Controversial Utah artist’s new painting pays tribute to ‘contemporary abolitionists,’ but critics call it exploitative and culturally clueless

Underground Railroad by Jon McNaughton

When Operation Underground Railroad founder Tim Ballard looks at the latest artwork by conservative political painter Jon McNaughton, he gets emotional.

Painted into “The Underground Railroad” are Ballard and his wife, depicted carrying children they helped rescue from sex trafficking.

Ballard, a former U.S. Homeland Security special agent, appreciates the symbolism of the artwork’s historical figures, including Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. They are flanked by figures whom the painter refers to as “contemporary abolitionists” or “slave stealers”: Ballard’s friends and supporters, ranging from Tony Robbins and Glenn Beck to Utah Rep. Mia Love.

Art curators and Mormon black activists, though, are offended by the Provo artist’s painting, calling it exploitative for the way it appropriates African-American history.

At the center of the painting is a white man carrying a black child walking forward on a railroad track. The man — the kind of “everyman” figure that McNaughton often includes in his works — is flanked by historical and contemporary figures carrying lighted lanterns, which were used to signify safe houses along the secret passageways of the Underground Railroad.

“I would call it the epitome of the white savior complex,” says Mica McGriggs, who earned a doctoral degree at Brigham Young University and is now a postdoctoral fellow at New York City’s Columbia Medical Center. “Of course modern-day slavery is horrifying, but it is a ‘now’ thing. We can talk about it without tying it to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.”

Anthropologist Bradley H. Kramer pushes the criticism further. It seems culturally clueless, he says, to not realize depicting “white dudes rescuing black people” — under the title of “The Underground Railroad” — would be offensive.

“It’s too on-the-nose. It’s almost like a parody of the white savior narrative,” says Kramer, who curates exhibits at Provo’s Writ & Vision bookstore/gallery and teaches at Utah Valley University in Orem. “It steals the imagery and the power of the Underground Railroad narrative and transforms it into this Trumpian fantasy of brave, powerful white dudes rescuing black people from their squalor.”

In a YouTube video, McNaughton says he’ll donate proceeds from print sales to the Utah-based Operation Underground Railroad, which works to stop child sex trafficking.

Ballard says he didn’t know about the fundraising effort until McNaughton invited him to his studio to view an early draft of the painting. The effort was a surprise, “like a Christmas present,” says Ballard, who this week was tapped by Beck as the CEO of a partner group, The Nazarene Fund, dedicated to rescuing Christians from terrorist-controlled countries. The two entities will remain separate, but work to leverage each other’s expertise and resources, Ballard says.

McNaughton, once considered the tea party’s painter, has sparked controversy for paintings melding conservative philosophy with religious imagery. His work has been described as “visually dead” and “drop-dead obvious in message” by New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz.

His paintings do more than draw attention. In 2012, McNaughton told BuzzFeed the asking price for one of his original paintings was $300,000 and that his most recent work had been purchased by Fox News commentator Sean Hannity.

Earlier this year McNaughton released “You Are Not Forgotten,” featuring President Donald Trump, his foot on a snake, watching a man plant a green shoot in desert ground.

(Photo courtesy of McNaughton Fine Art Company) Provo painter Jon McNaughton's latest work, "You Are Not Forgotten."

An earlier painting depicted former U.S. President Barack Obama burning a copy of the U.S. Constitution.

Ironically, that’s the same kind of public statement for which journalist William Lloyd Garrison, one of the abolitionists whom McNaughton included in his artwork, is remembered. On July 4, 1854, Garrison burned a copy of the nation’s founding document, which he called a “covenant with Death, an Agreement with Hell,” referring to the compromise forged by slaveholders.

Ballard dismisses racial complaints, underscoring the urgency of the cause. “If the people knew who these kids were and had held them in their arms, kids who had been trafficked and raped for money, I bet you they would not be trying to make this argument.”