Weird History: When ‘Green Lightning’ Hit and Made Buffalo Blush
This is one of the city's weirdest stories.
It involves public art, neon lights, a bulldozer, dancing phalluses, and a heck of a misunderstanding.
In November 1984, artist Billie Lawless was getting ready to officially debut his latest work, "Green Lightning." It was an outdoor sculpture comprised of iron and neon panels that the artist described as "an abstracted dancing figure celebrating life," in a 1984 article from the Buffalo News.
The sculpture was erected at the downtown entrance to the Kensington Expressway, on land owned by the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency.
"Green Lightning" made it through all the official approvals, up until its debut -- because no one had ever seen it lit up until it was time for the official dedication ceremony.
"Many city officials felt betrayed when the giant neon panels, installed only days before the sculpture “went live,” depicted what most interpreted as giant dancing penises.
Officials said early mock-ups of the artwork didn’t offer detail in the design of the flashing neon, and there were requests from the mayor’s office to the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency to the Buffalo Arts Commission to have the graphic portions of the sculpture removed."
Lawless claimed artistic freedom, and he had protections on his side.
That was just the tip of the controversy. The Buffalo Arts Commission had just been newly formed at that time, and its mission was to prevent government interference in works of public art and performance.
So, then-Mayor Jimmy Griffin did what you'd think Jimmy Griffin might do.
Power was cut to the sculpture so that it couldn't be lit, and the mayor had bulldozers next to the sculpture, on standby.
Lawless' sculpture reportedly cost $80,000 to make (and this is in 1984 dollars). He filed a lawsuit to prevent a quick dismantling of the work, as he feared damage to the structure.
He successfully won the lawsuit but wasn't awarded any monetary damages. The Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency voted 6-1 to remove the artwork from the property.
Lawless dismantled "Green Lightning," in Buffalo, and successfully got it up again in Chicago.
The sculpture remained on display there for a decade.
According to Lawless, "Green Lightning" was originally conceived as a project for the 1983 season at Artpark in Lewiston. He submitted it for the Oak-Genesee Corridor location after Artpark didn't accept the proposal.
Lawless later won his case against Mayor Griffin and the City of Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency.
According to Wikipedia, in 1992 a jury in the New York State Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Lawless' civil rights were violated "with its unauthorized actions in 1984."
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