The artist who painted two fraternity-era cartoon panels that were removed from the basement of Quinby House last year is pushing back against what he believes is a false characterization of his works. The paintings were removed last winter because of student criticisms that they embodied rape culture.

Artist James Lyon ’68, who painted the two panels in 1966 and 1967 during his time as a member of Psi Upsilon, recently returned to campus to defend his work against its critics, find out where his panels were being stored and determine their future home.

“There’s no sexual violence going on in these pictures,” he said.

Former Quinby House President Sophie de Bruijn ’18 initiated the effort to remove the panels from the house in December 2015, sending an email signed by nine other residents to Director of Residential Life Meadow Davis, Assistant Director of Residential Life Mariana Centeno and Director of Title IX and Compliance Benje Douglas.

“The two murals that hang in our basement, relics of the house’s past as the Psi Upsilon fraternity house, embody rape culture, that is, a setting in which rape is pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality. Displaying cartoon images of sexual violence perpetuates the normalized image of rape on college campuses,” they wrote in the email.

Following the letter, house members voted to remove the panels from the house on February 23.

The controversy arose from the panels’ content; one depicts an idyllic beachside Quinby House with naked women, mermaids and leering men, while the other is a metaphor telling of a Bowdoin student’s life over four years and between fall and spring. Women are being chased in both panels.  

However, Lyon disagrees with the way the letter represents his works. He says the paintings represent a fun and lighthearted representation of what life was like at Bowdoin during the sexual revolution.
“This was done in 1967, and it’s an allegory,” said Lyon. “At that point there were women who actually wanted to have a sexual experience and so there are several levels of puns and none of them are meant to be threatening.”
For de Bruijn, however, these paintings represent something far more pernicious than mere cartoons.

“When I look into the wide eyes of those cartoon women, running away and covering their naked bodies in horror, I see myself, I see my friends, I see everyone who has known what it feels like to be a victim of sexual violence. I’ve seen that image play out in real life on this campus,” de Bruijn wrote in an email to the Orient.

Lyon, however, maintains that the panels are replete with harmless allusions to ancient mythology, classical art and 60s pop culture. Moreover, the paintings are part of the College’s history and have hung in Quinby basement for almost 50 years. 

“It’s astounding to me that these things survive 50 years in the residence of a fraternity house and then, suddenly, they became threatening to someone majoring in gender studies,” he said. “It sounded like no one else had complained.”

De Bruijn, however, contests the notion that context can explain away the problematic portions of the painting.

“Regardless of the source material they are drawing from, pairing images of indisputable sexual violence in ‘the Virgin forests’ with images of polar bears wearing sunglasses trivializes the very real epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses and in this country,” she wrote.

While he was on campus, Lyon met with current Quinby House President Lucian Black ’19 and suggested two ideas for getting the panels back into the House: as part of a larger art exhibit in the basement that would include other student art or as part of the chapter room.

Black, however, saw the murals as “recognizably offensive.” 

“It goes beyond my own personal feelings about the murals and the paintings themselves,” he said. “As a public space on campus, [Quinby] needs to be a place where all feel welcome, and if some people feel unwelcome by the presence of those murals … that has to be respected.”

As for the future, both de Bruijn and Lyon expressed interest in preserving the paintings as a part of Bowdoin’s historical past.

“I hope that in the future the paintings can be used in programming about the history of coeducation at Bowdoin,” de Bruijn wrote.

Likewise, Lyon wants to ensure that the paintings are preserved digitally. He has spoken with the Bowdoin Art Museum Assistant to the Registrar Michelle Henning about displaying the works.