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Artist sues Trinity Church for removal of 9/11 sculpture

Sculptor Steve Tobin, right, assists a workman in

Sculptor Steve Tobin, right, assists a workman in securing his sculpture, "Trinity Root" before it is lowered into place by a crane in the Trinity Church yard September 8, 2005 in New York City. Credit: Getty Images / Stephen Chernin

A Pennsylvania artist whose sculpture memorializing a sycamore tree destroyed in the Sept. 11 attacks was displayed in the courtyard of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan has filed an unusual lawsuit in Manhattan federal court, challenging the church’s removal of his piece.

Sculptor Steve Tobin, who gave his three-ton “Trinity Root” bronze to the church for display on its site just south of the World Trade Center, said that by moving it to Connecticut the church violated the federal Visual Artists Rights Act. He wants damages and an injunction.

“Its purpose was to memorialize the site of a 9/11 event of grace and celebrate the tree’s role and sacrifice,” the lawsuit said. “The intent, spirit and design of the sculpture – its aesthetic essence and spiritual meaning – were inextricably specific to that site.”

Tobin’s lawsuit, filed late Wednesday, said he specializes in sculptures of large root systems, and chose the Trinity sycamore because when it was uprooted on Sept. 11, it helped protect historic St. Paul’s Chapel nearby. It said he wasn’t paid, but the Episcopal church agreed to display it on its landmark site at Broadway and Wall Streets.

Created at an estimated cost of $1 million, it was installed and dedicated on Sept. 11, 2005, and over a decade attracted “millions” of visitors. But in 2015, the suit said, Tobin’s representatives were told that a new Trinity rector thought it was “ugly” and that the church didn’t like the “hordes” of tourists it attracted.

Despite complaints that removing it would destroy its “artistic integrity,” the suit said, the sculpture was moved to Connecticut in late 2015, eventually landing at a conference center owned by the Episcopal church and suffering physical damage during the move.

Trinity, a lower Manhattan landmark whose charter dates back to the 1600s, declined to comment on the lawsuit. But spokesman Nathan Brockman said in a statement, “Trinity is pleased to have the sculpture at Trinity’s retreat center, where it will be among a collection of planned sites that will encourage prayerful reflection, remembrance and spiritual transformation.”

Tobin is seeking an injunction ordering the return of his sculpture to the Manhattan site, and damages of over $1 million. His lawyer declined to comment.

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