He stood perched about thirty feet in the air, feeling the cold steel of his neon artwork under his feet. It was chilly and dark that mid-November day, but at that moment, he refused to back down. “I didn’t know what to do. I was extremely frightened and shaken,” he would recall.

Who was he and why was he on top of that structure? His name is William Burns Lawless III, but he goes by Billie. He was born July 16, 1950 in Buffalo, New York, the third of 12 children born to Jeanne and William Burns Lawless Jr. His father went to Notre Dame Law School, then Harvard Law School. Lawless Jr. served as youngest corporation counsel in Buffalo and was president of the Common Council in 1956. After serving in that position, they appointed him to the New York State Supreme Court in 1960.

Six of Billie’s siblings would practice law, a path they expected him to take, but he took one much different from the rest of his five brothers and six sisters. 

He would attend St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, a highly rated Catholic school in Buffalo. “I was a jock in high school,” he recalled in 1980.As a rower at St. Joe’s in 1967, he was the stroke of the varsity team. “We were the first high school team to win both the American and Canadian varsity championships in the same year,” he said. In his senior year, Billie represented the United States at the World Rowing Championships held in the Netherlands, competing in the straight four.Mark Griffis, son of Buffalo sculptor Larry Griffis Jr., attended high school with Billie. “He was a lot older than I was. He was a great athlete at crew, yet that did not define him.”

Billie was involved in the art club at school and developed an interest in art from Mark’s father, who was a family friend. Although he had an interest in art, “artistic inclinations were not encouraged for males at my school,” Billie said. “As a matter of fact, we even thought the members of the jazz quartet were a little funny.”

His father authored a famous opinion in 1967, after Black Muslims from three prisons sued New York State. His opinion stated the state prison system must recognize their Islamic religion.In 1968, he quit his position as New York State judge to become dean of Notre Dame Law School in South Bend, Indiana and the family moved to nearby Niles, Michigan. 

After graduating from St. Joe’s in 1968, Lawless attended Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, to pursue rowing. He said he took political science courses that he failed. After writing some essays in the fall, an English teacher encouraged him to start art courses in the spring. He took a variety of classes, including performing, but he was shy, “so I stayed in the background,” he said. 

From 1970 to 1972, Lawless fought against the war in Vietnam. Draft Board officials removed his student deferment, which made him available for the draft, so he left Rutgers.

He then went to the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 1970 and studied with his friend, artist-in-residence Konstantine Milonadis. He invited Billie to work at the studio which had a foundry, but he had to be enrolled in the University. Here was where Lawless learned about steel. “It was fire, probably. It’s primal. I love fire and torches and the way steel feels in my hands. I burned the third floor of a house down when I was about nine.”

He said that from that day on, “I pretty much knew what I wanted to do with my life. I started working with steel and welding steel. I’ve always thought of that as being my base material.” Lawless said he didn’t know how he got into Notre Dame, but in 1989 he said he thought his father used his influence to get him into the school with an exception. “I don’t believe I had to submit grades or transcripts from my other university to be allowed to work there,” he said.

In April 1971, the Draft Board informed him to report for induction into the armed forces. His Buffalo attorney, Carmin R. Putrino of Lipsitz, Green, Fahringer, Roll, Schuller, James, claimed that they did not reach Billie’s lottery number of 120. On May 6, 1971, he applied for classification as a conscientious objector. The draft board then changed his induction date to November 15, then again to December 28.

On November 30, 1971, he sued in federal court in Buffalo to bar the government from inducting him into the armed forces. He said the time was over the 120 days permitted under law and asked for it to be canceled. They asked the court to issue an injunction to prevent any attempts to induct him.Lawless dropped his suit on December 20 when the draft board agreed to cancel his induction order and consider his conscientious objector application.

On December 22, 1971, Billie Lawless married Bonnie Link in Buffalo, then the couple moved to New Jersey, where he returned to Rutgers University to finish his degree. Billie was taking art classes and working with Melvin Edwards, a famous African-American sculptor. He graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1974 and moved back to Buffalo in June 1974. (The marriage lasted four years, and they divorced in 1975.)

About 1976 Billie was living on Delaware Avenue near Forest Avenue and founded Lawless Studios, creating functional art work, “which was essentially …art furniture, it was steel furniture that combined steel with stained glass.” He said, “I came up with the idea of doing functional pieces that people can relate to and, obviously, there’s a need for. I was doing tables and chairs and music stands, candelabras, fireplace screens, combining steel with stained glass. When I started doing my functional work, I thought it would be interesting to combine different materials, so I started actually inlaying stained glass into the pieces so that the tables had, I thought, something that no one had ever done before.”

