Controversial painting defaced, owners speaks out on vandalism

A close-up of the damage done to Margaret Sanger's face in the painting "Women of Purpose."
A close-up of the damage done to Margaret Sanger’s face in the painting “Women of Purpose” by Robin Morris — Kate Czaplinski photo

UPDATED Thursday, 10:40. a.m. —Police have released a description of the woman who allegedly vandalized the painting. See the description and police press release here.

A painting at The Trumbull Library, that caused controversy and religious debate in town, was defaced Wednesday night around 8 p.m., as a Library Board of Trustees meeting was happening in the next room.

More on the ‘Women of Purpose’ controversy

The owner of the painting, Richard Resnick, responded to vandalism early Thursday morning, saying he will not press charges for the damage because he feels sorry for the person who felt compelled to do it. He also believes, despite the emotional intensity around the abortion issues, the majority of Trumbullites will not condone this crime.

The painting, Women of Purpose, depicts several historical women, including Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, and Mother Teresa. Sanger’s face was the only one damaged by what appeared to be a marker or makeup.

Two Trumbull High students witnessed a woman bend down between a railing where the painting is hanging, over a stairway to a lower level. The witnesses said they saw the woman appear to be drawing on the painting, on what was Sanger’s face.

The students were interviewed by police. It is unclear if security cameras were in that area.

The painting was just rehung last Friday, after being removed at First Selectman Tim Herbst’s order. Herbst cited copyright and indemnity issues. A local Catholic group in town was also working to get the painting taken down.

The town recently obtained insurance on the painting and the entire Great Minds Collection, painted by Robin Morris and owned by Richard Resnick.

The vandalism happened while a Library Board meeting, discussing legal issues and controversy about the painting, was happening in the next room. Herbst, who was in attendance, interrupted the meeting to tell the board what happened and that police were on their way. His announcement elicited gasps and a few tears from some in room.

Before the defacing, the board listened to public comment during the first part of Wednesday’s meeting, much of which was given by local Catholics who were deeply offended that Mother Teresa is depicted with Margaret Sanger. Speakers compared Sanger to Hitler and said she was racist. One resident said her parents came from Ireland and, up until now, she didn’t realize there was Catholic persecution in Trumbull.

“Do you understand why people who value the handicapped, who oppose national and racial prejudices, who don’t think the poor are human waste, who don’t believe a large family is wicked, who oppose coerced sterilization and segregation would find this painting offensive,” George Meagher asked the board. “And if you understand, why haven’t you issued a public apology?”

The legal issues around the painting are still getting worked out, according to Town Attorney Dennis Kokenos. Last week, the town and Resnick disagreed on terms of an indemnity agreement, though Resnick did sign an indemnity regarding copyright infringement. About ten minutes before the Library Board meeting, Resnick’s Attorney Bruce Elstein and Kokenos discussed continuing to work on a broader agreement and move forward.

“We are moving in a positive direction,” Kokenos said earlier in the board meeting.

Thursday morning, Resnick released a statement on the crime.

“I, of course, am saddened that this happened in my home town of forty-two years, but I understand the emotional intensity that surrounds the issue of abortion, a subject the painting never intended to raise,” Resnick said. “I’m also confident that the majority of Trumbullites would not condone such an action. I am sorry for the person who felt so compelled and will not press charges for property destruction. I believe that those who object have misunderstood the important message that the painting represents.

“The text that accompanies the art makes clear that these women, Mother Teresa among them, are being honored because they ‘extended their traditional roles into the larger sphere and pioneered institutions to care for the sick and destitute, the wounded and disabled, and championed a safety net for people with the greatest needs,'” Resnick said. “Certainly, these goals are not objectionable. One cannot understand the meaning of any of the paintings in this collection without reading the crucial descriptive narratives. The words and the art are inseparable.”

On Wednesday, following the defacing, Herbst waited with others, both library staff and some residents who had been at the meeting, for police to arrive. He talked to the students and made sure no one touched the railing, saying he hopes police can get fingerprints.

Herbst said Wednesday night that the vandalism is what he has been afraid would happen to the controversial piece and why he wanted an indemnity agreement in place and insurance on the collection.

“I think this proves exactly what we have been saying for the last three weeks,” Herbst said.

Following the vandalism, the painting owner also called for greater respect.

I am asking everyone to please respect the opinions of others, or, at least, tolerate them,” Resnick said.  “This collection does not espouse only one point of view, but is inclusive of many that are relevant to our lives today, even if we vehemently disagree with them.  The individuals whose portraits hang in the Library are the backbone of civilized thought for the last 3,000 years.  If we are going to exist for another 3,000 years, we had better learn to live peacefully with other viewpoints than our own.”