Prints paint a controversy in Williamsport

April 26, 2005|by TIM ROWLAND


All right, raise your hands. How many of you were tempted last week to go out and buy a velvet painting of the Dogs Playing Poker and present it to former Williamsport Mayor John Slayman? Be honest.

I think we all felt the mayor's loss when he wasn't able to keep a Civil War print on the grounds that, technically, some people didn't think it was his.

Long story short, an artist - I suppose in commemoration of something or another; it always is - presented three prints of his rendition of Gen. Robert E. Lee crossing the Potomac to local interests. Two were for the town, and one was for Mayor Slayman. We think.


But Slayman said all three prints were intended for him, a point he said was proved by the statements of a gentleman who has to date refused comment to this newspaper on the grounds that he has been dead since 1993. But other town principals said the paintings belonged to the public and were intended for public display.

Hence, the eruption of Paintergate.

After he was soundly voted out of office a few weeks ago, Slayman - who took his loss well, graciously declaring that he would assume a new role as the new council's "worst nightmare" - tried to take the town's/his print(s) with him. And to be honest, I'm so confused I don't know which one or ones he has, and which one or ones he doesn't.

But the bigger question is: When did Williamsport become the Louvre? Like, do they have a Rubens hanging in their traffic court?

Now I may have a couple of these facts wrong, but it doesn't matter, since truth has been an optional commodity in this particular market.

The story was already moderately weird, until some town officials late last week apparently asked themselves the pertinent question, "Why settle for just 'moderately weird,' when we can go for the whole enchilada?"

One of the prints was hanging in the Wiliamsport Library, and the library board sternly launched an investigation into the artwork's rightful owner. Which was all well and good, except for one thing.

The Slaymans had softened a bit (perhaps figuring that being the town's second or third worst nightmare would be sufficient, so there was no need to press things) and indicated to Williamsport Library Board President Richard Grimm that they were relinquishing their claim to the piece.

At first glance, this would seem to have been a snippet of relevant information the board might have wanted to have, prior to its vote to storm the barricades. But Grimm neglected to mention it, leading one board member to later conclude, with keen, David Broder-like analysis, that there "must have been a lapse in communication."

Well, yes. Like what would have happened if the Cornfield farmer on Sept. 18, 1862, had rented a reaper for the day without being told of the events of the 17th.

Contacted by a reporter about the Slayman's decision, Grimm offered a buffet of responses, allowing us to choose the one we find most appetizing:

1. It didn't happen.

2. It might have happened.

3. It did happen, but it didn't happen the right way.

4. It did happen, but since it involved the print and the library board, it was inappropriate to bring it up at a library board meeting about the print.

All right, now that we have that cleared up, there is still the matter of the second town print that was hanging in town hall until Slayman took it home as he was leaving office. And as I write this, I am getting word that there is a fourth print that was purchased by yet another member of the Slayman family.

And keep in mind, these are four prints of the same painting. The Slaymans must really like that piece. Probably have it on their business cards. I haven't seen it - maybe it's rare, like the only known painting of General Lee giving Napoleon III a backrub.

In fact, there are so many of these prints floating around, I don't see what the big deal is. Seems as if every home in Williamsport has at least two.

But I think I speak for all the "outsiders," though, when I say that I am praying that this whole affair ends up in court, where some wise judge will order each painting to be cut in half and given to those laying claim. At the very least, the biblical connotations ought to be pleasing to Lee.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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