for art was included in the 1979-1981 budget, mostly due to the efforts of Representative John O'Brien (1911-2007).

In a procedure agreed to by the Joint Legislative Facilities Committee and the State Capitol Museum Board, a panel of jurors was chosen that included architects and arts educators from state universities, as well arts patrons such as Virginia Wright (b. 1929). These jurors pored over 200 public art proposals and selected six semi-finalists.  Of those six, they chose Michael Spafford and Alden Mason, both senior faculty members of the University of Washington art department, based on preliminary drawings and interviews with the artists.

Spafford began working on huge murals depicting the 12 labors of Hercules that would go above the galleries in the House of Representatives chamber, and murals of Icarus and a Chimera that would go in the front and back of the room. Mason toiled on his murals for the Senate. Both men worked in their studios relatively unhindered, save for one meeting they had with Speaker of the House Bill Polk (b. 1935), and Representative O'Brien.

First Look

As the artists were nearing completion, photographs of their progress were made public, and soon a controversy arose. Spafford's murals were deemed by some to be too abstract, and unfitting of the traditional art usually seen in capitol buildings. Others found the monochrome images to be too disturbing. A few legislators thought they contained sexual overtones.

Mason's mural for the Senate chamber was also deemed to be too abstract for its ornate setting. Described by some as squiggly lines or rows of colored macaroni, these murals did not outrage legislators as much as Spafford's murals did.

Some Democratic legislators complained that the state was spending money on art that would be better spent on human service programs. Republican Bob Williams of Longview introduced a budget amendment that would sever funding for the murals guaranteed by the earlier appropriation. The amendment just barely failed to pass. Meanwhile, Spafford's phone was ringing off the hook as outraged citizens began calling him to vent their disgust.

Spafford explained to the press that he chose the labor of Hercules as his theme because Olympia is also the name of the Grecian city known for the Temple of Zeus. He also viewed the labors as "a metaphor for the legislative process," which he considered as "a constant struggle to achieve results" and "a constant possibility of experiencing defeat" (The Seattle Times, November 12, 1981).

Many art critics were perplexed by the debacle, and saw nothing wrong with the murals. Although abstract, the shapes and curves matched the spaces they were intended to fill in the chamber. As for the depictions, it was argued that ancient mythology had been used as a major theme in Western art for quite some time.

Eyes of the Beholders

The legislators, as well as the public, got a better view of the artwork once installation began. In 1981, two of the panels were placed in the House chamber while Spafford worked on finishing the rest. One section of the installed panels that came under intense scrutiny depicted Hercules killing Hippolyte to retrieve the Amazon warrior's magic girdle. Some found it obscene. Representative Helen Sommers (1932-2017) referred to it as a symbol of rape.

Speaker of the House Bill Polk, an architect who had supported the arts in the past, appointed a blue-ribbon committee to review the murals to determine whether they were appropriate and to provide a recommendation on the next step. The panel, headed by Spokane banker and arts patron Donald Lindsay, included four legislators, an art curator for the Seattle Art Museum, three of the jurors from the original committee that had chosen Spafford and Mason, and noted members of the arts and business communities. In the meantime, the legislature breached its contract with Spafford and cut off funding for the two panels that were not completed.

In February 1982, the committee recommended that work on the remaining two panels should be completed, and that Spafford -- who had been paid $48,000 for the first set of panels -- should be paid the remaining $43,000 owed to him for the complete project. Part of their decision to keep the murals was based on the costs of removing the works from the walls, which would have cost up to $27,000, and might not have been easily accomplished without damaging the artwork or the walls.

Representative O'Brien, who had championed the murals from the start, urged people to reserve judgment against the artwork until all of the panels were in place, including the descriptions that would accompany them. Responding to those who found the artwork pornographic, he noted, "They're reading things into it. If you read the description on each panel, it's not obscene.  You can read a lot into anything" (The Seattle Times, February 8, 1982).

