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December 03, 2016
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Artist’s home burns to the ground; another daunting hurdle to overcome

Artist Franciszek Kulon poses with a new painting he was working on that was meant to depict some members of the Sullivan County judicial system.

Artist Franciszek Kulon has faced a string of hardships since purchasing a home in Aden Hill Road Parksville in 1997: his neighbor tried to shoot him, local officials initially sided with the neighbor and Kulon was twice jailed, a judge sued Kulon for painting a likeness of the judge and the county attempted to foreclose his home.

Now comes another traumatic event for the Polish-born artist: his home in Parksville burned to the ground on February 18, destroying numerous paintings, cameras, movie and audio equipment and just about everything else he owned.

His paintings have gained an international following, at least in part because of depictions of local officials in various states of undress; some call them lewd; he calls them humorous.

His fame was further enhanced by a freedom of expression lawsuit against Sullivan County officials, which he won.

Kulon said the cause of the blaze in unknown. He said it started in the roof, which he finds perplexing because there were no wires or other obvious sources of ignition where the blaze started.

Kulon’s Sullivan County experience

According to court documents related to various incidents, most of the multiple complaints filed against Kulon by his neighbor, James D’Ambrose, were ultimately dismissed. Nevertheless, because of these complaints and other reasons, Kulon was twice arrested and spent several days in jail. He was convicted of harassment and an order of protection was issued against him, and those convictions haunt him to this day, preventing him from gaining United States citizenship.

This is the case even though the documents show D’Ambrose took a shot at Kulon with a shotgun, and some of the pellets hit a tractor Kulon was standing near. D’Ambrose was allowed to plead guilty to reckless endangerment and leave the area. Ten years later, Kulon is still angered with local officials for what he sees as allowing D’Ambrose to get away with attempted murder.

In another interesting facet to his case, Kulon said his house once belonged to Liberty Justice Jeffrey Altbach, though Kulon didn’t know it at the time, and Kulon bought the house through Altbach’s former wife. Kulon once tried to get some information about his case from Altbach, but said he had no luck.

Kulon then painted a picture of Altbach, showing him with horns and naked except for a tie and a bit of shirt. He also used a picture of Altbach from the phone book to promote the painting.

Altbach sued for $1.5 million for defamation. Ultimately, the appellate court dismissed the suit, though Kulon had to pay a small fine for violating a temporary restraining order prohibiting him from displaying the picture.

Other paintings followed, featuring other public figures including former judge Anthony Kane and former district attorney Steve Lungen. Kulon says the pictures, which feature a lot of nudity, were humorous; others saw them as scandalous. One of them is now housed in a museum in Dallas, TX.

In the spring of 2003, another controversy erupted. A painting by Kulon featuring three cherubs, one of which is holding the pin of a hand grenade that is about to land on two children, was hung in the Sullivan County Government Center with many other paintings. After a single day, however, county officials ordered that the picture be taken down. Ira Cohen then was the county attorney.

Kulon sued on freedom of expression grounds, and the court wrote, Cohen’s “decision to remove the painting was, by Cohen’s own account, plainly content-based: he was upset that it depicted violence.” Kulon won a $40,000 settlement in 2007.

But now the house and the paintings that were at the center of Kulon’s life, work and reputation, have gone up in smoke.
In the latest painting he was working on, Kulon was once again going to paint a representation of the criminal justice system in Sullivan County. He said this one would be bigger and more intense than the ones that had gone before.

But, he said, in this painting he would not use the likenesses of real officials. He said most of the officials whom he believes acted with favoritism toward the good old boys are out of power, and some of the outrage he feels toward some officials seems to be fading a bit.

Still, he has no regrets about depicting local officials with horns or practically naked. He said, “I was so gentle with those guys.” The pictures can still be seen at kulon.us.

A foundation is being set up to take donations to rebuild Kulon’s home.