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Madonna and Rat (or, Going Viral Before the Internet) (Volume 53, October - December, 1996)

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Friday, October 25, 1996

"I don't think this is your 15 minutes of fame; I think this is the beginning of your fame.” *

----Richard Johnson, 10-24-96

My life has changed since Wednesday. I've been sleepless since last Wednesday; I could not eat for two days. Thursday I dry heaved repeatedly and puked bile in the bathroom. At work, I lay on Marina's sofa off and on. Thursday was the first time I've leaned on Marina. She was wonderful. She made me tea and brought it to me. The cause of this angst?


I told my mother now I know what it feels like to be famous. It wasn't a good feeling. (I use past tense because I think I'm yesterday's news now and I can start to breathe again.)

It all started Tuesday. Mid-morning I got a call from a Luke Timmerman, a reporter from the Capitol Times. He'd heard about the controversy at East High from a teacher at the school. (No one still knows who this is — it wasn't Monica or Henry.)

I didn't believe it was a reporter. I said, "Is this a practical joke?" several times. I finally believed him when he persisted.

He asked me questions; I answered them. I told him I was meeting Milt McPike [the principal of East High School in Madison] that afternoon at 1:00. He said he'd come over to Access in the afternoon after I'd met with McPike.

Milt McPike is a tall, slender, attractive black man with glasses and a memorably warm, strong handshake. He met Monica and me at the front of the office (he'd told her he wanted her to be there so she left her jewelry class), extended his hand, smiled, said, "Milt McPike." I used two hands to shake his back — his hands are so large — and said, "Valerie Mangion." I liked him immediately.

We were also joined by Anna, the student who is writing on this issue for the school paper.

The meeting went very well. The bottom line was that he would not budge on putting the painting back up. He would not agree to put a piece of paper up on the wall explaining why the painting was removed.

But he did explain the pressures he's under — how students can't sing Christmas carols, or take tests on Jewish holidays. He made it clear that he personally did not find the painting objectionable and ignored several calls and complaints that started coming in almost immediately.

Two teachers complained to him. The lady from the Catholic Church group first called and complained on October 8th — he didn't react until two more calls had come in over the next couple weeks, including a call from the Freedom from Religion people in Waunakee.

McPike likes art, has an art minor and a wife who teaches at East who also has an art minor. He thought the calls were tacky. He thinks it's tacky when the gallery walls are bare.

I had feared he would race me in and out of there in a brief, dismissive way. Imagine my surprise when he turned out to be extremely talkative. I could barely get a word in. I had to fight to make my points. We were there at least an hour and 15 minutes.

I left feeling much better.

Later, at Access, Luke and I talked, only for five or ten minutes more. After he left, he called me and insisted he really had to have an image of the painting. I was shocked that he drove out to the farm, two hours in the dark, in heavy rain, to get a slide from Ellis, who was home long before I would get home. When at our house, Luke decided he wanted a picture of me as well. Ellis dug around in these old boxes of slides and came up with a picture which I don't like, but it could have been a lot worse.

Ellis and Luke picked it because I look "soft and sweet" in it (in spite of my large nose, awful hair and ugly smile) — like I could never do anything hateful toward the church, but am pretty simple and am just kind of a dorky, sweet girl who loves rats. (Except there was a large shadow under my lips when reproduced. Ellis asked, "Where did you get that goatee?")

Tonight, Friday night, is a gift from God. The moon is out, the sky is bright, Don is here and he and Ellis have built a beautiful bonfire. It's almost warm. A gentle breeze is blowing. We just had a prayer moment, holding hands by the fire. We all prayed aloud, Don to God and Ellis and me more or less to the Universe.

That was so helpful. A moment of clarity cut through my beleaguered brain. I felt that I need to step beyond the fray, to be thankful for this learning experience. I strengthened my resolve to be detached from the process, from the events unfolding.

I felt a surge of love for Helen Nicholson, the lady from the Catholic church, for Milt McPike and even for the editors of the Wisconsin State Journal who wrote a vitriolic rant bashing me and my painting.

If I do ever have another interview about this issue I want to talk in a different way than I have. This all comes down to different views of the Creative Being, whom Catholics call God, and different ways of worshipping. I worship the essential creative force or energy by working hard to develop the gift I've been given — the gift of expressing myself through painting. I believe the Creator rejoices in my creations — and doesn't need to be protected from the content. When you look at my painting, "Madonna and Rat," it's obviously a painting that expresses love and tenderness, nothing else. I challenge Catholic viewers to look at the painting with love instead of fear.

I won't defend "Madonna and Rat.” It needs no defense. It's a painting, it exists, it expresses love, period. I painted it for myself. It needs no approval from a religious faction.

