Five years after a scandal involving the re-selling of graves at Burr Oak Cemetery, the historic burial ground in southwest suburban Alsip has been hit with a new controversy.
A Blue Island sculptor says the Burr Oak trustee who approached him about designing and carving a memorial, stole his design work, and that a virtual carbon copy is about to be unveiled.
"I saw it, I dropped my jaw," said sculptor Viktor Bougaev, who is known in artistic circles simply as Viktor. "I mean, I couldn't believe it!"
The historic suburban cemetery is known as the final resting place of civil rights icon Emmet Till, boxer Ezzard Charles, and numerous blues greats. In July of 2012, five Burr Oak employees were accused in a ghoulish plot of unearthing over a hundred graves, casting the bodies aside and re-selling the plots to new customers.
The memorial, featuring a statue of a girl and boy holding a photo of their grandparents, has been erected near the front gate at Burr Oak, and is scheduled for a formal dedication next month. Viktor says he was involved in discussions with Burr Oak trustee Patricia Brown Holmes two years ago, including design work
and negotiations on the pricing of materials and his services. Then, he says the Burr Oak representatives abruptly shifted gears.
"They decided not to proceed with us any further," he said. "(They said) they would like to pursue other options and ideas."
Over the Fourth of July weekend, he says he saw the Memorial being erected, and was shocked to see a statue which he insists is identical to what he proposed.
"The striking likeness that obviously came from my sketch," he said. "That's why really I felt deeply offended. People didn't even bother to change it a little bit!"
In his Blue Island studio, Viktor showed sketches of his preliminary design work, first with obelisks topped with a star-studded sphere, then the concept featuring a child holding a photo. He says that evolved into the idea of the two children, a brother and sister.
"Basically to me it was an idea of time connections," he said. "Absolutely, they fell in love with this!"
Holmes, the Burr Oak trustee and a former Cook County judge, disputes the artist's version of events.
"Why would I blatantly steal something from an artist?" she asked. "I wouldn't!"
Speaking by phone from San Diego where she was travelling on business, Holmes acknowledged the back and forth discussions with Viktor, but insisted he has no proprietary right to the concept.
"We worked collaboratively to come up with an idea," she said. "Viktor drew what Viktor drew. The architect drew what the architect drew. I bought his design."
In fact, Holmes says if anyone had the idea of the child statue, it was her.
"The two designs are similar, but they are very different," she said. "That's my idea. What you see? What we built? My idea!"
The controversy swirls into the murky territories of intellectual property, and exactly where the boundaries of the ownership of an idea are drawn.
"You cannot copyright, or trademark, an idea," Holmes said. "He doesn't have a patent, and he doesn't have a copyright."
But Viktor insists he was wronged, and Holmes knows it. And before the memorial is dedicated, he said he wants the credit, and compensation he feels he is owed.
"It so strikingly resembles my sketch," he said. "You should be blind not to see that it was flat out taken and cloned!"