Special Reports

Brame case ‘distortion’ inspires Tacoma artist

Marty Fehl was watching his hometown, Tacoma, represented on the CBS crime special “48 Hours” when his satellite feed wavered.

“You could still make out these people, but it was distorted,” Fehl said. “It’s like, the TV, it tries to describe it as best it can, but … I thought, that would be great, that’s how I want to do this.”

He felt the distortion was “an honest moment” in the broadcast about Tacoma Police Chief David Brame, who fatally shot his wife, Crystal, then killed himself in a Gig Harbor parking lot in April 2003.

Since the shootings, investigations have revealed that Brame was promoted despite a distressing record, that Crystal felt threatened by Brame’s obsessive-abusive behavior long before she died and that Brame’s behavior in the department might have included rape, sexual harassment and corrosive favoritism that either went unnoticed or was overlooked by city leaders.

To Fehl, Brame’s crime uncovered a deformed city government and a contorted gnarl of misinformation and half-truths that still have not been untangled. The painter decided to make documentary-style portraits of at least 10 of the people involved, including the chief and Crystal, using as source material poor-quality mass-media mug shots, including some from The News Tribune and from TV stations’ Web sites.

The show of paintings, called “Sacred Cows,” will be on display Thursday through Dec. 31 at Brick & Mortar Gallery, then from New Year’s Eve until February at Sanford & Son Antiques.

“He’s painting from images that are out of focus, that are falling apart. To me, that’s what this whole thing is about,” said Laura Hanan, co-owner of the gallery with Fehl. They are a couple, and came up with the idea together.

“No one still has the straight truth about exactly what happened and who was involved,” she said. “It bothers me that people are getting away with some of these behaviors, and that it gets to the point where someone commits murder and suicide.”

To Mayor Bill Baarsma, “Sacred Cows” probably looks more like “Witch Hunt.” The mayor, who taught Brame at the University of Puget Sound and once called Brame “an outstanding candidate” for chief, said in a recent phone interview that Brame committed a “selfish act,” and that showing these portraits brings more pain to the families of Brame and Crystal.

“I see no value in that, no reason, but anyone has a right to do what they want,” Baarsma said.

Baarsma said he won’t go to see “Sacred Cows.”

The paintings will be for sale, probably priced comparably to Fehl’s other works of this size at $600 to $700, the artist said.

But, he said, he doesn’t expect to sell any of them.

“Some people will think it’s just a horrible idea, and that I’m just doing this for publicity,” he said. “But it’s like, no, I was born here, I live here. To me, this is documenting current events.”

Fehl’s paintings are often vivid scenes with a surrealistic edge. But in this project he tried to replicate the images, not editorialize on them, he said.

“I’ve had suggestions from people that ‘Oh, you should have this individual’s face dripping,’ or whatever, but it’s like, I’m just documenting this,” Fehl said.

Fehl based one painting on a photograph in which deposed City Manager Ray Corpuz wears a deep grimace. Fehl printed an enlarged, deteriorated version of the image and painted its puzzle of pixels in a tight grid on the canvas. The painting is clearer at a distance than close up.

Deadpan adaptation of contemporary photographs is not new in art. The most famous example is a series of blurry paintings by Gerhard Richter, based on images of the 1970s German terrorist group the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Those are in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Fehl said his intent is that people “will just be forced to confront these.”

“I’m not saying that these are bad people, this is a good person,” he said. “These are merely the images from this story. I’m afraid that people will have to make those judgments themselves.” Jen Graves: 253-597-8568jen.graves@thenewstribune.com