Look and see. Contemplate the expressions, gestures and colors. What does your heart really tell you was my intention?

The rundown:

Luke's article came out Wednesday, page 2 of Section 1. The article was surprisingly big — it contained pictures both of the painting and myself.

Ellis and I went to Middleton to see "Basquiat" and picked up the paper on the way back.

When we got home, there was a message from Phil Brinkman of the Wisconsin State Journal, wanting to interview me asap.

I called him. We hit it off. He is my favorite of the interviewers I've experienced. Early on he told me he thinks the painting is beautiful. He's very sharp, too. I think he's tried hardest to be fair in the article. He quoted me correctly, for example, and he used a lot of the things I said.

Thursday, yesterday, was the day...

I got to work late because Ellis and I had to take Moon to the vet first. We had to drop her off for a dental cleaning and leave her over night.

When I got to work I was met by a crowd of excited co-workers. They were so sweet. They led me to the resource room where articles from the Cap Times and WSJ were both laid out. I was shocked to learn that the late edition of the Cap Times was different from the edition Ellis and I had seen. They bumped an article that had been over my article and blew up the reproduction of "Madonna and Rat" so it took up almost half the top half of the page. The reproduction was almost as large as the actual painting!

I don't know what happened in the afternoon that got their attention — but something did.

Also, Lili reported that there had been a discussion about my painting on WORT Radio on Wednesday night. I guess it was a Catholic group, and Jennifer L was totally excited that the DJ on 92.1 (WMAD?) had been talking about the painting — and he never talks about topical news subjects. He invited callers to call in and express their views. Jennifer said everyone who called in thought it just sucked that the painting had been taken down. She was very excited. She hadn't known they were talking about my painting until she got to work. "This is awesome, this is so cool," she was saying.

It was so sweet of them to act so excited. Susan D was great, and Owen. He said he's the one who put the article on my desk, did I find it? But it had already been moved to the resource room. All day I was nervous, ill, excited, queasy, nauseous, a wreck. I had gotten my period in the morning, which didn't help matters.

I was the center of attention all day. I think that was hard on Molly, but she was funny. She said, "Oh, fine, I can't get any coverage of managed care because the whole paper's about your rat." She kept calling me "ratgirl." When she came back from Wonder's she said, "Wonder's almost burned down, but was it in the paper? Nooooo, there wasn't room because of your painting..." She cracks me up. She said everyone was passing the paper around and talking about it and P.S. Mueller, the well-known local cartoonist, was very involved in the discussion. I still haven't gathered what he said or felt, though. He did give Molly two magazines to give me, one called "Catholic World" and one other one that had Dennis Rodman and Madonna Ciccone as thee Madonna on the front.

By the end of the day I had a feeling about the scope of the article's impact — and it was scary.

There were comments all day about my proverbial 15 minutes of fame.

Martha C called up and said, “Two things:

1) You're famous, and

2) Do we have any labels for making fancy name tags?"

Me: "Can we go back to Number One?"

She was very nice, too. She said she would save Cap Times articles for me. Also, her husband, Larry, called up today (I got the message from Pete) just to wish me support.

I appreciated Richard so much when he said the words I put at the beginning of this passage. It was such a generous thing to say.

Aside from being one step away from puking all day, it was an exciting day.

Owen and I had a nice talk. I told him, "Your wife is making me famous." Owen is so knowledgeable. We talked about Madonna images. In the early icons, many madonnas were bare-breasted. It wasn't until later during the Renaissance that she was forced to be covered up with robes.

When Ellis came to pick me up, he told me that everyone was talking about the article when he went into Econoprint. Joan thought the article was about me, Ellis' girlfriend. Another guy working there seemed impressed so Ellis said he'd bring me by later and the guy could have my autograph for $5.00! Ellis has been very sweet and excited for me throughout this whole thing — buying newspapers and making copies, etc.

When I got home last night, there was a message on my machine from Meg Jones, a reporter with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She had called early in the day and again around 6:00. By the time I returned her call it was right before deadline.

I rambled, I was exhausted. Oh — before that I had picked up the phone and it was a man from Viroqua, fervently asking to buy the painting. He really wants it. He identified himself as a pagan. He said he has money. He works with high explosives. He sent me a fax of an article about a project he just worked on for a nature conservancy group, in which they blasted entrances of a former copper mine to create a superlative habitat for a half million bats! He went on about himself, but he was interesting as well. I took his name and number in case I ever decide to sell. Owen had also stated for the second time that he would really like to buy the painting. But I said I wasn't selling — unless maybe there was some extravagant offer. Owen said, "Oh, well I can't make an extravagant offer."

