Controversial painting causes gallery to shuts its doors following complaints

By Timothy Long

(Knight-Rider) Bethesda, Md. — Mary McLaughlin had attended many gallery openings. Each Wednesday she looked through the free weekly to find gallery openings. She circled the ones that were easily accessible by public transportation. All the gallery owners knew her by name. They treated her like royalty. However, Mary was hiding a secret, one she made sure no one knew. That has all changed now.

Contrary to what you might think, Mary is not an art lover, and her dedication to the local art world has nothing at all to do with an appreciation for of paintings, sculpture, or photography. In fact, she doesn’t know Manet from Monet.

Truth be told, it was the prospect of free food that drove Mary into the world of art. It’s a world she wishes she didn’t have to inhabit. “Between my meds and the bills, I just don’t have any money left over. I was left with no other choice,” Mary says. “I wish there was some other way.”

A cracker here. A piece of cheese there. A olive on the end of a toothpick. Each and every thing she could scrounge would go into her purse, or as Mary fondly calls it, her “lunch bag.” Over the course of a given weekend, Mary might hit as many as four openings. Sometimes it would be enough to keep her fed all week.

Fitting into the wine and cheese world of art lovers wasn’t easy, especially for a woman who had dropped out of school at 14 and spent her youth following the Unwashed Masses. “Those people talk a lot of wind, and to fit in, you have to talk a lot of wind too,” Mary says. “I had to start putting up those little yellow sticky notes around the house with those 50-cent words from that Word Power thing in Reader’s Digest just so I wouldn’t look like some rube from the sticks.”

Following the death of her husband Earl, Mary made a disturbing discovery: her husband’s investments in a failed herbal supplement startup had left her over $50,000 in debt. To make matters worse, Mary and Earl never had children, so she had no one to turn to.

“I didn’t know what to do. I had a whole work shed stacked floor to ceiling with all these pill bottles that had been banned by the FDA. There was nothing I could do with them,” Mary says. Once again, her eyes begin to turn glossy but somehow, someway, she is able to keep the tears from falling. “I always thought Earl went back there to listen to the radio and whittle. It was his place to get away from it all. It wasn’t mine to bother him. I didn’t know.”

As shocking as her husband’s failed financial dealings were, not even that experience could prepare her for the surprise she received when she visited Gallery 291 on Saturday. The event was billed as an exhibition of religious artwork by some of the region’s top up-and-coming artists, and that it was.

But there was something else underneath the surface, something peeking through. Only a keen observer would have noticed it. On that day, that observer just happened to be Mary McLaughlin.

The event had been a bit of godsend for Mary. It was a Saturday night. Both exhibitions on Friday had been canceled following a water main break on Main Street, and the first event she attended that evening had yielded little more than a handful of carrots and a couple of spoonfuls of ranch dressing which Mary spooned into a compact she carried in her purse.

Mary was also pleased with the subject matter. Too often the exhibitions featured abstract works that she just couldn’t understand. To her such works looked like the doodles of a kindergartner. But these were works she could grasp. These were pieces that moved her.

And it didn’t hurt, as Mary soon discovered, that Gallery 291 had laid out an impressively large variety of hors d’oeuvres — lobster cigars, pinwheels, spinach and artichoke dip, sausage balls, quesadillas, along with your usual assortment of vegetables, cheeses, crackers, and dip. McLaughlin knew that if she was wily enough she could swipe enough to feed herself for three weeks. She was more than up to the challenge, stuffing her lunch bag full of food.

With her purse over her thin, slightly drooping shoulders, Mary began to walk towards the front door of Gallery 291. Her eye happened to spot a picture of the Virgin Mary on the wall. But it wasn’t the beauty of the painting that caught Mary’s attention. It was the fact that the virgin looked just like her. Or at least how Mary looked nearly 45 years ago.

At her home, Mary shows a photo taken of her at an Unwashed Masses show in Portland, Ore. Although the photograph is somewhat faded, you can see a happy, young girl. Her face is glowing and a little bit chubby. “I had put on a little weight at that point,” Mary says, pointing at the photo and suddenly appearing shaken, nervous even. She breaks eye contact looks away. “I was on tour and a broke my leg around Kansas City, so I didn’t walk around much. Fortunately, the boys didn’t mind pushing me around in my wheelchair. As soon as the cast was off, I shed the pounds.” Even now, you can see traces of that young girl in Mary’s slender face.

Back at the gallery, Mary looked at the virgin. She looked at the baby. She looked at the virgin. “I stood there for the longest time,” she adds. “I can’t even begin to describe the emotions that I was feeling. I was overwhelmed. That picture was me.”

One of the waiters who had been hired for the event noticed Mary. More importantly, he noticed something dripping out of the bottom of her lunch bag. It was ranch dressing, and it was dripping on her shoe.

“I said, ‘Excuse, ma’am. Excuse me. Are you okay?’ and I tapped her on the shoulder, but she didn’t move. I thought we were going to have to call the EMS,” says Randall Peters.

Peters called over to his fellow wait staffers. Together, they tried to get Mary’s attention. But something else did. It was something that no one else had noticed — not the gallery owner, not the attendees, not the help. That something was the Virgin Mary’s nipples.

Mary screamed in horror. She stumbled back and tripped over her own feet. She dropped her bag. It spilled open. Peters caught her. The floor caught the hors d’oeuvres.

In the painting, entitled harmlessly enough “The New Mother and Her Child,” the impression of two erect nipples could be seen poking through the virgin’s sheer blue robe. Mary was not amused.

“This is sacrilege,” she says. “There is just absolutely no excuse for that sort of thing.”

Mary isn’t the only one who feels that way. Nearly every other attendee voiced their disapproval of the painting, a complaint which extended all the way to the owner of Gallery 291, Harold Huffington. “Gallery 291 is a family art gallery. This kind of material is clearly inappropriate,” Huffington says. “We asked everybody to leave as soon as we saw the painting. Then we shut our doors”

Huffington says that no other paintings were found to contain objectionable material, but to be on the safe side, he cancelled the exhibition, which had been funded by Wyatt Sheets Laundromats.

When told of the closure, the president of Wyatt Sheets, Wyatt Duvall, expressed his surprise. “I couldn’t believe it. The rest of the pieces I could have done without, but that one was my clearly favorite,” Duvall says. “There’s an interesting combination of innocence and sly duplicity there that you don’t usually find in religious art.”

Duvall thinks the gallery owner and its customers overreacted.

“This is obscene material? No how. No way. We all know that a woman’s nipples, her face, and her feet swell during pregnancy and her breasts stay that way for some time afterwards, especially if the mother’s breastfeeding,” Duvall says. “And given that there wasn’t any Gerber’s baby formula in Jesus’s time, I’m sure Mary simply did what came natural. She held her little baby to her breast and she didn’t let him go.”

Although Gallery 291 has canceled the exhibition, Duvall says he is currently in discussion with other galleries on the East Coast interested in hosting the event.

As for Mary McLaughlin, the shock of seeing the pornographic painting will be hard to forget. “That image of that mother and child, I just can’t shake it,” McLaughlin says. “Some memories are just too painful, especially the ones that you try so hard to forget.”