Everyone's a Critic

While the committee recommended keeping the art in place, the legislature thought otherwise. On March 7, 1982, it voted overwhelmingly to tear down or cover the murals. Some legislators voiced very strong opinions about the matter. Dick Bond (b. 1924), who sponsored the resolution, referred to the artwork as "dirty black and white pictures." Representative Mike Patrick (b. 1941), a Seattle police officer, claimed that the murals met the three tests of pornography. "Does it have redeeming social value. No. Does it appeal to prurient interest? Yes. Is it an affront to community standards? Yes" (The Seattle Times, March 8, 1982).

Representative Irving Greengo (b. 1925) claimed that the murals "shock and disgust," while Representative Jim Lewis felt that the art fit better in the porno district of New York. Representative Steve Tupper stated. "We need historical types of art. These things are a disgrace. I haven't had a constituent see these and say anything I can repeat on this floor." Representative Mary Kay Becker (b. 1946) didn't find the murals to be pornographic, but lamented the fact that the legislators weren't asked their opinion until the murals, "all at once appeared on the walls one morning" (The Seattle Times, March 8, 1982).

Not all of the legislators pooh-poohed the murals. Dick Nelson accused his colleagues of being "instant art experts," while Representative O'Brien urged the group to delay their vote until a compromise was reached. There was none.

Callahan's Comments

Outside of the Capitol, Spafford received some kind words of support from legendary Northwest artist Kenneth Callahan (1905-1986). In 1948, Callahan had offered to paint murals inside the Capitol Building, but was turned down. At the time, the legislature did pay him $350 for 10 proposed sketches, which were now hanging at various spots in the building, including Secretary of State Ralph Munro's (b. 1943) office, and the outer office of Bill Polk.

Callahan didn't consider Spafford's work to be obscene at all. "Whenever some very conservative person looks at something modern and they don't like it, the tendency is to call it things like pornographic," Callahan told The Seattle Times. "I'm sure these murals do not sexually excite any of the legislators. If they do, then they really have a problem" (The Seattle Times, March 8, 1982).

Callahan noted that in 1948, the legislature gave him strict guidelines to follow, which he refused to do, saying that he would paint what he wanted and then let them say yes or no. Spafford noted that he faced a similar dilemma. "They wanted Lewis and Clark being given salmon by the Indians," he said, and that even though they knew in advance that wasn't what he was giving them, they commissioned it anyway (The Seattle Times, March 8, 1982). 

Hidden in Plain Sight

When it came time to tear down the murals, the Department of General Administration discovered that there was no way to remove the panels without damaging the artwork. Keith Angier, head of the department, stated that "We wouldn't destroy art any more than we would burn books," and proposed that the murals be covered up instead. And so, the murals disappeared behind curtains.

Spafford called state officials "gutless" for not allowing him to finish his work. He said that he'd rather they just destroy the artwork than hide it from view, but hoped that some future legislature would bring it back into the public eye.  Donald Lindsay, chair of the commission that recommended completion of the mural was just as upset. "It’s a question of censorship to me," he said, "A little group of people with dirty minds have decided they're dirty pictures and they've censored them" (The Seattle Times, May 21, 1982).

Over the next five years, John O'Brien continued his fight to bring the murals back, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Alden Mason's murals in the Senate chamber came under fire, not for being obscene, but for being too contemporary, especially in light of the refurbishing planned for the historical capitol buildings in time for the state's 1989 centennial. In April 1987, the Senate voted to remove Mason's murals, just after the House introduced another proposal to tear down Spafford's murals.

Judging Art

Fed up with seeing public art come under attack, arts groups sprang into action. Allied Arts of Seattle and Artists Trust, an artists' support organization, both sued the state over the removal of Spafford's and Mason's artwork. They claimed that both murals were installed under binding contracts, and that their removal would be a breach of those contracts.

State Attorney General Ken Eikenberry (b. 1932) disagreed, saying that the contracts did not prohibit removal of the artwork. Eikenberry went on to say that control of the Capitol buildings was given by state law to the Department of General Administration, and that that agency had final say over major works of art once they had been acquired.

The courts agreed with Eikenberry and ruled that there was no language in the contracts that required the murals to be permanently displayed and the state may remove them. King County Superior Court Judge Terrence Carroll (b. 1945) further stated that some remedy is probably owed the artists, and that the murals must stay up until that decision was made.