By 1977, his art was developing, and he was creating parody art. “During the late ’70s there started to become a transition in my work where I …became a viable small business. I was able to support more of my interests in sculpture, which was my first love.” By the early 1980s, he was spending about 50 percent of his time on functional work, and 50 percent doing sculpture work.He admitted it wasn’t as easy to sell a sculpture as it was a functional piece. He saw corporations and banks as the “new patrons of the arts” in 1979, and started asking for their financial help for his sculptures.

He won a grant from Sculpture Space, Inc. of Utica, New York to build a 19 foot steel sculpture that would be too expensive to create on his own. So Lawless approached Kenneth Lipke of Gibraltar Steel, who agreed to donate $9,000 worth of steel. They displayed the finished sculpture on the front lawn of the Gibraltar plant in the Buffalo suburb of Cheektowaga.The company removed the sculpture after they downsized and moved. (Its current whereabouts are unknown.)

In September 1979, he purchased a home at 324 Highgate Avenue a few blocks from University at Buffalo. He had his office in the house and converted the garage into a studio. “I was pretty much working a lot of the time,” he said.

The inside of Billie’s home was as conventional as the artist himself. When the Buffalo News’ Margaret Sullivan visited his home in 1984, she said, “There’s a big abstract painting in the bathroom, right where most people have their towel racks. In the living room, there are dozens of colored paper cutouts shaped like rats that scurry up a wall or hang by their tails from the ceiling. Everywhere there are sculptures, including one called The Politician, an all-steel structure that looks like a cross between a tricycle and a wheelbarrow.”This was an initial design for what would become a popular sculpture later in his career.

He lived in the house with his girlfriend, Kathy Quinn, who had attended fashion school in New York City before arriving in Buffalo. She attended University at Buffalo to study design and embark on a career combining her training in fashion and art. 

In a 1980 interview with the Buffalo Courier-Express, she discussed bejeweling clothing. She said it was hard to do it on her own, but she had the support of her boyfriend, Billie Lawless. “Economically it’s feasible to live (in Buffalo),” she said. “And it’s stimulating because there are a lot of artists here. There is more of sharing, it’s not as fast and commercial as New York City. I’d like to eventually work with architects to design stuffed walls in new buildings — something reflecting the community, or perhaps an abstract design… It’s possible. Banks and businesses are a lot more adventurous today.”

Billie’s art began progressing into more sculpture work in the late 1970s. “I started doing three-foot pieces,” he said, “then that led to six and seven, eight-foot pieces.” He received encouragement from George Enos, who owned the Enos and Sanderson steel company, to do a larger piece. “He suggested that …they would make a donation. I could do a larger piece, which actually meant renovating part of my studio so I could go right to the ceiling, and that was the creation of Lament in 1979.”

His first neon piece was Sink Totem #2, assembled in Summer, 1979. “I decided to do a vortex of neon tubes going down the drain of this old sink.”Flexlume sign company had been providing technical help for his work “since the day I lumbered into Flexlume… with a found sink… to the dismay of the employees.” He worked with Paddy Rowell, Sr., Paddy Jr., and Pete D’Orsaneo. They expressed reservations about doing the neon because of the high voltage used until Billie assured them he would display it safely. 

Lawless added, “And there is even a macabre element here, mixing high voltage with water.”And no wonder they were concerned.

Flexlume was a sign innovator and moved to Buffalo in 1911. Paddy Rowell retired and sold the company in 2015.

From 1980 to 1982, Lawless attended State University of New York at Buffalo, studying with poetic modernist artist Duayne Hatchett, (who assembled “junk metal and found objects for sculptures and print plates”)and George Smith. He graduated in June 1982 with a Master of Fine Arts. 

In 1980, the Gowanda News and Observer published two articles about the local art scene. In the second one, they explored the views of artists, with “varying levels of accomplishment, on the subject of who defines art, and their struggle for recognition.”

They included comments from Lawless, where he said, “Art is a commodity and as such, its acceptance is proportional to what the market will bear.” He said that gallery directors know what their clientele will purchase, and that determines who’s exhibited. “Galleries exist to put out an artist’s works, mine or anyone’s. The immediate benefit is that it allows any artist to exhibit nationally, affording the artist time to work as opposed to marketing. Personally, I’m comfortable with galleries. Flaws exist, but they exist in any system. 

