For more than 20 years, Sean Madden kept his artistic career and his professional life completely separate.
In a career as a counselor for troubled children and teens that stretches back 25 years, Madden has drawn from his own difficult youth in North Buffalo to help other kids through their own struggles.
But in a parallel career as a low-brow surrealist painter who has often exhibited in Buffalo, Madden has also produced dozens of provocative paintings depicting such unsavory scenes as clowns committing suicide, the pope being threatened at knifepoint by Satan and an evil Yosemite Sam holding the severed head of Bugs Bunny.
In May, after concerned parents complained to the board of Byron-Bergen School District about the nature of the art on Madden's website, the school placed him on administrative leave from his job as a counselor, where he remains, pending an investigation. Finally, the two separate tracks of Madden's life collided head-on, and the fallout has been severe.
On the very surface, this case may seem cut-and-dried. How could a person who draws, paints and exhibits violent scenes of suicide and drug abuse be capably equipped to counsel teens dealing with those very subjects? That line of reasoning, I can only speculate, may have factored into the argument against Madden fueled by his inflammatory website, revealingly titled clownvomit.org.
While Byron-Bergen Superintendent Casey Kosiorek declined to comment on the school's move or what prompted it, it seems only natural for those unfamiliar with Madden's art to have questions about its content and implications for his counseling work.
Madden, who called his record as a counselor "spotless," made an earnest effort to see the problem from the emotional perspective of someone totally unfamiliar with his art.
"It's art that's very, very cathartic first and foremost, and it speaks to a segment of the audience out there that is, by the way quite large, but it was never meant to speak to or validate the inner experience of children," he said. "My art does not represent in any way, shape or form any threat to children. I was a child abuse expert. I mean that's the crazy thing about it. I actually worked for many, many years with abused children and actually published at one point an art therapy 'zine for abuse victims. So I don't think they understand that, while my artwork is provocative, it's absolutely no threat to a kid whatsoever."
Madden's genuine if somewhat incomplete response points up the need for artists whose work somehow intersects with the public realm to help that public understand its genesis and its import. It would be naive for an artist whose work is expressly designed to rock the very boat he inhabits to be surprised when a little water splashes over the hull.
In Madden's case, it might not allay his critics' concerns to know that Madden has used his art as a psychological outlet since he was a child, and that his practice has helped him to face the world in ways he might not otherwise have been able to do. Knowing this doesn't mean his art somehow suddenly becomes objectively good, or that people who are offended by it shouldn't feel that way. But it does provide some useful context from which an intelligent conversation might emerge.
It may well be that Madden's accomplishments as a counselor far outweigh what his critics see as unforgivable artistic transgressions. It may well be, though I find the prospect unlikely, that his artwork precludes him from productively doing his job. In either case, Madden deserves a fast and fair hearing, unclouded by emotion and based entirely on the facts.