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'Original' Churchill Art Piece Creates Controversy

by CBS4 News reporter Raj Chohan and CBS4 Web staff

BOULDER, Colo. (CBS4) ― An exclusive report by CBS4 News indicates embattled University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill may have broken copyright law by making a mirror image of an artist's work and selling it as his own.

Placing Churchill's work beside that of renowned artist Thomas E. Mails and the two look like mirror images. But one is a copyrighted drawing. The other is an autographed print by Churchill.

When CBS4 News reporter Raj Chohan tried to talk to Churchill about a possible copyright infringement, he received an angry response.

The following text is a transcription from CBS4's footage of the exchange between Chohan and Churchill on Thursday in the hallway outside his office.

"Get that camera out of my face," Churchill said.

"This is an artwork we've got called 'Winter Attack.' It looks like it was based on a Thomas Mails painting; it looks like you ripped it off. Can you tell us about that?" Chohan asked.

That prompted Churchill to take a swing at Chohan while he held a stack of papers in his hand.

The exchange continued:

Chohan: "Sir, that's assault, you can't do that. Can I ask you about this? It looks like you copied it."

Churchill: "I was just grabbed by the arm. And that (camera) gets out of my face."

Chohan: "Sir, we're allowed to take these pictures, this is a public space."

Churchill: "You're not allowed to grab be by the arm."

Chohan: "He didn't touch you sir, we've got it all on tape. Sir, this is called Winter Attack. It's a serigraph by you. It looks like it was copied from Thomas Mails artwork. Can we talk to you about that please?"

                                                   *  *  *

Churchill made the serigraph in question in 1981 and called it "Winter Attack." He printed 150 copies and sold one of them to Duke Prentup for about $100.

"I have enjoyed them ever since, immensely," Prentup said. "They're, obviously, up in my house."

But last month came a stunning revelation. As Prentup flipped through a book of illustrations by renowned artist Thomas E. Mails, he found an artwork of striking similarity.

"And I opened it up and, wham! There it was," Prentup said. "It's the exact same thing, only mirror image, virtually to every detail."

The pen and ink sketch by Thomas Mails first appeared in his 1972 masterpiece, "The Mystic Warriors of the Plains."

Compare it side-by-side to the serigraph by Churchill, created some 20 years later: the composition, the images, the placement are nearly identical.

Intellectual property attorney Jim Hubbell said it's clearly no accident.

"It's very obvious that the Churchill piece was taken directly from the Mails piece," Hubbell said. "There's just too many similarities between the two for it to have been coincidence."

Several minutes after CBS4's first encounter with Churchill, he emerged from his office and was willing to talk. He acknowledged his artwork was based on the Thomas Mails piece. And, he said he disclosed that during his initial release of the serigraph.

"It is an original art work by me, after Thomas Mails," Churchill said. "The fact that the purchaser was ignorant of the reality of what was perfectly publicly stated at the time the edition was printed is not my responsibility."

A closer examination of the Churchill piece revealed there is no credit given to the original artist. Churchill also refused to provide CBS4 with documentation that would prove his claims.

But even if it exists, it wouldn't be enough to protect Churchill from copyright infringement unless he had permission from the copyright holder.

"Unless there was consent for Churchill to do the piece, then there is a copyright infringement here," Hubbell said.

When contacted at his home in North Carolina, Ryan Mails, the son of the late Thomas Mails said the family still retained the copyrights to the drawings of the Mystic Warriors book, and that his father fiercely defended the copyrights.

"My father invested a great deal of himself in his work, and from that he developed a great fierceness in defending his work," Mails' son said. "I cannot imagine he would ever grant permission to anyone to copy one of his pieces."

Back in Prentup's Boulder County home, the Churchill serigraph still hangs. One quarter Native American himself, Prentup said he loves the image; he's just not sure whose artwork it really is.

"Sure, it makes me angry, it makes me very disappointed," Prentup said. "I wanted some original artwork from what appeared to be a very good local artist. Now I don't know what I've got."

A quick Internet search indicates a number of Churchill pieces selling on eBay, including another copy of "Winter Attack." Certainly, part of the buzz for these art works is the ongoing controversy surrounding Churchill.

University of Colorado Regents are investigating Churchill's work at the university. They are expected to return a decision on whether he has violated tenure by early March.

CBS4 Video:

Churchill's Aggressive Response To Artwork Controversy

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