As President Donald Trump has vowed to punish those who destroy monuments in the U.S., a wooden sculpture of American First Lady Melania Trump, near her hometown in Slovenia, was torched on July 4.
Authorities don't know who torched the life-size statue, carved by local folk artist Aleš "Maxi" Župevc, or why it was burned.
The damaged sculpture is of a rough-hewn Melania Trump, dressed in the pale-blue Ralph Lauren cashmere coat she wore at her husband's inauguration in January 2017.
Brad Downey, 40, a Kentucky-born artist based in Europe who commissioned the project in 2017, admits it sent mixed messages from the start, honoring the First Lady. "This anti-immigration narrative coming from Donald Trump, it is a blatant contradiction," he told ABC News. "To have a president, who is married to a legal immigrant, makes stopping immigration a cornerstone of his presidency.”
Officials are still looking for the alleged arsonist.
“Police are investigating the circumstances of the arson incident in the village of Rozno,” Robert Perc, police spokesman in Novo Mesto, told ABC News. “The owner of the statue filed criminal charges against unknown arsonists.”
“I did file a police report, because I was told it is the only way forward for an investigation to be launched,” Downey said. "I am only interested in finding the attackers, and talking to them, not pressing charges against them."
What he really wants, he says, is answers to two questions: "I would want to know who are they and why they did it?”
The statue's creator, Župevc, calls himself an amateur chainsaw sculptor and a professional pipe layer. Downey says he was inspired by the fact that Župevc was born the same month of the same year as the first lady, in the same hospital in the same nearby town.
The statue has drawn publicity and has attracted quite a few visitors, according to a local tourist organization. But the local audience gave the work mixed reviews. "Why did he have to make her look like an evil stepmother of Pinocchio?” asked in one resident of nearby Sevnica, Melania's hometown. "What a disgrace!” she added.
But another Sevnica resident told ABC News back in 2019, she liked the sculpture and its subject. "She is our beauty, no matter what, even here. She looks like she just walked out of a beautiful naïve painting."
The fact that it was set on fire on the night between the 4 and 5 of July, makes Downey think that it was not just a random drunk act or just some kids playing, he said.
“I really don’t know, but It could have been vandals on both sides: The left-leaning people due to monument destruction buzz or right-leaning people who think it is disrespectful,” Downey said.
The whole thing is very heavily damaged, Downey says. The blue part of the statue is more-less intact but the head has been blackened, the face is deeply burned and the back of the head is burned out like a huge hole. Luckily, he says, it was not structurally destroyed, making it possible to be removed.
“It looks like whoever had set the statue afire had put something like a tire around the head and then dumped gasoline,” Downey noted.
The statue was part of a project that also includes a short documentary film, and it sounds like Downey, a well-known contextual public artist in Europe, is thinking about a post-arson sequel. When "the heavily damaged statue was removed on July 5 by the same lumberjacks that cut the linden tree from which the statue was made,” Downey told ABC News, “I also asked local villagers and firefighters, who put the statue down, not to give away their photos of the blackened and disfigured statue, so it would not become a vulgar meme.”
The “deeply burned” original statue is now wrapped in plastic and stored in Downey’s studio, waiting to be shown at an exhibition in the salt factory in Koper, a port city in Slovenia in September.
Later, Downey himself posted a video of the statue being removed on his Instagram account. Those images are likely to turn up in his documentary and it sounds like there could be a second statue in the picture.
“Last year, out of precaution, I made a silicon mold of the statue,” Downey said. “I will have to come back with a conceptual, artistic reply to the arson to keep the conversation going – maybe make a proper bronze statue in that same location.”