Oil war that raged in Tompkins Square ends in truce


By Vanessa Romo

Artist Thom Corn stuffed his hands into the pockets of his navy blue mechanic’s jumpsuit and shook his head, his graying dreadlocks swinging from side to side. “There it is,” he said, angling his chin toward a bundle of wood resting against the far left wall of his Lower East Side art studio and one bedroom apartment.

Until recently, “it” was a 12-foot-tall wood sculpture of an oil rig entitled “Oil Derrick: Prospecting Tompkins Square Park.” Placed in the park the derrick fueled multiple anti-Bush-inspired vandalism attacks by L.E.S. Jewels, a 36-year-old mohawked punk with an anarchy tattoo on his right cheek and a lightning bolt on his left. Jewels has lived in Tompkins Square Park on and off for the last 25 years.

Corn created the semi-site-specific sculpture as part of the HOWL! Festival’s “Arteries” show from Aug. 27 to 28. It remained in the park for three weeks following the art festival with the permission of Parks District 3 Supervisor Elaine Crowley. But after Jewels, who believed the derrick was a pro-Bush work of art, knocked the sculpture on its side on two separate occasions and reportedly attempted to set it on fire, Corn was asked to remove the sculpture from the park.

On Sept. 21, in about an hour and a half, Corn dismantled the derrick, which took him weeks to design and three days to build, and transported it back to his apartment on Ninth St. near Avenue D.

“It became a maniac magnet,” said Corn, who seems to revel in getting people riled up with his art as long as they understand what it represents.

“I wanted people to have a reaction to the piece but there was no thought process behind this,” he said with some frustration. “The kid had a psychotic reaction to it. He thought it represented Bush,” Corn said in disbelief.

The irony is that the sculpture was intended to be a commentary on the current war in Iraq and the Bush administration’s agenda of procuring oil at any cost, said Corn. “The placement of [the rig] in the park was a riff on the proposed drilling on wildlife refuge land like in Alaska.”

It was also a historical reference to the first manpowered oil rigs in Pennsylvania which stood 10 to 16 feet tall and were made from redwood, subsequently leading to the destruction of large tracts of redwood forests, he said.

But Jewels didn’t get it and Corn, armed with a vague description of the man who had tried to destroy his artwork, decided to seek him out.

“I didn’t understand his interpretation,” said Jewels, who sheepishly admitted knocking the sculpture on its side but denied ever setting it on fire.

“To me, it represented everything that I hate about Bush. It symbolized everything that’s wrong with our country,” he added earnestly.

“I told him, ‘If you really want to do something, build a solar panel and put it on top of this thing,’” said Corn.

They also talked about Corn’s initial ideas for the piece: placing a speaker on top of the sculpture “with Bush-talk coming out of it,” carving a notch for every victim of the war in Iraq onto the structure or having blood spurt out the top to represent the blood of the dead. “But,” Corn explained, “this was too overtly political and I wanted the sculpture to be more of a learning tool. Something that made people stop and think.”

In fact, Jewels said he had discussed the idea of covering the derrick in “fake Halloween blood” before Corn approached him. “If it had blood coming out of it, then I would have understood what it meant,” said Jewels.

But after speaking with Corn, Jewels said he now agrees with Corn and respects both the artist and the sculpture. “I feel bad about what I did and I apologized for it,” he said. “After he told me what it meant, I left it alone.”

Jewels was also in the news a few weeks ago when, after a cluster of six heroin overdoses Downtown, The New York Times profiled him and other heroin users in Tompkins Square Park and his photo was on the front page of the Times’s Metro section. Jewels subsequently protested that the Times “got the story wrong” in reporting he had OD’d four times in one day.

Surprisingly, Corn is not angry with Jewels for what he did to the derrick and he agrees that it was in the best interest of the community to remove the sculpture from the park if it was a potential fire hazard. “We got a pocket of total ignorance here,” said Corn, referring to the number of people who fail to see the significance of the piece.

Corn compared the attempted destruction of his art to the Taliban destroying the ancient Tibetan Buddhas in Afghanistan and “Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ getting trashed.”

For now, the bundle of wood — 80 pine planks of varying sizes — is all that is left of Corn’s sculpture. But he hasn’t given up hope on re-erecting the derrick and finding a permanent home for the piece in a local community garden. Ideally he’d like to secure the sculpture to a wheeled platform so he can drag it through the city’s biggest streets while dressed in National Guard garb.

“Dragging around a Trojan horse of oil, now that should get me into trouble,” he said.