“An artist must evaluate himself realistically.” He asked why, “many artists wish to excuse themselves from the ‘dues paying.’ I can tell you a period of hustling, door knocking, and all that goes with it is necessary.” He said that Buffalo is a blue collar town, and it can support only a few artists. Because there were not enough galleries to handle all the work, he said that artists should export to “New York, Toronto, wherever … If the talent is there, the recognition will come.” 

Mark Griffis said that Billie was intelligent and an interesting person. Rowing would remain a constant in his life through college and beyond. From 1982 to 1985, he was a rowing coach at his old high school St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, as well as at the West Side Rowing Club.


In 1966, brothers Larry and Guy Griffis, along with others, founded the Ashford Hollow Foundation. Named for the sculpture park started by Larry in Ashford Hollow in Cattaraugus County, south of Buffalo. In 1968 they purchased brick buildings on Essex Street on Buffalo’s West Side that had been an icehouse, firehouse and other properties, and started the Essex Arts Center. 

Larry converted part of the property into artists’ studios and set up welding and foundry facilities. Guy did some theater in the building. Around 1974, a group of college student artists hung artwork outside their studios inside the Arts Center and started a gallery called Hallwalls. The Artists Committee (a group inside of Essex) said some artists had issues with Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the big gallery in Buffalo. 

After a series of back-and-forth debates between the Committee and the Albright-Knox in 1975, the Artists Committee held their own sculpture show, the first “Western New York Invitational Sculpture Exhibit” in Delaware Park, held behind the Albright-Knox. 

By 1976, there was a shuffling of people and reorganization at Essex Arts Center. Under the new visual arts side was Hallwalls Gallery, directed by Robert Longo and Charles Clough. Their goal was to search for new and exciting art. In the end, Billie Lawless would find his way there. By 1982, Clough had left Buffalo for the greener grass of New York City. “The city is a disaster,” he said. “Everybody seems to leave Buffalo. That is a rule. It’s such a wasteland.”(Clough didn’t really hate Buffalo, as he returned in 2013.)

In 1980 the Artists Committee dissolved, but their gallery and Sculpture Exhibition continued on. The 1981 Exhibition took place from September 5th through 27th. Artists Gallery curator Joy Pepper sent invitations to every known sculptor in the Buffalo area and twenty-eight replied. Artists Gallery Chairperson Kenneth E. Peterson said each artist could choose up to three of their works for the show. This made it a self-juried show that “provides for a richness and diversity” rarely seen.

Billie Lawless, Duayne Hatchet, Marvin Bjurlin, Adele Cohen, Amy Hamouda, Larry Griffis, and Tony DeCorse were among those who exhibited. Several of those artists were well-received in New York City, and although some had considered moving to New York City (like Charles Clough did), they realized it was cheaper to live and work in Buffalo and “bring the finished work to New York.”

“A lot of the more prominent local arts patrons here will buy work by a Buffalo artist,” Peterson explained, “but only if it’s been displayed in a New York gallery, when they could have bought the same work here for much less money.”

The night before Billie was to unveil his latest work of art, he held a private party to celebrate. Close friends, family, professors, and art patrons received invitations to mingle with the artist. One very important person, however, was conspicuously missing from that party. In fact, David More, who said he was one of Billie’s biggest cheerleaders for this project, didn’t find out until much later that there was even a pre-party. 

More said, “the controversial image had been displayed on invitations Mr. Lawless sent to certain select individuals the day before the dedication of Green Lightning. Needless to say, I neither saw nor personally received such an invitation before November 15, 1984.”

Mayor Jimmy Griffin said he didn’t attend the unveiling because he went to a retirement party for a friend. 

The weather in Buffalo the week of November 11, 1984, was getting cold. From a peak of low 50s on Sunday, the week progressively got colder, with lows in the 20s and highs in the 30s. The Dedication and Lighting ceremony took place on Thursday, November 15, 1984. By the time the program started around 5:00 PM, it was drizzling and 46 degrees, but probably felt much colder.

David More was excited to see the sculpture finally unveiled. He still hadn’t seen the finished artwork. He dragged Jimmy Griffin’s podium to the event to make it look official. More called the Buffalo Police at 4:45 PM to have some officers on hand. “I was concerned about people crossing the street because it was in the middle of the arterial, which was, you know, a busy transit way, whether you’re going to the airport or heading downtown.” So he called the police to monitor traffic and pedestrians crossing the street.

Billie Lawless wore a trucker cap that said “West Side Rowing Club” (where he was a coach), jeans, a sweater, and a heavy winter coat. He was unshaven and looked anxious as he milled about. The local television news stations were setting up, their lights shining across his heavy metal sculpture. People were waiting, trying to stay warm. 

George Howell was there recording the event and doing interviews.

Channel 7 asked Billie about the unveiling. “I’ve been just, really essentially, just working on this piece day and night for the last year and a half. I would like to say though that… it will probably be going to Philadelphia next summer and onward out west to Chicago, take it to LA, maybe do the whole route. …It’s going to be here for another nine months.”

The cameraperson couldn’t think of anything else to ask. 

Lawless: Maybe George can give you some questions here.

Howell: Oh no. Well, I … I think he should just wait for the, ah… thing to go up… and you know…

Lawless: Take it from there.

David More served as emcee for the event. “Why doesn’t everyone come in a little closer?” he asked.

Billie told George he had Molson’s beer and offered him one. George got one and handed it to Billie, then started narrating as the unveiling began.

Howell: David More is calling us to the podium.

“To the podium,” Lawless repeats. 

Samuel D. Magavern, chairperson of the Buffalo Arts Commission, gave the welcoming remarks in front of the giant sculpture. His love of art was well known and in 1990, Magavern would receive the Buffalonian of the Year award from Mayor Griffin.

Magavern started, “You know, some great man, in talking about art, said that art is disturbing, science is reassuring. Billie Lawless’ great sculpture here tonight, it’s ah, particularly (unknown). Billie is a Buffalo boy that we are proud of and who has been recognized throughout the country and the world. And we have a couple of his pieces of art already in Buffalo. So he is a familiar figure. I think it’s very appropriate …that this is where it is. Because most of the people coming into Buffalo from the airport pass this spot. I am sure that they are going to know Buffalo is up and doing and not asleep when they go by and see Billie’s work of art. Katharine Simonds, he collaborated with in preparing the panels with the figures and the work is going to be here for one year. It’s a temporary stay.

“We are fortunate having with us tonight some speakers. I’ll call on the first of these, which is Mr. William Currie, Director of Hallwalls. Bill, you step up and take over.”

Bill Currie was the Director of Hallwalls, Inc., the organization that was Billie’s pass through so he could receive donations and they would receive a tax deduction.

“Thank you, Mr. Magavern. Ah…how nice it is to see the weather cooperating with the spirit and…ah.. theme of Billie Lawless’ Green Lightning,” Currie deadpanned. “On behalf of Hallwalls, I am honored to have played a rather minor role in the major part that Billie did in his efforts to create the sculpture. Billie should be praised, not only for his work on Green Lightning, for the citizens of Buffalo as well as visitors who will come through the City, but more importantly for his efforts to show through hard work and persistence he could garner and get together people from the private sector to donate and support his efforts as well as getting the permits and the government to cooperate for this sculpture. I am happy to be a part of it and I hope many artists in our community will take Billie’s work as an example of what can be done in the future. Thank you.”

Sam Magavern continued, “Hallwalls were very helpful to the artist. It served as a sponsor and helped him in many ways.”

In the late 1960s, D. Bruce Johnstone had been Senator Walter Mondale’s Administrative Assistant and wrote “his first anti-Vietnam War speech along with him.” When he became president of Buffalo State College, he got involved with the local arts community, including Studio Arena Theater, and worked with the Black and Hispanic communities to bring minority students to the college.

Magavern continued, “Our next speaker is known to us as the president of the University College of Buffalo, who has done so much in the community and brought the community and the college together and a good example of this is tonight coming out here tonight to tell us about some of his thoughts. Bruce.”

“Thank you Sam,” Johnstone started. “I like Bill Currie’s introduction. I think the weather tonight, with its whimsical, warm, wet, mercurial atmosphere, is right in keeping with this Green Lightning. It is a privilege for me to be here. I think I’m here in part because Sam thought I would come out on a night like this. (laughs) But, also because I was one of the first, I think, in Buffalo to grasp this extraordinary combination of artistic talent and what I can only call great citizenship of Billie Lawless. I was in the city only three months, I think, made a speech, a very wise speech, Billie read. And I talked about beautifying Buffalo State College campus. And Billie wrote to me a letter within a few weeks of that and said ‘I want to help’ and extraordinarily it wasn’t just talk. He included in his letter a marvelous series of slides of models and maquettes, prints of sculpture he was prepared to do and secondly he said, ‘I’ll make it possible to build it and I’ll raise the funds for you.’ That was a deal I couldn’t refuse. He worked at it with us, we have a marvelous piece of Billie’s at the College and, l’ll invite you to go there and see that one as well, but I think what it represents is not only the talent… ah, and I think in this wonderful, playful, whimsical piece here we see more of that talent but also Billie Lawless the citizen who makes it possible to put this public art in this city. So Billie, on behalf of an awful lot of people who have become your admirers, I also want to thank you for continuing this brand; your artistic citizenship to our city. Thank you.”

Sam Magavern, “Thank you Bruce. Our next speaker we are fortunate to have, I understand, is very close to Billie. He’s a teacher at the school at the University, and he knows Billie’s work and …is known nationally and internationally, Duayne Hatchett.”

Hatchett was a prolific sculptor, painter, and State University at Buffalo professor that Billie had studied under. He arrived in Buffalo in 1968 and for 24 years headed the sculpture program at U.B.

“We choose graduate students from the level of their ability,” Hatchett started. “Almost always to be artists and we hope that they will develop into (indistinguishable). I certainly think that Billie Lawless fits that category. It’s a pleasure to work with Billie Lawless and I must say that I have never met another person in the community, another artist especially in the University, who had the ability to go out in the community and develop conceptually the financing and the acceptance of placing works and developing artistic ideas. This has been revealing to me especially interesting because I think it’s difficult enough for artists to fit into society, which always seems hostile to the artist. And Billie Lawless has proven that he can do it and do it with a lot of class. I think that Bill Lawless has certainly proved with each piece that he puts up that he has an inventive, humorous attitude towards his concepts of art and, oh, always comes through with flying colors. And I hope that the public appreciates this as much as I’m sure his endeavors should pay off. It’s a very difficult thing to build this kind of thing. I went down to his studio a few times while this thing was going up and you can’t believe the kind of involvement which goes into this. And I congratulate the City to continually to be helpful to experimentation in art and to the ideas of further developing artists and ideas.”

Sam Magavern continued, “Thank you Duayne, and that’s very good, from a known great artist to a becoming artist. Bill has some great faculties. Anybody that can come into Buffalo and raise 80,000 bucks to put this up has to be, oh, quite a man. So he has lots going for him and it’s wonderful. I know he appreciates and we all appreciate your coming tonight. The work has been approved by the Buffalo Arts Commission and by the Urban League (he meant Urban Renewal) and the Buffalo Council and I don’t think they could have picked as better place than they have here. And I’m sure it will be a trademark for us for the next year.”

David More stepped up and said, “I think Billie might want to say something.”

“Oh, that would be great,” Magavern said. “Bill, if you would. I’m sorry. Over here.”

It was finally Billie’s turn to speak. He stood next to Sam Magavern and glanced around the crowd of about 30 cold and excited people. He thanked some of his sponsors, and “Pamela Mays, my loved one, who has put up with this whole Green Lightning for a year and a half, (she) has, oh great patience and understanding and been very supportive. People, throughout the city, the City government, the Mayor, who was wonderful when it came to installing this piece here in the Elm-Oak Arterial. The Griffis’ with the Ashford-Hollow complex, giving me the space to construct it with the overhead cranes, were just very supportive. And, oh, I think this is a great town for the arts and we should all really push forward and I think there’s really much more potential here to be tapped. And I see other great great projects possibly for other artists here in this town. I would like to thank you all for coming out in this very bad weather tonight, and I think, without any other to-do, I’m gonna turn the switch and throw Green Lightning on for its first showing here in Buffalo.” 

The crowd gave him a roar of approval and applauded as he grinned and raised his fists. He turned away and walked back about fifteen feet to the power box, crouched down, opened the box, flipped the switch, and the crowd roared its approval as the sculpture powered on. But the applause died within seconds as the bright NUVO colored neon panels were lit, and the blinking Mr. Peanut figures danced across the panels.

Sam Magavern admired the sculpture. “It really is very attractive, it’s, it looks like, very interesting,” George Howell recorded. Magavern, an elderly man, may have been too close to get the full effect. 

