Art Attack

Naked girls, death threats, car bombs, even a kidnapping. Are you kidding? Nope — Just a day in the life of Memphis College of Art 40 years ago.




To the man who appeared in my home tonight, the present show at the Memphis Academy of Arts will be removed. Nudes will not be used at the academy."

Most Memphians who tuned in to WHBQ radio on the evening of March 25, 1971, were puzzled by this cryptic message, read over the air by Dr. Richard Batey, a humanities professor at Southwestern (now Rhodes College). But the terse announcement — expressly designed for the ears of one listener in particular — freed Batey's son from the hands of an armed lunatic. It also ended months of deadly threats directed towards the art academy by at least one fellow (and maybe more), upset because the school used nude models and displayed nude photos. Here's a look back at the bizarre events 40 years ago that, as academy director Ted Rust put it, "really kept us on our toes."

"I just become an object"

 

It all started innocently enough. Commercial Appeal reporter William Thomas wandered over to the Memphis Academy of Arts (now Memphis College of Art) one December evening in 1968 and watched a life-drawing class sketching a nude model. He wrote a two-page story about it, "They Look at Me as They Would a Pop Bottle," published in the January 5, 1969, issue of Mid-South, the newspaper's Sunday magazine.

There was nothing remotely sexy about the article, which was buried towards the back of the publication. Thomas noted that the academy was one of the few schools in the South that used nude models, but "in reality, there is nothing more clinical than being in a classroom with a nude girl and a dozen toiling artists."

The models themselves aren't particularly beautiful, he wrote ("certainly there is nothing approaching Racquel Welch here") and even the class instructor that evening, photographer Murray Riss, said, "The girl with the 36-22-36 figure may be nice to look at, but she doesn't offer much challenge to the artist. The model I remember most weighed 300 pounds. Now there was something to get excited about."

One of the models told Thomas, "I just become an object — a bowl of fruit or a vase of flowers. They are artists, and their purpose is not to enjoy me, but to draw me. Instead of thinking about what's immoral, they are thinking about what's beautiful."

Well, some readers didn't see it that way.

"We started getting phone calls the night that story appeared," said Riss, "telling us we'd better get out of Memphis or we were going to be killed."

Such a reaction was a shock to Riss, who had just moved to Memphis that year: "Coming from the Rhode Island College of Design and the City College of New York, using models was natural. Nobody gave it a second thought. Art school, models, fine."

Riss consulted with Rust, and when the threats continued, they called the police. "The police came and interviewed me," said Riss, "sort of chuckling all along, like it was one big joke."

A few months later, everyone stopped laughing.

"So he went into action."

 

On the morning of January 1, 1970, Dolph Smith, an instructor at the art academy, was eating breakfast at his home in Central Gardens. "My son, who was about 6 or 7, came running in and said, 'Dad, there's a bomb under the car!" said Smith. "And sure enough, there was."

The police rushed to the house and discovered a wooden box tucked beneath the gas tank of Smith's car, which was parked under the carport. Inside the box were two open bottles of lighter fluid, and a burning cigarette lighter.

"It was amazing," said Smith. "There was a string attached to the bottles that trailed out of our yard and then went down the street. They were going to pull that, and it would have spilled the lighter fluid onto the cigarette lighter, and the whole thing would go up."

Just one problem. "Lighter fluid is not that combustible, thank God, and apparently they didn't know that," said Smith. "When the police came out, they said what happened was that the lighter fluid actually put the flame out."

Police assumed the erstwhile bomber was one of the many cranks who had complained about the nude models.

"There had been phone calls and letters to the school from someone who never signed himself," said Burton Callicott, a longtime professor at the art academy. "I never saw those letters myself so can't say much about them. But this was some crank, worked up about the fact that we used nude models. Apparently he kept trying to get some pronouncement from the school that we would discontinue nude models, and of course we didn't, so he went into action."

Months passed. The next target was Callicott himself.

On the morning of December 4, 1970, Callicott had picked up fellow artist Ted Faiers and driven to the art academy. He parked in the lot behind the building and, as he got out of his car, another staff member called out and said he must have lost his gas cap.

"I had one of those cars with the gas cap in the back, behind the license plate that hinged down," said Callicott. "Well, it was pushed down, and sitting on it was a clock with a wire that went down into the gas tank."

Callicott and Faiers found Ted Rust, who summoned the police.

"Before they got there," said Callicott, "a young assistant of Ted's did a very foolish thing. He was thinking about saving my car, I guess, so he pulled that wire out, and on the end was a pipe bomb. He threw it on the ground, but nothing happened."

The police told him later they knew why the bomb didn't explode, but they didn't want to tell reporters, because they didn't want the bomber to know what he'd done wrong.

That afternoon, Callicott got another shock: "When I went home, to my horror I discovered the gas cap in my driveway. They had put that on my car while it was parked at home. The police said the bomb had been set to go off at 1 o'clock in the morning, and it would have set my house afire and the one next door, because the car was sitting in the driveway between them. And I guess the only reason was because I taught one of the life-drawing classes that used nude models."

Rust dismissed the aborted bombings: "My mother was living with me at the time, and she would get these phone calls while I was at school, saying I was going to be done in, but nothing came of it."

Despite the threats, the art academy refused to stop its use of nude models. "Doing without them is like trying to run a school without books," Rust told reporters.

"The most uneventful, uninteresting show."

 

Then Murray Riss decided the Memphis Academy of Arts should host the "1971 Photography Invitational Exhibition."

"My idea was to put together a show of what was going on in photography around the country," he said. "Because Memphis really hadn't been exposed to it. So I invited people that I knew, or knew of, and each person submitted maybe half a dozen photos for the exhibit."

The collection of 125 photos first opened at the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, and garnered little attention. "The show was up there for a month and a half," said Riss. "The director wrote me a letter saying it was the most uneventful, uninteresting show he had seen in a very long time."

Then the show came to Memphis. "It was the exact same show, the exact same pictures," said Riss. "But there was a guy here running for the board of education — sort of a rabble rouser — and he started complaining, specifically about three or four photographs from Leslie Krims."

Krims was then a 29-year-old assistant professor of photography at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and a nationally recognized artist and photographer. He had contributed six photographs, four of them described this way in the Memphis Press-Scimitar: "a nude man spraying the midsection of a nude woman with an aerosol can, the nude legs of a woman with her dress pushed up as if she had been raped and killed, a nude woman partially covered with newspapers as if photographed at a murder scene, and a nude couple about to kiss with another nude female dancing in the background."

Riss defended the photos, telling reporters, for example, that Aerosol Fiction (shown on the cover of this issue) "might be Krims protesting TV deodorant commercials."

It came to a head when Newton C. Estes, a local brick mason, visited the show with his three children on March 14, 1971. He decided some of the photos were pornographic and complained to the Memphis City Council, who pondered the matter as only the city council can.

Councilman Tom Todd started the lively discussion by saying that four of the photographs were "really bad ones" and "just dirty." Robert James caused a "debate stopper," according to the newspapers, when he said the photo featuring the aerosol can "wasn't art. That's personal hygiene." Fellow councilman Jerred Blanchard retorted, "Personal hygiene is the highest form of art," bringing guffaws from other council members.

Meanwhile, other councilmen suggested various options: The show should be taken down. The offending photos should be removed. The exhibition should be moved into a "sequestered space" at the art academy. The Memphis Board of Review — which normally focused their attention on movies — should give the show an "X" rating.

Academy officials protested loudly. Ben Goodman, a member of the board and chairman of the Memphis Arts and Sciences Commission, warned that the art academy could lose its accreditation "if external forces are allowed to make up our minds for us. We'd have our heads chopped off." Ted Rust argued that everyone connected with the academy and the exhibit "are outstanding people with no idea of corrupting morals."

If anything, all the discussion of the photos — reported widely in The Commercial Appeal and Memphis Press-Scimitar — brought more people to see them. "The gallery was never, ever as crowded as when that mess was going on," said Riss. "One time I was standing at the door and a woman came in, I guess in her seventies, with long grey hair and a cape, and wanted to know where the nude photos were. After she looked at them, she just turned around and barged out, saying to me, 'Do you call those nudes?'"

Academy officials estimated that attendance at the exhibition jumped 60 percent, and "several people complained about finding parking places." Other attractions in Overton Park benefited from the publicity — sort of. The director of the nearby Brooks Memorial Art Gallery admitted, somewhat ruefully, "We had a lot of people asking where they could find the art academy."

Mayor Henry Loeb, who shrugged that he'd seen "a lot worse" after viewing the display, had no official say in the matter but told reporters the images were "a symbol of what is going on in this country, with the drugs being used and the country going down morally." He hoped the council would say the show had to come down.

To everyone's surprise, they didn't. Instead, they voted to do nothing — deferring any action until the next council meeting, which wouldn't even take place until the exhibition was scheduled to end on March 31st.

It wouldn't last that long.

"Some kind of a prank."

 

On the evening of March 25, 1971, Richard Batey and his 14-year-old son Eddie were sitting in their den at 4327 Rhodes, watching the NCAA semifinals pitting Villanova against Western Kentucky. An ordained Church of Christ minister, the elder Batey taught a Western civilization course at the Memphis Academy of Arts — his only connection with that school. Sneezing and coughing from a bad cold that night, Eddie was a student at Harding Academy, a kid later described by the principal as "a straight-A student with the best Bible knowledge of any student in the eighth grade."

Richard's wife, Caroline, was away visiting friends that night. The Bateys' two daughters, 16-year-old Evon and 12-year-old Kay, were home, studying in their bedroom. Just as the game was about to go into overtime, the family's Pekingese started barking wildly, and then Evon came into the den and calmly said, "Daddy, there's a burglar in the house."

Richard Batey walked into the living room and switched on the light. It was immediately switched off by a man Batey later said was wearing a heavy coat buttoned up to his chin, a hat pulled down to his eyes, long scraggly hair, and a beard and moustache "which looked false." If this weren't shocking enough, the man had pulled his blue socks over his shoes, or was perhaps only wearing socks. Taking all this in, Batey also noticed the .45 automatic the man aimed at him.

"I thought it was some kind of prank," Batey recalled. "One of my students, with a fake gun, playing some kind of joke."

It was no joke. The man pushed Batey back into the den and commanded him to lie on the ground, along with the two girls. When he discovered Mrs. Batey wasn't home, he seemed surprised, but then switched to Plan B. Walking into the kitchen, he ripped the phone off the wall, then grabbed some dishrags and ordered Eddie to tie the hands and feet of his father and sisters. Eddie did as he was told, but thinking fast, he didn't tie his father's hands very tightly.

The gunman then lashed Eddie's hands together with the same rags and said, "You're coming with me." Then "speaking in what seemed to be an unnatural voice," according to Batey, he leaned down and ordered him, "You go on WHBQ tonight at 10 and say that those nude photos are gone, or I kill the boy."

Richard protested that his son couldn't go outside without shoes on, so Eddie was allowed to go into a bedroom and fetch some shoes.

"All I could find were my father's house shoes, which were four sizes too big for me," said Eddie. "And while I was putting them on, my hands came untied. I didn't want the guy to think I was trying to pull anything, so I yelled out, 'Hey, my hands got loose,' and the guy said, 'Oh, forget about it.'"

Then, just as the two were about to leave, Richard complained again; Eddie couldn't go outside without his coat. And again Eddie was allowed to go back into a bedroom, but all he could find was his bathrobe.

The gunman had not brought his own car, so he grabbed the family's keys, pushed Eddie facedown on the back floor of their Volkswagen squareback sedan, and hopped in the driver's seat.

"He couldn't drive a stick shift," said Eddie. "So we were just jerking, trying to get out of the driveway. He crunched the gears and we lurched forward, and he finally got the hang of it a little bit."

