Dozens of art lovers and First Amendment defenders turned out Saturday outside a San Francisco gallery to bolster the flagging spirits of owner Lori Haigh, who has been under siege for the last two weeks for displaying a controversial painting depicting the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers.
The supporters had hoped to persuade Haigh, 39, to reconsider her decision to close the Capobianco Gallery, which came after she was threatened, spat upon and, most recently, punched in the face for showing Guy Colwell's painting of torture. Gathered on the sidewalk outside the small studio, her supporters talked of vigils, petitions and even providing volunteer security to help keep the gallery going.
"The people came out in support of Lori and in support of freedom of expression because that's what is really being attacked here," said North Beach poet Jack Hirschman. "The attack is not only on the gallery but on art. If they close, it's not just (one artist) that is censored but all artists."
Visibly moved by the show of support, Haigh said Saturday she is weighing her options.
"This is all too scary for me," said Haigh, who spent most of the time hidden in her gallery. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm going to try and absorb this."
The furor began on May 16 when Colwell, an East Bay artist, made an addition to his monthlong showing at Haigh's gallery on Powell Street. Angered by the pictures he saw of Iraqi prisoners being abused, he created a black and white painting depicting three hooded and naked men undergoing electric shock torture by American soldiers. Colwell, who took down his paintings Saturday, declined to comment.
Two days after the painting went up, Haigh arrived at her gallery to find broken glass, eggs and trash strewn outside her storefront. Haigh also began receiving the first of about 200 angry voicemails, e-mails and death threats.
A week ago, a man walked into the gallery and spit in Haigh's face. On Tuesday, Haigh decided to temporarily close the gallery and began to consider giving up on her dream of owning an art gallery. Just two days later, another man knocked on the door of the gallery and then punched Haigh in the face, knocking her out, breaking her nose and causing a concussion.
It's more than Haigh ever imagined. She opened the studio 1 1/2 years ago, hoping to display the works of important and possibly controversial modern artists.
"I enjoyed listening to people's different opinions on what they saw," said Haigh, a mother of two. "That was part of the joy of having a gallery."
On Saturday, Haigh's supporters tried to remind her of the joy in owning a gallery in North Beach, long a haunt for counterculture poets and artists.
"When this can happen in the middle of North Beach in San Francisco, where people always expressed themselves, it means Iraq is not the only place being occupied," said Daniel Macchiarini, a North Beach gallery owner himself. "But this is an act of desperation. The people who attack like this, their ideas have failed."
But despite the support, Haigh said she's still not certain what she will do.
"I'm disheartened and disappointed," said Haigh. "I don't want to have a gallery if I can't show artists like Guy Colwell. Their art reflects the world around them and if I have to resort to showing Thomas Kinkade the rest of my life, I'm not interested in doing that."
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle