The FBI began investigating artist Arnold Mesches in 1945 and continued its surveillance until 1972, when congress removed the funding for such operations. During this 26-year period the FBI tapped Mesches' phone, surreptitiously snapped his picture both in private and public, broke into his studio, quizzed his students and helped him get fired from a teaching job. The agency knew what cars he drove, when and where his children were born, that he edited a magazine "unfavorable to the FBI."
Mesches, who grew up in Buffalo, gained access to his voluminous file through the Freedom of Information Act, and used some of these heavily blacked-out pages as an integral part of what would become an award-winning series of collages and paintings. Called "The FBI Files," the work is currently on view at the University at Buffalo Art Gallery.
Speaking by phone from his Gainesville, Fla., home, Mesches talked about his long history as an FBI subject and the art that came out of it.
When did you first discover you were being tailed by the FBI?
"Almost immediately. They made no bones about it. Everyone knew that he was being watched. We would wave at them; they were very obvious. It was more harassment than anything."
Why do you think they went after you with such persistence?
"It was a reactionary time. It was the time of McCarthyism, of the Korean War. If you spoke out for peace you were considered a Communist. If you signed a petition for rent control, you had a file. If you sent a postcard to President Eisenhower about the dangers of the H-bomb -- as me and about 200,000 others did -- you were seen as a risk."
Did FBI eventually lose interest?
"I think they'd still be following me today if the funding hadn't been cut."
Did you ever find out who was informing on you?
"Not until I got the files, and then the only way I knew was by reading between the lines. They'd black out most of it but they'd leave this or that, a 'he' or a 'she.'
Who were these people?
"Most were close friends, one was a lover. Another was a neighbor whose kids played with ours. One night we artists got together and this young artist suggests that we all sketch each other. We say OK, and this guy does a drawing of me. And guess what? His sketch shows up in my file. The FBI had put him up to it."
The collages have an almost medieval radiance, like illuminations. What prompted you to put a mundane FBI file in that context?
"I wanted to preserve it somehow, and I thought what better way to do that than to make the files into contemporary illuminated manuscripts."
Last year "The FBI Files" won an award from the International Association of Art Critics/USA for emerging/under-known artists. Do you consider yourself an "emerging artist"?
"I try to convince my friends that I am. I was only 80 at the time of the award."