After driving around for a while ("I got the feeling we were still in my neighborhood," said Eddie), the kidnapper stopped the car and the two got into another vehicle. "I never had the impression there was anybody but him and me," said Eddie, "so I guess we just transferred to a car he had left somewhere."

It was almost two hours until the 10 o'clock news, so the kidnapper and his victim just drove around. "I kept my head down," said Eddie, "and he had tugged my T-shirt up over my head, so I couldn't see anything."

If Eddie was worried about his predicament, he didn't show it. "I remember thinking, this really isn't going to happen. I mean, it wasn't the greatest cause in the world — something to kill somebody for." In fact, he was more concerned about that basketball game he and his dad had been watching. "I thought to ask [the kidnapper] if he knew who had won, but then I decided I'd better not. I didn't want to make him mad."

In the meantime, Richard Batey had escaped from his loose bonds. He ran next door and banged on his neighbor's door, saying, "Something terrible has happened." He then called Ted Rust, who quickly gathered Ben Goodman, Burton Callicott, and Ted Faiers. Acting quickly, the men drove to the academy and took down the photographs, then met at the WHBQ studios on Highland to decide how to comply with the kidnapper's demands. "Get it on the radio!"

Somewhere across town, the kidnapper began to mutter all sorts of things: He liked Eddie and didn't want to hurt him. It would have been wrong to take either of his sisters. It's not right for nude photographs to be on display "where my children and grandchildren" can see them. This was "bad for the moral fiber of the community."

Still crammed on the floor of the car, Eddie thought, "And kidnapping somebody isn't?"

Waiting for the news, the kidnapper had turned on the car radio. "I remember the songs they were playing," said Eddie, "that band singing about 'the friendly stranger in the black sedan, won't you hop inside my car' and then James Taylor's 'I've seen fire and I've seen rain, and I never thought I'd see you again,' and I thought, 'Boy, this is really appropriate.'"

At 10 p.m., WHBQ began its news segment. Not a word was said about the art show or the kidnapping.

Eddie realized the kidnapper "began to get agitated, so I asked him, 'Hey, when you were in our house, did you specify whether it was WHBQ radio — or television?'"

The kidnapper said, "WHAT?" and Eddie explained that WHBQ is a radio and TV station, and his father probably made the announcement on the television news.

The man pulled over, apparently to make a quick phone call to the station, because WHBQ officials later confirmed that somebody had phoned and demanded to know "if a bunch of artists were at the station." When told they were, he yelled, "Get it on the radio!"

A few minutes later, Richard Batey's voice broke into regular radio programming to announce: "To the man who appeared in my home tonight, the present show at the Memphis Academy of Arts will be removed. Nudes will not be used at the academy."

After a few minutes, the kidnapper told the boy, "Stick your hand up here," and — not knowing what to expect — Eddie nervously reached his hand over the seat. "He gave me two nickels to make a phone call, then stopped the car, said, 'Don't look at me,' and let me out.

"I was let out on Forrest, close to Overton Park. I think that was so he could drive by the school and make sure the photos really were being taken down."

Eddie walked down the street until he finally spotted a house with a light on. "Looking into the window, I could see an elderly lady, who looked like she was reading the Bible. I rang the doorbell, and when she came to the door, I said, 'I've been kidnapped. Can I come in your house and call the police?'"

The woman looked at the boy, still wearing the bathrobe and the too-large slippers, and said, "Uh, I'll make that call for you." Within minutes, a squad car pulled up and whisked Eddie to the police headquarters downtown, where he met his father.

"We hugged and all that," he said. "It wasn't until later we learned that the police thought we had staged the whole thing, because Dad was too calm — like he normally is — and I didn't seem that shaken up."

Within hours, police located the Bateys' Volkswagen, which had been abandoned at an apartment complex just blocks from their house. Inside was a wig and a false beard.