George Howell asked him about his insights into the piece. He said, “Oh, I think it’s wonderful, that we can have this, be the first place, that he shows this in, first showing of this as he is a local boy, and oh, its well situated to impress people coming into Buffalo that we are really moving out, and it’s, an unusual piece and people are going to be surprised how it grows on them, in my opinion.” 

Howell asked if he thought the piece would be controversial. Magavern said, “As I said in my opening, as one great man put it, ‘art is disturbing while science is reassuring.’ I think it will be disturbing to many people, but I think it’s like anything else that’s new, it should disturb and art itself is meant to disturb, not to be complacent. Art is something that moves and moves you and moves along. It is interesting that art over the years, you know, becomes a historical record of our society because you have to look at and you must interpret it in the times it was created.”

“So you, you aren’t concerned if people are, ah, you know, upset, are disturbed by this piece?” Howell pressed.

“Oh, no,” Magavern continued, “Nothing in this world is great unless it does disturb.”

David More recalled, “There were a lot of ironic things that Sam said in the speech.”More was at the ceremony with his girlfriend, Debbie Kolodczak. While she was taking photos of the sculpture, David was trying to get a better view. He said he was up close, next to the corporation counsel, when the lights went on. “When you’re up close, it looked like scrambled eggs because the lights were so bright.” You couldn’t make out the figures, so he started walking back. “I’m walking away from the crowd, literally walking backwards.”

More said he was angry and asked Billie why he didn’t tell him about the neon. Billie said he had just installed it within the previous day. 

Billie was within earshot of Debbie when she commented to him she liked it until she saw the neon. “Oh, another example of male dominance,” she said.

Billie said, “No no no, it’s a double-edged sword.” He would continue to use those words to describe the sculpture.

Mark Griffis was in attendance with his mother because she wanted to support Billie. “I went to the opening with my mom… because my mother knew the Lawless family very well, just like our family had eight kids, they must have had seven or eight or nine something like that and the families knew each other, so my mom wanted to go to the dedication.” When the power was turned on, Mark’s mother said two words, “Oh my.”

His father, Larry, was also there. He said that Mark was running the Essex Street complex and made it affordable for Billie to do the sculpture. “We have a skylight there, and structure went right straight up into the skylight. In the foundry, the thing’s absolutely massive. As it was being constructed, the amount of absolute raw energy it took to build it. I mean, we’re used to building big projects over there, but I was really amazed by the effort that Bill put into it. There’s so many different media involved too. It’s a multi-media piece, and it took a tremendous amount of skill.”

When George Howell asked Griffis if he thought it would be easier for other artists to do public work after this, he said, “Definitely,” because everybody did their homework, and Billie became a textbook case on how to get art in the public domain. “I think Billie has done it properly with all the proper authority, now whatever controversy there may be that’s up to each one of us, individually, our responses to it. But there isn’t going to be any question about does he have the authority, the right, the privilege to put it here. That sort of thing should be behind us.”

Billie’s attorney, Leslie Foschio, was also in attendance. “I think it’s just great; it’s exciting; it’s colorful, inventive; it’s refreshing. I think it helps to put Buffalo on the national culture (map?)”

When Howell asked if he thought there would be controversy, Foschio said, “I don’t think that it’s controversial at all. I think it’s delightful and I think that people will think that it adds some needed color and variety to the landscape here. This is a development area: and obviously this is not a permanent facility, so I think people will appreciate that and it’s kind of an experimental form of culture and I think it’s in the correct place to do that kind of artistic experimentation.”

Howell thanked him. “Anything to help my friend Billie Lawless,” Foschio said.

Joanne Posluszny had been invited to the unveiling but was out of town and didn’t think she’d make it. As she drove from the airport, she realized it was the time of the unveiling and had a little trouble finding it. When she did, it was still lit. She was alone in her car and said it had a very carnival-like look to it. She then saw there were a lot of police in the area and thought it seemed strange for an art opening, and being alone, she left.

By now, David More was back even further away from the glowing neon sculpture. There were four or five police cards and the cops were “laughing their asses off.” By this time, he could make out the images. As he’s walking back, he was saying to himself, “Oh no, oh my god, holy shit!” He was upset that he went to bat for this sculpture. “As soon as I saw the neon figures, I realized that Billie had been seriously deceptive throughout his official presentations. I took it as a personal and professional insult that I was never informed of nature of the imagery.”

