In Trumbull, Connecticut, a painting depicting Mother Teresa alongside Margaret Sanger, whose advocacy for birth control led to the formation of Planned Parenthood, has been taken down due to supposed copyright infringement. The call to remove the painting from Trumbull Library came after Library Director Susan Horton received complaints from Brian Gannon, a priest at St. Theresa Roman Catholic Church, and the Order of Missionaries of Charity in India, which claimed the painting violated copyright by using the likeness of Mother Teresa.
To avoid potential legal disputes, Horton was forced to temporally remove the painting from display while town counsel looked into the copyright infringement charge. “We have no proof that the copyright is valid,” Horton said, “It’s in legal hands now.”
The painting, entitled “Women United: From Abigail Adams to Gloria Steinem,” depicts several women who have actively fought not only for women’s rights, but also for human rights. Along with Mother Teresa and Margaret Sanger, the painting includes Abigail Adams, Clara Barton, Gloria Steinem, and Betty Freidan. Painted by Trumbull resident Richard Resnick, Horton says “The whole point of the painting is to show transformative women who have changed a lot of things over the years.”
What makes this case all the more frustrating is that this painting, along with thirty-two others, has been displayed not only at the library, but also at Fairfield University, a Catholic institution, for more than a year, during which there were no complaints. It is surprising that so many people, specifically Pastor Gannon, would take issue with the painting now. As Horton recalls, “It is my understanding that this issue arose because a local priest objected to the content of a particular painting, which I find surprising as this and all the other paintings were on displayed a Fairfield University from April to June of 2014.”
Counselman Tim Herbst, who had to make the ultimate call to have the painting pulled, had this to say in response to the situation:
After learning that the Trumbull Library Board did not have the proper written indemnification for the display of privately-owned artwork in the town’s library, and also being alerted to allegations of copyright infringement and unlawful use of Mother Teresa’s image, upon the advice of legal counsel, I can see no other respectful and responsible alternative than to temporarily suspend the display until the proper agreements and legal assurances are in place… I want to make it clear that this action is in no way a judgment on the content of the art but is being undertaken solely to protect the town from legal liability based upon a preliminary opinion from the town attorney.
Whether or not the disapproving parties are hiding behind copyright law to censor the piece, the saddest part of this situation is that Resnick exercised his right to free expression to bring a positive, progressive, and motivational message to his community. Resnick chose to celebrate these women and by extension encourage conversation within his community about the actions that they took during their lives to incite change and progress. It’s further ironic that many of these women faced challenges to their own free expression.
In an interview with the Trumbull Times, Resnick reiterated the description that accompanies the painting, which ironically not only sheds light on the intended message in the piece, but also highlights the biased and closed-mindedness of the would-be censors attempt to stifle that message in such a cowardly way:
The artwork is purposely incomplete in scope, for the challenges remain. Indeed, the painting is a call for continued commitment, for greater involvement by all who have the capacity to be “great minds” for a purpose that will benefit mankind. The women’s faces are determined and serious for their causes are of serious purpose.
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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!