In the end, Carroll ruled that because Spafford's mural was glued to the wall, its removal could damage the artwork. It could be left in place, but covered up. Spafford was also awarded $35,000 that was owed to him for the work he had not completed. Mason, on the other hand, lost out completely. No cash settlement was awarded, and since his murals were only bolted to the wall, the state was given the right to remove them. Beginning in December 1987, they were crated up and moved into storage.

When making his decision, Carroll criticized legislators for their negative judgments of public art, stating "We cannot tolerate destruction of art in a free society." His ruling went on to clearly state that public art has rights of its own, independent of the artist, so even though both Spafford and Mason preferred that their murals be destroyed rather than removed or covered over, that was not an option. Said Carroll, "Art is held with trust, with the state as its custodian, because it belongs to the public, and that art has rights apart from the artist to be presented in a way that promotes its aesthetic value" (Ellensburg Daily Record, October 10, 1987.

Ready for Removal, Then Reprieved

By this time, the state had already spent close to $100,000 on Spafford's murals and another $100,000 on covering them up and the ensuing legal battle. Adding in the costs of removal, the press was having a field day with these fiscal follies, and the legislators just wanted the artwork to go away -- but in a way that would pass muster.

In June 1988, the Department of General Administration ran a test of the proposed removal process, and videotaped it to show the court. A replica panel was glued onto a similar wall in the Senate Chamber using the same mastic -- Stay Stuck -- that Spafford used in the House. After letting it set for three weeks, they were able to peel the fake panel off without damaging it.

But the original murals remained in place in the House for more than a year, albeit behind curtains. After the 1988 elections, there was some discussion about letting the House vote again on whether to retain the murals, especially since only 21 of the 98 House members were in office when the controversy began. Despite a resolution signed by 42 of the members to do so, House Speaker Joe King declined to bring it up for a vote. He did direct that the murals be uncovered for one last view by the legislators.

In June 1989, the murals were unveiled, but only after the legislative session ended and the representatives had gone home.  That October, Cooke's Crating and Fine Arts Transportation of Los Angeles was brought in at a cost of over $60,000, to remove the murals, but the process was halted just as workers were about to begin.

House Speaker King had a change of heart and decided to let the murals stay, uncovered. He explained that part of his decision was motivated by his reaction to attempts made by United States Senator Jesse Helms (1921-2008) to prohibit National Endowment for the Arts grants for art that could be deemed indecent or obscene. "It's offensive,'' King said. "I don't feel good about the government trying to regulate free expression'' (The Seattle Times, October 24, 1989). Arts groups were thrilled at the reversal, and King was hailed as a hero at a rally organized by the Artist Trust and Allied Arts of Seattle.

College Bound

Meanwhile, Alden Mason's murals had found a new home, but not to the artist's liking. Centralia College had just built a new library and offered to display the works there. The state agreed, but Mason brought suit against them, claiming that his murals were site-specific to the Senate Chamber, and that the library was too small for the work to be seen from the distance for which it was designed.

In September 1990, King County Superior Court Judge Terrence Carroll ruled that one of the murals could remain temporarily in place at the college, while a search could continue for a more suitable site. Neither side was happy with the decision, and Greg Kucera (b. 1954), Mason' gallery representative, described it as "having a baby cut in half"  (The Seattle Times, October 24, 1989). A year later, in another ruling, Carroll said that the college could display both murals, over Mason's objections.

House Cleaning

By this time, many thought that the controversy over Spafford's murals in Olympia was over. It wasn't. In 1993, House representatives added an amendment to the state budget calling for their removal. This time, the issue wasn't morality, but context. Representative Greg Fisher (b. 1961), sponsor of the amendment, thought that the abstract art was out of place in the classically designed capitol, likening the murals to "wearing a tie-dyed shirt to a White House dinner" (The Seattle Times, April 17, 1993.

Representative Bob Basich (1927-2000) stated that he'd rather see images of mountains and trees. Helen Sommers reiterated the complaint she made in 1981, that the panel of Hercules and Hippolyte depicted rape. Others disputed her interpretation, but the amendment passed in an unrecorded voice vote.

