Jake Knee commutes weekly via plane, and passes through a terminal at Portland International Airport that's part art gallery. The Art in the Schools exhibit showcases Oregon college and university student pieces on a six-month rotation, managed by the Regional Arts and Culture Council.
That's all fine by Knee—except for one piece that he recently noticed.
"There is one piece of artwork that is truly a piece of anti-American, hateful, bigoted filth, and it was clearly not created by a child's mind," Knee wrote in an email to airport officials (and, apparently, conservative talk radio host Lars Larson). "It was meant to hurt the large majority of Christians that pass by it daily, and would not be tolerated if it were directed at any other religion or nation."
The piece, a "jigsaw puzzle, reduction, woodblock print," created by Oregon College of Art and Craft student Peter Nichols in 2005, depicts a skull and crossbones—except the skull is decked out in American-flag style red-and-white stripes, with a section of dollar signs on a blue background where the stars would normally be. One of the skull's eye sockets is an oil barrel, while the nose is an oil well. A row of missiles makes up the mouth, and two rifles form the crossbones. Finally, the black border contains dozens of tiny crosses, and the work is called "In God We Trust."
Knee wasn't the only person to rail against the print. Conservative commentators like Larson and Michelle Malkin took up the cause, deeming the piece "nutball America-bashing, Second Amendment-bashing, capitalism-bashing anti-war 'art,'" as Malkin wrote on her blog. A commenter on the right-leaning Free Republic message boards said "I find this so-called art sickening."
Nichols, reached by the Mercury, says he's neither anti-Christian, nor anti-American. "The piece is anti-war, and more specifically this war. Part of it is my venting frustration with this administration. The crosses around the outside are meant to depict loss of life, another cost of the war. It's not an anti-Christian depiction. The title comes from our currency, which seemed appropriate."
The airport's customer relations department has responded to critics of the piece, saying the print will stay put. "Art is inherently subjective and can be provocative and thought provoking. We understand how it can affect people in different ways and we regret that this one has affected you negatively," the statement says. "Although we retain the right to decline art that is chosen under this program, we do not plan to remove art from this display until its normal rotation ends in November of this year."