Somebody needs to go and put a birthday hat on him, because the Ugly Naked Guy turned 15 this month.
That’s right, he’s been ugly and naked and standing guard at Brighton’s Mill Pond for exactly 15 years now. He came to town in May of 2006 as part of an art exhibit called the Brighton Biennial, which means he’s 15 and can start taking driver’s ed. He was supposed to be here for only two years, but like the inconsiderate houseguest that he is, he never left.
And as he blows out 15 candles on his birthday cake this weekend, here’s the full, unabridged, untold story of Brighton’s Ugly Naked Guy. How he got here, why he never left, the community pain and anguish he caused, and most importantly, how I figure prominently in the story.
So sit back and enjoy, because it’s a good one. And I guarantee you’ve never heard the full story.
The tale begins in 2005, when Kate Lawrence was mayor of the City of Brighton. Downtown Brighton was a fine place back then, but as mayor, she was looking to make it even better.
The idea for the art exhibit came about because of some dumpster diving. Kate wasn’t actually DOING the dumpster diving; she was WATCHING some dumpster diving.
Kate and her husband Larry owned a local collision shop in town, Lawrence Auto Body, and there was a local artist who would come to their place on a regular basis to look for scrap metal for his sculptures. As Kate watched him diving into their dumpster one day, she got into a discussion with this guy about the modern nature of art, and that sparked the idea.
What if we were to turn downtown Brighton into a sort of outdoor art museum? We would put all kinds of different statues all around town, and people could walk around and study them and talk about them and figure out whether or not they liked them.
Kate pitched the idea to the City Council and they loved it. So she formed something called the Mayor’s Commission on Art in Public Places, she lined up an artist named John Soave to be in charge of it, and they established something called the Brighton Biennial.
The idea was that we would fill up the city with a couple dozen pieces of art, and then every two years (hence the word “biennial”), we would switch them all out and bring some new ones in.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, we found out in November of 2005, when the first piece of art came to town. It was called Evolution One, and it looked like this:
You see, when Mayor Lawrence first pitched the idea of turning Brighton into an outdoor art museum, we had visions of elegant statues and beautiful wire sculptures and maybe something bold that made a social statement.
We weren’t expecting this. This looked like a hunk of junk that George Jetson just hauled out of his garage.
I was one of the editors at the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus at the time, and oh my, in terms of sparking letters to the editor, Evolution One was a godsend.
In late 2005 leading into early 2006, we got roughly 15 zillion letters to the editor, nearly all of which said the same thing: “WHAT IN THE HELL IS THAT?”
Here’s a sampling.
Then there was this.
And one of my favorites.
The prevailing opinion was that Evolution One was a rusty piece of crap, and that instead of making Brighton look like a hipster art community, it was making us look like Hillbilly Hollow.
So while the editors at the paper were loving Evolution One because of the entertaining letters it was sparking, the community was hating it.
But wait! This was just the first statue. There were 29 more on the way. Was it possible that any other piece of art would ever be able to hold a candle to Evolution One when it came to being unsightly and controversial? Could any other statue ever spark the kind of community outrage and vitriol and letters to the editor that Evolution One did?
The Ugly Naked Guy just said, “Hold my beer.”
That’s right. Coming into early 2006, a few more statues came to town. And then in May, he arrived. There was no grand celebration to mark the occasion – there should have been – but in May of 2006, the Ugly Naked Guy arrived at the banks of the Mill Pond.
It took a few days for the public to realize he was there, but once they did, the response was pretty much: “WHAT IN THE HELL IS THAT?”
The official name of the statue was Decision Pending, although I’ve never been able to figure out exactly what decision it was that was pending. The decision to put on some pants maybe?
The sculptor of Decision Pending was a man from Oak Park named Jay Holland, a legendary figure in the Detroit art world. He taught sculpting at the College for Creative Studies and had done dozens of pieces that were sitting in private and public collections all over the country. His specialty was capturing “the human condition.”
He was in his late 70s when he did Decision Pending, and here’s how famous that sculpture was. When Holland died in 2016, his obituary in the Detroit News mentioned it as the most well-known piece he ever did.
Whatever your opinion of the statue, you can’t fault Jay Holland for the controversy. He just made it. He’s not the one who forced Brighton to keep it in the most prominent spot in town.
In any case, when Decision Pending arrived in May of 2006 – exactly 15 years ago this month – it made the Evolution One controversy seem like a tea party.
One of the first people to complain about the statue was Susan Walters-Steinacker, a local gadfly who was (and still is) a frequent thorn in the Brighton City Council’s side. But she chose not to complain to the City Council about the statue. She went up the ladder and called the office of State Sen. Valde Garcia. Here’s how we reported on it:
That was just the start. In the coming weeks, the editorial pages of the Daily Press & Argus were filled to the brim with letters about the statue. Unlike with Evolution One, though – which was universally hated – there were plenty of people who actually liked this new statue. So we got letters like this that hated him:
And letters like this that didn’t mind him:
And now we come to the best part of this story – the part where I come in. You see, while the statue’s official name is Decision Pending, nobody in Brighton calls him that. Nobody. I doubt those of you reading this even know that’s the statue’s real name.
Everybody calls him the Ugly Naked Guy. And who, you may be asking yourself, gave him that name?
That’s right! It was famed newspaper columnist Buddy Moorehouse who first came up with the idea that we should call this new statue Ugly Naked Guy.
I didn’t invent that name; the writers on the sitcom “Friends” did. There was a guy in the apartment across the way from Monica and Rachel’s place who would parade around with his clothes off, so they called him the Ugly Naked Guy.
I thought that also would be a fine name for Brighton’s new statue, so in a column on June 11, 2006, I wrote the following:
That was the first time the name “Ugly Naked Guy” ever appeared in print in reference to that statue. My fame and notoriety in this story do not stop there, though. About 10 years ago, somebody created a Wikipedia page for Decision Pending. In that entry – and I have no idea who wrote it – they included this line:
“The nickname ‘Ugly Naked Guy’ was originally coined by Buddy Moorehouse.”
You know, I like to think I’ve accomplished a lot in my life. I’ve raised some great kids. I’ve written a book. I’ve made some Emmy-nominated documentaries. I brought Taco Bell to Howell. I’ve swum across a lake.
But I have to say that the greatest accomplishment of my life is that I’m listed on Wikipedia as the guy who gave the Ugly Naked Guy his name. In fact, I would like that to be the lead paragraph in my obituary.
In any case, once I put that brilliant nickname out into the public lexicon, it stuck. Everybody started calling him the Ugly Naked Guy and everybody started voicing their opinion about the Ugly Naked Guy. By the middle of 2006, there were about 30 other pieces of public art in Brighton, but everybody just wanted to talk about the Ugly Naked Guy. Even poor Evolution One was hardly being mentioned anymore.
I made the observation back then (and it’s still true) that one of the main differences between people in Howell and people in Brighton is that nobody in Howell seems to get too upset when somebody puts something new in their town. Even when it’s something really dumb and stupid (see ROUNDABOUTS, TINY), people in Howell just shrug their shoulders and say “eh.”
But Good God, people in Brighton have always LOVED to get irate when something new shows up in their town. Through the years, this list has included the Roundabouts, the Tridge, the Stillwater Grill building, the condos on the railroad tracks and the new Mill Pond amphitheater.
They write letters, they show up at City Council meetings, and apparently, they even call their state senator’s office. They weren’t doing this in 2006, but nowadays, they’re also able to complain on social media.
So in terms of stoking public outrage, the Ugly Naked Guy was a natural. I’d say the sentiment was running about 70-30 against him, and while I was originally in the 30 camp (I first opined in print that I didn’t mind him), I eventually gravitated toward the 70 camp. I started agreeing with the people who said that a little ugly naked guy was no way to be greeting folks to the Mill Pond.
I started writing a lot of columns about the Ugly Naked Guy, and each one was snarkier than the one before. This was about the same time that the Double Roundabouts came to Green Oak Township, so for a smart-ass newspaper editor who loved writing snarky columns, that era was a glorious time in my career.
The letter-writers were piling on, too, and my understanding is that the Brighton City Council, which had – let’s say – a bit of an arrogance issue back then, did not take kindly to that. They no doubt felt we were mocking them for not only bringing this thing to town, but for putting it in the most prominent spot in the downtown area.
Now the idea, as I said, was that because this was a biennial display, Decision Pending was only going to be in Brighton for two years. By 2008, he’d be gone, so we just needed to wait it out.
Well, in 2007 – with me and everybody else piling on – the Brighton City Council decided to say we’ll show you who’s boss!
The city’s Downtown Development Authority, which uses taxpayer money to boost the downtown, told us that the Ugly Naked Guy needed to stick around FOREVER. The DDA thus spent $50,000 of taxpayer money to buy Decision Pending and two other pieces of art, and told us that they would BE HERE FOREVER. About $15,000 of that went to Jay Holland to purchase his statue.
Well! I guess they showed us!
That brought forth a whole NEW flood of letters to the editor and snarky newspaper columns, most of which offered up the opinion that it’s great the City of Brighton has discovered a tree that grows money, because there could be no other explanation as to why they would spend $15,000 of taxpayer dough on a piece of art that at least half the people in town hated.
Here’s a side story, too. Back in 2006, at the same time the Ugly Naked Guy came to Brighton, an artist from Hamburg Township named Tom Coates Jr. offered up another statue for the Brighton Biennial. It was called Free Spirit, and it a wire statue of a wire woman taking off a wire bikini. It’s a little dark, but you can see the picture here.
Well, Steve Monet, who was by this time Brighton’s mayor, declined the piece, saying it was “clearly not appropriate.” Never mind that it was made out of wire and that you couldn’t see any wire bosoms or anything. The mayor booted it out nonetheless.
So, if you’re keeping score at home:
STATUES OF UGLY NAKED MEN: Appropriate.
STATUES OF HALF-NAKED WIRE WOMEN: Clearly not appropriate.
The logic was hard to follow, but there you go. That’s Brighton for you.
Anyway, we’re going to skip ahead a bit to 2010. The Ugly Naked Guy was firmly entrenched at the Mill Pond now, and the community had sort of resigned itself to the fact that because we had spent $15,000 of taxpayer money on it, it wasn’t going anywhere.
In the fall of 2010, though, Dennis Nauss decided to take up the cause. Nauss was a former Brighton City Council member and Vietnam veteran, and he felt it was inappropriate to have the Decision Pending statue so close to the War Memorial at the Mill Pond.
So Nauss went to a council meeting and asked that the Ugly Naked Guy be moved. He said that it’s flat-out disrespectful to have a statue like that standing right next to something as solemn and emotional as the War Memorial. He knew the city couldn’t just throw it into the Mill Pond (which some of us were in favor of), but he asked that it be moved 25 feet to the east, away from the War Memorial.
To everyone’s surprise, a majority of the City Council agreed. After a somewhat heated debate, the council voted 4-3 to move the Ugly Naked Guy. And when word of that got out – this is Brighton, remember – ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE AGAIN!
Half the town was applauding the fact that the Ugly Naked Guy was being moved. The other half was irate, saying that it made us look even MORE like a bunch of hick hillbillies that we’re getting so upset over a little statue.
Another former City Council member, John Tunis, also a veteran, took up the Keep-The-Statue-Where-It-Is cause. He circulated a petition that got hundreds of signatures, all of which demanded that the council reverse course and keep the statue in front of the Mill Pond.
As the council weighed its options, the meetings in September and October of 2010 were nothing short of delightful. Dozens of city residents and others showed up week after week, and they spent hours during public comment making their feelings known. Just a sample from the minutes of one of those meetings:
Well, after letting this drag on for week after week, the council took ANOTHER vote, and this time, one member had flip-flopped, so the vote was now 4-3 to keep the Ugly Naked Guy right where he is.
That was almost 11 years ago, and that’s where we are now. There have been no serious efforts since then to move the little feller, and as much as some of still can’t stand him, he’s pretty much become an accepted part of Brighton now.
It’s become a common thing to dress him up. People put jerseys and hats on him depending on the season. When the pandemic broke out, somebody put a mask on him. He’s just part of the town now.
It seems like he’s been here a lot longer than 15 years, but that’s really all it’s been. Last year, when tearing down statues became a big thing, I tried to start a rumor that the Ugly Naked Guy was somehow tied to the Confederacy, but it didn’t work. He’s still there and he’ll probably always be there.
So there you have it. The story of the Ugly Naked Guy. Kate Lawrence came up with the idea to bring him here, Jay Holland made him and I gave him his name.
Here’s to you, UNG. Happy birthday.