After hanging up with Meg, I called my mom. I told her that I was freaking out, that I knew how it felt to be famous. We agreed it would be horrible to be famous all the time. John F. Kennedy's new wife looks miserable. I'm sure she feels like a permanent prisoner of the paparazzi.

My mom was pretty excited, though. I told her that, no lie, basically the entire city of Madison had been discussing my painting that day. Ellis verified it. Very weird. I called Marilyn shortly thereafter. She was just trying to call me, as Mom had called her up, really excited, after talking to me. That pleased me.

By then it was after 10:00 - the start of the worst night of all sleepless nights I've ever experienced.

I took my Serzone on an empty bile stomach. It was churning. I was damp and sweaty. After hours of violent tossing and turning I took a Tylenol PM — or intended to — but I was so spaced out I accidentally took two regular Tylenol instead. So I took a whole Tylenol PM (usually I take 1/4 to 1/2) on top of that — and then I knew I'd really messed up. I felt exactly like I used to feel after tripping — being so exhausted, wanting so much to sleep, but running stationary marathons in my bed instead.

I was too tired to get up, too wired not to. Around 2:30 a.m. I finally got dressed and went downstairs to force myself to eat something to sop up all the acid in my stomach. Had a plain piece of wheat bread, a couple sips of leftover Progresso soup, and almost puked.

Last night I must have broken all former tossing and turning world records. I stayed on the sofa all night.

Meanwhile, Ellis was having a discomforting night (his words) — he dreamed I was on a roof. He heard footsteps up there. He thought I was going to commit suicide. In his sleep, he walked over to the window, opened it and the storm window, and looked all around for me. Then he went back to bed and dreamed he was going to have sex with me and two other women. (We were all lying around naked.) One left, disgruntled, after he sucked her toes.

That dream faded. Then we were fighting about never having sex in front of three guys. They all stepped up one at a time and said, "I will" or something — meaning they'd have sex with me. Ellis got mad, yelled, "I'm breaking up with you," and stormed off, feeling really bad, assuming I would screw these other men.

Early in the morning the phone rang. I answered it, in a state of dazed confusion. It was a producer from WLUP Radio in Chicago, Carol, asking if I'd be around for awhile. Jonathon Brandmeier wanted to talk to me on the air — they'd seen the blurb about my painting in USA Today. At this point I was really a bit alarmed, I mean about how the media blitz occurs. An event takes on a complete life of its own — you stop feeling as if you have any remnant of control. USA Today — that's national.

I ran upstairs to Ellis. Carol had implied he'd call back in about an hour but the phone rang almost immediately, as he'd decided to put me on sooner.

Sunday evening, October 27, 1996

So there I was, during the morning commute, 7:00-ish, live on Chicago radio. Jonathan and his sidekick were in happy, goofy banter-mode. I felt like hell from my hideous night. I can't remember the entire conversation, but they did ask me if I was Catholic. "No, but I've been involved with several recovering Catholics."

We got into the "rats are fun" mode. I said, "There's nothing more fun than watching a rat eat cheese."

"So you think rats are fun, huh?"

"They have great senses of humor — in fact, they could be radio talk show hosts — they'd whup your pants off." They liked that. I asked, "They didn't print a picture of the painting, did they?" He said no. I said, “I bet you're picturing a big, gray sewer rat with huge snarling fangs and an evil expression in its eyes, right?” They said yeah. I said, "Well, it's not like that." Earlier I said the painting was about particularly fine form of life.

At the end I said, "You know what's more fun than watching a rat eat cheese? Watching two rats share the same piece of spaghetti."

I guess I did ok.

I still felt like death but I got up. Ellis and I went into Richland Center.

It was so depressing to pick up Moon from the vet. She looked dead. She was still heavily sedated, the day after her dental check-up. I was shocked that she didn't have any abscesses or broken teeth. Apparently her difficulty chewing is due to arthritis in her jaw or something. I felt so guilty for putting her through such a major trauma. Her little leg was shaved where an IV was put in. She has seemed incredibly frail and delicate since her return. She has barely eaten or drunk water. She neither raised her head nor meowed for an entire day.

Ellis and I picked up the WI State Journal on the way home. It contained a shockingly hateful editorial that was completely ignorant and stupid.

I spent most of the morning on the phone, talking to Jeanne, my mother, Anna, and the ACLU.

And then a man from the Washington Post called, finding out if I'd be home later so a reporter could call me. The Washington Post! My stomach started curdling — the old queasy feeling.**

* He was incorrect. But my 15 minutes lasted about seven months — at least that's about how long I kept hearing from other people that there had been a reference to my painting in some far away publication or other.

**It went on (and on) from there, including “Madonna and Rat” being made fun of by Norm Macdonald on the Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live.

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