Unveiling the 'Hiram Hussy'

updated 08/12/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/12/1991 01:00AM

ALL ED CHERNESKY WANTED TO DO, HE says, was add a bit of class—culture, even—to the Hiram Village Store, the combination diner-grocery-antiques shop he owns in Hiram, Maine. In March, Chernesky, 37, paid his friend Claude Schmutz $100 to copy Titian's Venus of Urbino, one of the glories of Renaissance art, and then hoisted the 34-square-foot painting—with the word antiques added—over the doorway.

The copy, even modified by Schmutz so that Venus' locks mask her nipples, has stirred a Mapplethorpean tempest in the village of Hiram, 40 miles northwest of Portland. The day after Chernesky hung the sign, Deacon Norman Wright, a local Baptist minister-in-training, called. Chernesky says that Wright threatened, "If you don't take it down, my congregation and I will pray that you go out of business."

In May, when Chernesky was cited for violating a town ordinance restricting signs to 12 square feet, he covered the word antiques and declared the Venus a mural. Feelings about the Hiram Hussy had reached such a pitch by Memorial Day that the annual parade was rerouted away from the painting.

For some in Hiram, though, familiarity has bred tolerance. "We don't notice it anymore," says Hiram housewife Julie Yarborugh, 33. As for Chernesky, he's tired of slinging hash 70 hours a week and has added another sign at his store—one that reads FOR SALE. He hasn't decided yet what to do with the Venus. Meanwhile, Deacon Wright has chosen to let a higher tribunal prevail. "I'll leave it up to the Lord to take care of it," he says, "and He will."

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