More turned to the cops and asked, “‘What’s so funny?’ One cop said, ‘Oh Mr. More, the mayor went for this?’”

It is possible that Sam Magavern was also too close to get the full effect of the sculpture when he commented on it. David More said, “Magavern could be a very cagey gentleman, having an uncanny ability to turn situations around.” He remembers showing Sam the pictures Deb Kolodczak took, and he said, “I really don’t see anything offensive in these.”

George Howell approached David. “I’m playing roving reporter here. You care to add a couple of comments here?”

More sarcastically replied, “I’m not going to work tomorrow,” then laughed. He said he was responsible for presenting Billie to the city. “All of them approved it.”

Howell asked, “Was there any question about it, you know, like the piece creating controversy or there being objections to anything of that sort?”

“I think most of the objections stemmed from a misunderstanding of the piece,” More said. “It’s really lyrical and more kind of whimsical and humorous.”

Howell said, “I can see that these rows of police cars behind us are having a lot of chuckles over this, you know, so you think that the piece is whimsical and, you know, that once people get used to it there won’t be any reason for controversy about it then?”

“No-o,” More answered. “I think that they’re going to basically enjoy it. They’re laughing I think (laughs).”

“Within a half-hour of talking with me,” Howell wrote in Buffalo Arts Review, “More would be telling newsman Dan Hausle of Channel 7s ‘Eyewitness News’ that Lawless had misrepresented his work.”More denied this accusation.

Howell approached the officers. He said he heard them chuckling and asked if they had any comment. One answered they couldn’t comment on the record. A second said, “The only thing I can say is that those are dancing cocks if I’ve ever seen one.”

Lt. William Conwall of the 4th Precinct was not laughing when he submitted his report. He said that he and officer M. Sadlocha were there for five minutes and at approximately 5:20 PM Green Lightning was lit up. This Buffalo police officer said he was shocked when the multi-colored panels were replaced by four orange neon “testicles along with the penis.” He went into detail and noted that they had feet, hands, and a top hat and cane. “While one went from a flaccid state to a turgid state in several moves of the lights.”

After several minutes, he knew this was a job for Detective John Dugan, the city’s one-man vice squad. So he contacted Dugan to see if he thought it was obscene. Conwall said that “several” cars stopped them to voice their displeasure, including a family with two children, who, gasp!, saw neon penises. He claimed that traffic entering the Kensington Expressway was “coming to a crawl” and created a hazard and his station house took several telephone complaints from citizens who thought it everything from “dirty, filthy to pornographic.”

Conwall said he, his partner, and “most of the men in my platoon” who saw it (even though they claimed to be open-minded) found this sculpture to be “blatantly outrageous and obscene.”

Maybe they weren’t so open-minded after all.

After about fifteen minutes, Billie turned the lights off. The crowd dispersed pretty rapidly after that. Detective Dugan arrived at the scene to inspect the art. As Billie was preparing to leave, Dugan confronted him and explained who he was.

The Buffalo News reported that “shortly after the dignitaries and most of the crowd left, the vice-squad showed up, scouring over the now unplugged sculpture with their flashlights, looking for what officer John Dugan described as the ‘male anatomy.’”They asked Billie to re-illuminate the sculpture, but he suspiciously said he couldn’t find the key to the electrical box.An officer told him to move his car off the grass or he would be arrested, so Lawless went home about 8:30 PM. 

Lawless said he was so unnerved by talking to Dugan that later that evening he called Sam Magavern of the Arts Commission, to complain about alleged threats from Dugan. Magavern stood by the artist who “felt relieved” by assurances of support. 

As for David More? He went home. First, he called Jim Militello and told him about the unveiling. Militello suggested More wait for the 11 o’clock news to see if they ran the story. 

Jimmy Griffin said he received a call. “I believe it was from a TV station. I got home, and they said that their switchboard was well lit that night with calls.”

Channel 7 news anchor Irv Weinstein led his newscast by saying, “You’ve got to see this one to believe it. Eyewitness News man Dan Hausle is ready to give us an eyeful. But first send the kids out of the room.” They then showed the lit-up Green Lightning sculpture for about 5 seconds. They ran an additional 15 seconds in total.

On the next day’s 6 PM newscast, Weinstein no longer warned to get the kids out of the room. They showed the sculpture five times for about a total of 30 seconds. News director Jim Kirik said, “We showed it whenever it was appropriate to the story.”

