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Vandalism and theft strikes outdoor art in Sullivan County

(WJFF Radio Catskill) - Mike Osterhout, known for his provocative art, has recently unveiled a collection of sculptures in his outdoor garden in Mountaindale in Sullivan County. But it’s his centerpiece, titled “FECUNDITY”, that has grabbed everyone’s attention. This sculpture features a topless pregnant mannequin with a tree sprouting from its head.

Standing at the front of the garden, facing Mountaindale’s Post Road and just steps from Main Street, “FECUNDITY” stands as a symbol of birth, rebirth, and abundance.

“It’s a celebration. I had a pregnant mannequin that I made into a different piece a few years back and then it’s kind of been split in half. And I’ve created two pieces out of it for the sculpture park, and it’s just a celebration, you know, a celebration of life and fertility. I’m hoping for a little bit of beauty. My work is not always seen as beautiful, but I love the beautiful decay of the Catskills,” said Osterhout.

However, this has led to a clash of opinions among the community. Fallsburg Town Supervisor Katherine Rapport confirmed that the town had engaged with the property owner after receiving complaints about the sculpture.

Saying, “We all want to be good neighbors. Based on neighbor complaints, the town did ask to turn the statue around to face the art garden. That request was not honored.”

In response to the controversy, Osterhout organized an impromptu protest where Supporters, both men, and women, bared their chests in solidarity with his sculpture.

Local businesses like The Dale and High Voltage Kitchen and Bar have voiced their support for Osterhout’s artwork being in Mountaindale.

Unfortunately, just days later, Osterhout’s artwork was found toppled to the ground. He chose to reinstall the sculpture with an alteration, replacing the tree on the figure’s head with an arrangement of flowers.

On August 10, 2023, the sculpture was stolen from its pedestal before I found out this information and went to see the vandalism for myself, and I found Osterhout there with the police looking for evidence along the sidewalk.

“It’s grand theft; I mean, that piece is valued at about $25,000. So, it’s not a valueless piece of artwork, it has value. It’s not only been destroyed, and the pedestal has been destroyed. But now, it’s been stolen, it’s in the police’s hands now.”

Despite the backlash, Osterhout’s work falls within the bounds of New York State law, which permits women to appear topless anywhere men are allowed to. His art, protected by the First Amendment, serves as a form of public expression.

Osterhout expresses his willingness to engage in dialogue about his creations and the controversies they stir.

“I’m completely open to discussion. It’s what my work is all about; it’s called social sculpture for a reason. It’s all about engagement with the community.”

This isn’t the first time Osterhout’s work has faced defacement. In the past, an art installation near the Church of the Little Green Men was targeted with a defacement that carried a religious message.

The Mountaindale Schul, a local Jewish congregation, stands near Osterhout’s sculpture. Ezra Vakhovsky, representing the congregation, expressed objections to the sculpture.

Vakhovsky told Radio Catskill: “Not sure how you can even imagine that an orthodox religious institution may ‘not have objections’ to this form of obscenity and complete insensitivity toward religious feelings of the orthodox community.”

Osterhout asserts that his creation is about abundance, symbolizing birth and rebirth, and intended as a celebration. He acknowledges that this representation might not be in harmony with orthodox views of life, whether Jewish or Christian.

Moreover, he believes the piece delves into the realms of gender dynamics and social inequalities, addressing issues such as patriarchal belief systems and gender-based discrimination.

“I have had like a little little burst of energy there. I’ve done three new pieces: one is all the lawn chairs, another one is an old umbrella, and the one has the bare breasts, pregnant woman, and that’s the one which is getting all the attention, all the outrage, and controversy, you know, but, you know, we live in a society that has community standards and our community standards in Fallsburg, Mountaindale.

It does not cross the line, but the Hasidic communities’ standards, orthodox fundamentalist community standards, it does cross the line for them. It doesn’t cross the line for the wider community, but it crosses the line for insulated communities, and I don’t see that as something that I should just remove because it crosses a line for them.”

Copyright 2023 WJFF Radio Catskill.