Artist questions value placed on stolen signs


URBANA – Cheyenne-Arapaho artist Edgar Heap of Birds says Crimestoppers has never been part of his career.

"I guess it is now," he said.

A tip to the local Crimestoppers led to the arrest of Mark Nepermann, who faces a misdemeanor charge for the theft of two of the artist's signs, part of his "Native Hosts" series, from in front of the Native American House on the UI campus.

The state put a value of less than $300 on the pieces, making the charge a misdemeanor rather than felony.

Heap of Birds, as well as many other American Indians and artists in the community, believe the signs are fine art and should be judged according to their appraised value, which would lift the theft charge to a felony.

"We see it as pattern of behavior of treating American Indians as second-class citizens, both on this campus and in the community," said John McKinn, assistant director of American Indian Studies at the UI. "It's just another attempt to devalue American Indians and their experience. It also speaks to the lack of education we all have for what constitutes art."

Two different professional appraisers valued 12 similar Heap of Bird "Native Hosts" signs in British Columbia at $120,000, or $10,000 each. One of those appraisals, by a Canadian appraiser, was given to the Champaign County state's attorney's office.

State's Attorney Julia Rietz said the appraisal will not affect her decision related to the charge against Nepermann, a recent UI graduate. "It's not proof to me of the value of these signs," she said of the ones in Urbana.

She instead based her decision on an invoice, given her by the UI police, from the American Logo and Sign Inc. in Moore, Okla., that the signs for the Urbana public art exhibit were sold to Heap of Birds for $88.65 each. The artist had the signs manufactured at the company.

"This is the evidence that I have of the value of these signs and simply because Mr. Heap of Birds attributes a higher value to them doesn't mean I can use that as proof in court," Rietz said.

Heap of Birds said the "Native Hosts" signs are fine art and that the value of a work of art is never based on the cost of materials or the manufacturer's cost. Taken into account are many factors, among them the concept behind the work, aesthetics, the prices of previous sales of the artist's work and his or her reputation.

Heap of Birds, who is 54, has exhibited internationally and at major museums, among them the Smithsonian Institution and the Denver Art Museum – where his outdoor "Wheel" sculpture is valued at $500,000. He exhibited as part of collateral events at the 2007 Venice Biennale, one of the world's premiere international art exhibitions.

The artist, also a professor of American studies at the University of Oklahoma, has created seven or eight "Native Host" series of signs for other cities, including New York. None has been vandalized or stolen except in Urbana, where the public art exhibit was titled "Beyond the Chief."

In each venue the "Native Hosts" signs name American Indian tribal nations that once lived there. Robert Warrior, director of the UI's Native American House, American Indian Studies and curator of the exhibit here, said one thing the signs do is mark "in specific ways previously unmarked and unnamed removals" of American Indians.


Yard signs show support for artist

URBANA – A group of Champaign-Urbana artists and activists has started a campaign, mainly of yard signs, to show support for Edgar Heap of Birds's public art installation on the University of Illinois campus.

The yard signs read: "Respect native hosts: Wea, Peoria, Piankeshaw and Kaskaskia," referring to American Indian communities that once live in the region.

The signs are free. People who want one may pick them up at the Native American House, 1206 W. Nevada St., U, or contact Sharon Irish at shrnirish<@> She also will take donations toward making more of the signs; altogether 100 were printed in the first run.

The group consulted with Heap of Birds and Robert Warrior, director of UI's American Studies program and Native American House, before having their yard signs made.

Warrior said in a news release that the signs can perhaps do the same sort of naming, remembering and respecting of the Peoria, Piankeshaw, Wea and Kaskaskia as do the public-art signs by Heap of Birds. Irish, an art historian, and others involved in the campaign said in a news release that despite the recent vandalism and theft of Heap of Birds's "Beyond the Chief" public art signs in Urbana, there has been little official response from UI administrators.

"With 'Beyond the Chief,' Heap of Birds adapts his text-based artwork, at least in part, to respond directly to the local campus community and the ongoing conflict surrounding the use of the sports mascot 'Chief Illiniwek' that promoted UI intercollegiate sports for 81 years," they said in a news release. "Though the 'Chief' was retired as an official mascot in 2007, (related) music and graphics still appear at Illinois sporting events in an unofficial capacity."