David More said the TV stations covering the event devastated him. He knew this was bad, so he called Jim Militello back and Militello said, “Uh, I think you better call the mayor.” David said he knew the mayor well enough to call him that late at night. He poured himself a stiff drink and called Jimmy Griffin at home.Griffin assumed More knew all along about the suggestive images and yelled at him.

Channel 2 underestimated the seriousness of the incident. On Thursday, they only showed about 10 seconds of footage at the end of the newscast. The next day at 5 PM anchor Rich Kellman “jazzed up” a story with clips from the movie “The Producers,” making light of the artwork. Buffalo News TV critic Alan Pergament said it was a good way to look at the situation. When the police and city got involved, they took it seriously, but they did not show the artwork again.

Lastly, Channel 4 didn’t even run the story on opening night. The next day it was in the middle of the newscast. They ran an “Art or Porn” story and two of the three reporters were leaning toward porn. Channel 4 never showed the sculpture lit up. News director Jim Peppard said, “We didn’t show it because it was unsuitable for viewing on this station.”

David More said the decision to take down the offending panels “was in the process of being made” that night. “The mayor… wanted it down since he learned the suggestive nature of the piece.”

Dan Herbeck was a young reporter for the Buffalo News in 1984. Herbeck was astonished that leaders of the city of Buffalo would have agreed up front to something like that. He said that Buffalo is a pretty conservative city and if Billie Lawless told city officials, “I’m going to produce an artwork that shows giant penises with semen spurting out of them into the air in downtown Buffalo,” then he would totally side with him and say that he was in the right because he was completely honest with them. But, if that’s not what he told him, “then I would have real questions about what he did, right? Because I did see the artwork, and it clearly depicted the giant penis with stuff spurting out of it.

“I was flabbergasted when I saw this thing,” Herbeck added. “I mean, I’m not a real conservative guy. But I had little kids at that time. I wouldn’t have wanted to explain that statue to my two young sons.”

Al Price was sitting in his office at the School of Architecture at U.B. when he received a call from David More asking him to go downtown. Price said they invited him to the unveiling, but he didn’t attend. “I hadn’t made a point of putting it on my calendar to go downtown for this thing because we were doing enough stuff that I just didn’t think it was that critical or important. It was all over but the shouting by the time that I got there,” Price said. “David pulled the plug on this trash. So what was to have been a wonderful public unveiling turned out to be a disaster. All the media were there and, of course, they thought it was a big hoot. Poor David More was terribly embarrassed because he had lead the city down the Primrose path with this guy Billie Lawless, and not keeping track of what Lawless was doing only to discover that he had this outrageous piece of work that was coming into the public domain.” Price said that David More “was very much chastened after this.”

But the dancing neon penises didn’t offend everyone. Prolific Buffalo portrait painter George Palmer, still painting at 97 years old in 2022, said that he saw the artwork, but it didn’t offend him. He said that fellow artist Lawless “was working on the edge. I mean, we never saw anything quite like that. The artists accepted it for the most part… they were kind of neutral about it… artists don’t feel that they should be censored.

“But, there are people who see a nude and they get really upset.” Palmer said that he had his share of complaints over the years from people offended by nude portraits he did. But as for Green Lightning, “a lot of people were, I mean, just the local man on the street, was really offended by it.”

Almost immediately after the fallout from the unveiling started, Larry Griffis lent an experienced hand. “My father went on a bit of a TV circuit with him,” Mark Griffis said, “because he had already done the (Birds inFlight controversy, (Sprit ofWoman controversy, which became iconic sculptures in Buffalo. He really went to bat for him and (they did) a few (TV) shows together.”

Within the first couple days, Arts Commission Chairperson Sam Magavern said he saw nothing pornographic or questionable about the piece, but said, “If people see something in it that’s wrong, we have to change it.”

Alan Pergament, the television critic for the Buffalo News, graded the coverage by the local news stations, after viewing “private screenings” at each station. “While doing the best reporting job and blanketing the story, Channel 7 is guilty of its usual crime – unnecessary bad taste. For a change, Channel 2 is not guilty of missing a big story and actually handled the case judiciously. Channel 4 got caught with its pants down, completely missing the story on opening night. But it was not guilty of any exploitation and certainly is the station that Morality in Media would support.”

He said that other than overusing the video, Channel 7 did the best early coverage of the incident. 

But that was far from the end of the controversy.