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9/11 art is at the center of a bitter dispute

Updated: 2013-09-21T04:37:37Z

By LEE HILL KAVANAUGH and DUGAN ARNETT

The Kansas City Star

When Neil Hix learned late last week that a Lawrence woman named Tonya Evans had offered to display a 13,000-pound piece of concrete outside the Topeka Fire Department, the deputy fire chief considered it a small coup.

The concrete-turned-sculpture, after all, had been salvaged from the World Trade Center area after the 9/11 attacks and symbolized the lives lost in the tragedy. For the previous two weeks, it had centerpieced a cross-country, fundraising tour for Evans’ American Fallen Warrior Memorial Foundation.

Hix envisioned it would sit just north of the main entrance of the department’s administrative building for a few years, where citizens and firefighters alike would walk past it each day, and the fire chief only had to glance out his office window to admire it.

“I know it’s just a hunk of concrete,” said Hix, who helped plan a small dedication ceremony last Saturday. “But to firefighters, it has some real meaning.”

The chosen spot, however, is empty. The piece didn’t arrive Saturday — nor will it, Florida-based sculptor Sandra Priest said.

Her work is at an “undisclosed location” in Utah now, she said, because Evans, the co-founder and CEO of the fallen warrior group, broke her contract for the $225,000 sculpture, titled “Star 11.”

“This is so elaborate, so not right,” said Priest, who contacted The Star this week after reading of Evans’ plans in the Topeka newspaper. “I feel bad for the fire station, the mayor of Topeka and everyone else who was duped into thinking it was going to stay there.”

Last Saturday morning, weeping with a few Gold Star mothers after learning the art was rerouted, Evans told the Topeka Capital-Journal, “We can’t believe that something like this is being done. It’s a disgrace.”

This week, she told The Star that the contract was still valid and that the sculpture eventually would return to Kansas. “Our attorneys are working something out now, so I don’t feel comfortable talking about it yet.”

Priest’s attorney said she has not been called but that the contract was breached in several aspects. “It became clear that the foundation was unwilling to make any more payments,” said Julie LaVan, a New Jersey attorney.

The American Fallen Warrior Memorial Foundation is a not-for-profit with the stated goal of building an elaborate 20-acre national memorial to those who have died in combat — and post-combat — from the Gulf War to today. Kansas City, Kan., which ended up being picked after other area cities declined, has stated that any project is contingent on raising the $30 million needed to build the memorial.

For the first quarter of 2013, the memorial group posted on its website net assets of $53,509. This reflected a $30,000 award to Evans from Eagle Rare, a whiskey company. Other revenue streams come from things like “thank you” bricks sold for eventual placement at the site.


The Topeka snafu started in February when Priest got a call from Evans, who told her of the plans to build the memorial and her interest in purchasing one of Priest’s pieces as a touchstone.

Priest’s medium for her legacy art came from a slurry wall, called the “bathtub” in which the World Trade Center sat, and were removed during construction of new underground rail systems. Headed for recycling, the material was given to Priest, who had it hauled to her studio in Cape Coral, Fla.

For the sculptor, the 11-piece series, titled “Project 11Up,” represents a way to serve witness to all that happened that September morning in lower Manhattan. Her series is registered with the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City. Her first work, “Victorii Rebuild,” a 6-foot block of polished and carved aggregate, is on permanent display at Bethlehem, Pa. Another piece has been sold to a buyer in Salt Lake City, for the Fort Douglas Military Museum.

Priest was thrilled at Evans’ call. A contract was signed: a $10,000, nonrefundable down payment, with future payments of $5,000 to the artist for every $25,000 the memorial group raised until the fee was reached. Priest also would donate $15,000 from each of the eleven pieces, as they sold, back to the memorial fund. In the past, she had donated part of her commissions to a fund helping the families of 9/11 victims, but she said Evans convinced her the memorial was a better cause.

Evans generally declined to discuss the terms of the agreement with The Star, but she contended the price for the art worked out to $150,000, not $225,000.