Because it was in a budget proposal, the Senate had to approve it too, which it did. Critics complained that the state was wasting money at a time of deep recessionary spending cuts, as it would now cost $162,000 to tear down and store the murals -- nearly double what the state paid for them in 1981. And down they came.

Lessons Learned

The murals were covered in a protective layer of varnish and tissue, and placed in storage, where they remained for 10 years.  In 2003, Centralia College -- home of the Mason murals -- struck a deal with the state to display Spafford's murals in their newly completed Corbet Theatre, which was designed with wall spaces that met the exact dimensions of the artwork. The college then spent $75,000 to transport, restore, and install the murals, which were unveiled on October 11, 2003.

Don Frey, a spokesman for the college, noted that having both sets of murals offered an excellent opportunity for academic discussions about freedom of expression and the role of public art. Michael Spafford, who declined to attend the unveiling, wished the college luck, adding "I just wish they had somebody else's art to do that with" (The Seattle Times, September 3, 2003).


"$200,000 Going for Capitol Art," Ellensburg Daily Record, December 19, 1980; p. 7; "Legislative Murals Face Wall of Opposition," The Seattle Times, August 22, 1981, p. A-5; "More Grumbling Over Capitol Art Works," The Seattle Times, October 18, 1981, p. A-21; "New Murals Provoke Debate Among Art Critics and Legislators," The Seattle Times, November 12, 1981, p. D-10; "Panel Favors Completing House Artworks," The Seattle Times, February 8, 1982, p. C-1;  "House Finds 'Hercules" Offensive, Orders Him Into Exile," The Seattle Times, March 8, 1982, p. 1; "House's Art Verdict -- Down With the Murals," The Spokesman Review, March 8, 1982, p. 1;  "Legislators' Brush With Artists Hardly an Original Scene," The Seattle Times, March 11, 1982, p. C-2;  "Capitol Cover-Up; Wall to Hide 'Obscene' Murals," The Seattle Times, May 21, 1982, p. E-1; "Legislature's Hercules has Gone 'Undercover,'' The Spokesman Review, September 18, 1982, p. 4;  "Fund Will Fight Mural Removal," The Seattle Times, April 10, 1987, p. C-1; "Arts Groups Are Suing Over Capitol Murals Removal," The Seattle Times, April 22, 1987, p. H-1; "Eikenberry Said Controversial Senate Murals Can Be Removed," The Seattle Times, April 25, 1987, p. A-10; "Capitol Murals Can Be Removed," The Seattle Times, October 6, 1987, p. A-1; "Judge Issues Split Ruling in Art Case," Ellensburg Daily Record, October 10, 1987, p. 5; "Court Ruling Strikes a Blow for the Rights of Art," The Seattle Times, October 11, 1987, p. B-1; "Murals Going," The Seattle Times, December 8, 1987, p. H-4; "Making a Dirty Movie in State Senate," The Seattle Times, June 24, 1988, p. A-6; "Art Experts Approve Plane for Removing House Mural," Spokane Chronicle, July 14, 1988; p. A-3; "Murals are Unveiled but Still Slated to Come Down," The Seattle Times, June 18, 1989, p. L-5; "House Murals' Removal Process Begins," The Seattle Times, October 17, 1989, p. B-5; "Capitol Murals to Remain After All," The Seattle Times, October 24, 1989, p. C-1; "Decision on Murals Taken from Senate Upsets Both Sides," The Seattle Times, September 28, 1990, p. D-1; "Judge Says College Can Be Murals' Home," The Seattle Times, November 23, 1991, p. A-6; "House Approves the 13th Labor -- Pulling Down Hercules," The Seattle Times, April 17, 1993, p. A-12; "Controversial Murals on the Move," The Seattle Times, September 3, 2003, p. B-1; Debra Cassens Moss, "Mural, Mural, On the Wall," ABA Journal, February 1, 1988, pp. 18-19; Oral history interview with Michael Spafford and Elizabeth Sandvig, 1992 September 2-4, Archives of American Art website accessed February 19, 2013 (http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-michael-spafford-and-elizabeth-sandvig-12402).
Note: This essay was corrected and updated on March 8, 2017.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You