This was the first kidnapping in recent Memphis history, and the next day's newspapers blared the news to their readers. In one-inch bold type, the Press-Scimitar declared "Boy Freed After Art Academy Bows to Demands by Kidnapper," while announcing, rather ominously, "Disguised Abductor Still at Large."

Even so, "it must have been a very slow news day," said Eddie, "because I was gone less than three hours, and this story was just splashed everywhere. I heard that it aired during Walter Cronkite's broadcast the next day, and we started getting calls from everyone we knew. Pat Boone, who had known my dad when they were in the Lipscomb [College] choir, sent us a copy of the Los Angeles Times, and my uncle, who was flying choppers in Vietnam, sent us the story from the Saigon paper."

Everyone here was nervous that the madman would strike again. Patrolmen were assigned to guard Rust and some of the other professors, and police followed Eddie Batey wherever he went. "Two policemen stayed with us for three solid weeks, when we went to the church or the grocery," he recalled. "When I went back to school, I had an armed policeman stay right outside the door of my class."

Even people who had originally objected to the photography exhibition now felt things had gone too far in the other direction. Mayor Loeb, for one, called the kidnapping a "dastardly act" and announced, "This city cannot be run in fear." He ordered that the photographs be put back on display — in the lobby of City Hall! Rust and Goodman calmed him down, and convinced him that would mean an awful lot of nail holes in the building's nice rosewood paneling, so Loeb changed his mind.

Back at the academy, Murray Riss and others quietly boxed up the remains of the "1971 Photography Invitational" and shipped them back to their owners. Rust also announced that "for the time being" all nude models would be discontinued at the art academy.

"Just one of many adventures."

 

It's still a mystery why the kidnapper targeted the Batey family.

"I have not made any statements about the show, or nudity — in public or private," Richard Batey told reporters. At the same time, "This man seemed to know who I was. And I'm sure this thing wasn't a hoax. He seemed to be under extreme emotional strain — like he was on a crusade to purify Memphis of immoral forces creeping in."

Eddie Batey said, "We later conjectured that our name was the first listed alphabetically on the art academy's staff directory, because my father taught that one course there," and then he just looked up the family in the phone book.

Up in Buffalo, photographer Leslie Krims said he never realized that his works caused so much trouble.

"I knew very little about the kidnapping," he said. "The long-defunct Light Gallery in New York published a portfolio of my work called The Only Photographs in the World Ever to Cause a Kidnapping, which included press clippings from the Memphis newspapers about the crime. That was the source of whatever information I knew about the kidnapping, and I never received one penny from those portfolios."

The Memphis police reopened their investigations into the car bombs, thinking (with good reason) the crimes were connected, but they never made any arrests in the case. Within a few months, after everything seemed to calm down, the art academy resumed nude modeling, without incident.

So what did it amount to? Death threats that were never carried out. Car bombs that didn't explode. And a kidnapping that caused an art show to be taken down six days early.

Looking back at the whole affair years later, academy director Ted Rust called it "just one of the many adventures that kept us alive and on our feet."

Where are they now?

Eddie Batey is today a seventh-grade teacher and the director of the Memphis Leaders program at Memphis University School.

Richard Batey retired from Southwestern and now lives in Nashville with his wife, Caroline.

Ted Rust retired from the Memphis College of Art in 1975, after serving 35 years as director. He is an active sculptor in Memphis and recently contributed the Ikon sculpture that stands at the school's entrance.

Burton Callicott retired from MCA in 1973 after teaching there 36 years. He passed away in 2003.

Murray Riss left MCA in 1984. A professional photographer, he is a contributor to Memphis magazine.

Dolph Smith retired from MCA in 1995 after teaching there 30 years. A very active painter and conceptual artist, he now lives in Ripley, Tennessee.

Henry Loeb served two separate terms as mayor of Memphis (1959-1963 and 1968-1971) before retiring from politics and moving to Forrest City, Arkansas, where he died in 1992.

Leslie Krims is a professional photographer and artist in Buffalo, New York, and still teaches at SUNY. He has published five books of his work:

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