Choosing the person who mattered the most this year in the Cincinnati arts is a no-brainer for me. Artist Thomas Condon represents all that's good and trying about life in Cincinnati. The good is that Condon's artwork — his sketchbook drawings, photographs and mixed-use sculptures — reflects skill and unique talent. His show this fall at The Carnegie Center in Covington, which included drawings he made while serving part of his prison sentence, revealed the compassionate spirit that supports his projects. It was the first time Condon's artwork was allowed to speak for itself, and I think it continues to make a powerful impression on the people who saw it.
The bad news is that Condon became Cincinnati's latest martyr for free expression after being convicted in April 29 on eight counts of gross abuse of a corpse after taking pictures of dead bodies, supposedly without permission, at the Hamilton County Morgue in January 2001.
Condon is currently free from prison on appeal, and it looks like he hasn't lost any passion for his work. The results of his appeal will determine whether he has to serve the remaining two years of his sentence. For the time being, he gets small pieces of his life back. He can to come and go as he pleases.
Condon has also become an unexpected spokesperson for civil liberties.
The National Coalition Against Censorship is supporting him, bringing his story to a national level.
For now, Condon's story gives Cincinnati another black eye of intolerance, as damaging as the obscenity charges brought against Contemporary Arts Center Director Dennis Barrie in 1990 for hosting the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective. In the long term, Condon's story might be remembered as the turning point that rallied tolerant citizens to action to ensure that a future Cincinnati artist would never again go to jail for creating art.
Either way, Condon impacts who and what we are as a community. I'm still holding out hope for a positive ending.
There's another arts story as sad as Condon's, although this one has to do with a young woman's personal failures rather than any injustices dropped at her feet.
Amanda Mayes, the 26-year-old co-chair of the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, is one of the driving forces behind the Artists of Conscience ban, which has asked performers to cancel their Cincinnati engagements until progress is made on what the coalition calls "social and economic apartheid." I've heard Mayes speak a number of times, and I was always impressed by what she had to say and the thoughtful way she expressed her views on social justice.
Mayes was instrumental in convincing comedian Bill Cosby and musical performers Wynton Marsalis, Smokey Robinson and The O'Jays to cancel performances at venues managed by the nonprofit Cincinnati Arts Association (CAA). In February, the CAA demanded $77,350 from the coalition to pay for damages caused by the cancellations.
On March 18, the CAA formally filed suit against the coalition, but Mayes held her ground. She was a Cincinnati anomaly, a twentysomething black woman who had the attention of local businessmen and politicians. Her platform was equality, and there was no denying the validity of what she had to say.
Everything about Mayes changed this fall when she appeared downtown carrying an anti-Semitic poster protesting the placement of a menorah on Fountain Square and spreading hate against the Jewish community.
Mayes had been a messenger for tolerance and equality, and then she decided to become a little Hitler. The hard-knock lesson for those of us who have promoted her over the year is that we need to choose our heroes carefully. You have to stick with a person and keep track of their actions.
I suppose some coalition supporters will forgive Mayes for being young and foolish and separate the woman from the cause. But there's nothing young or foolish about hate crimes and, in my book, strutting around a public square carrying an anti-Semitic sign is hateful.
Racists worse than Mayes have repented over the years — George Wallace and Trent Lott come quickly to mind. She might also experience a similar rebirth. For now, I plan to toss all that she's said recently into the trash pile.
I do appreciate the one lesson Mayes taught me. In the future, I'll choose my heroes more carefully.