For a few weeks, Priest remembered that the two women were friends, talking or texting, often daily, about progress on the project. It was Priest who suggested that the patriotic art, including a second piece heading for Utah, could stop in towns along the way, popping in at American Legion halls or Veterans of Foreign Wars locations

Evans expanded the idea, telling Priest that by making some calls, the tour was now supported by the adjutant general in every state and would be escorted by hundreds of motorcyclists and police at each venue. Gold Star moms who had lost children in the wars would be honored, along with veterans. Donny Osmond’s nephew, Nathan, joined the tour with other singers, donating his performance fees. Scott Schrimpe, a New York firefighter whose unit lost six men on Sept. 11, would talk.

“I thought, ‘Wow!’ I was so excited and so proud,” Priest said. “She had me convinced that the tour was going to raise millions.”

Asked how much money was donated, Evans said this week: “We’re collecting everything right now, and I don’t know yet how much we raised. We reached a lot of people and got the word out ... brought hope and healing to so many hurting people. We received this incredible response all over the country. A cry to rise up and build this memorial.”

The tour began Aug. 31 in Fort Myers, Fla., with a flat-bed, fuel and driver donated by a moving company. But while the truck was moving west, Priest said, no checks were coming her way. Email exchanges with other foundation officers and her requests — which were denied — to see the deposit slips led her to believe the foundation could not pay for the sculpture. When she spoke to Evans about it, she said, the Lawrence woman became angry.

“She said I should donate it to the cause, that I was greedy and that it was overpriced and that I didn’t care about our military heroes,” said Priest.

Evans told The Star: “All of my board members agree that she was charging too much for artifacts that she got for free on a blood-filled day for our nation. Having that artifact, though, was important enough that we felt we should rescue it.”

Priest responds that the pieces are her art, not artifacts; she said she worked eight months on the aggregate-and-metal “Star 11.” The whole experience has been upsetting, she said, including the degradation of her art now by Evans’ supporters and a bombardment of angry emails calling her un-American and an obstacle to the memorial.

Even though their relationship became hostile, Priest said, “I still agreed to allow Tonya to display the work on the tour. This isn’t about me. It’s about all the people who sacrificed for our country.”

At six locations, Priest joined the tour to talk to the public about her art. But twice when she came near the block, Evans told her to leave and called the police, who dismissed it as a civil dispute. It was too much for Priest, who went home, while the tour continued. The fact that Evans seemed to be severing Priest’s relationship with her art also was a deal-breaker, Priest’s lawyer said.

Last week, Priest learned that her piece was to be temporarily installed at the Topeka fire station, until the memorial was constructed. She grew more upset after finding a Kansas City Star article from Feb. 26, 2012, that reported Evans’ patriotic-fundraising past. The newspaper’s story noted Evans’ personal bankruptcies and exaggerated statements about the foundation’s progress.

“Since Tonya broke the contract, I retained ownership of my works,” Priest said. She contacted her attorney and the trucking company, which quietly continued west to Utah as newspaper and TV reporters waited in vain for the art’s arrival last Saturday morning.

Evans insists the contract is still valid. “Legally, we’ve done nothing wrong ... and we will get that artifact.”


In March, Evans, who has no relatives who were combat casualties, emotionally described herself as “a voice for Gold Star families, thousands across this country” in an interview with a Fox News station. Saying Kansas City, Kan., was part of the miracles unfolding in this project, she recalled, “Walking in as a single mom, and getting land to be donated to the Fallen Warrior Foundation.” The city reiterates that no land donation has been made.

“Everything is over the top. She drinks her own Kool-Aid,” Christopher Gartner, formerly the memorial’s project manager and Texas engineer, told The Star this week. He also said the project is squandering money on things like the concrete sculpture and suffered from poor business practices.

Evans scoffed at Gartner’s remarks, saying he hasn’t been with the organization for a year.

Norman Schwartz, the project’s Florida architect, still supports Evans, calling her “very professional. It started off as a very small grass-roots thing, and it’s kind of grown and got a lot of people on board, and they’re just hoping to get people aware of what’s going to be built.”

Gartner, who said he left the group in frustration, noted: “I do think she has a sincere interest in making this happen, but I don’t think she has any clue how to make it happen.”

To reach Lee Hill Kavanaugh, call 816-234-4420 or send email to lkavanaugh@kcstar.com. To reach Dugan Arnett, call 816-234-4039 or send email to darnett@kcstar.com.

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