A piece of public art touted as "Quebec's biggest codfish" is at the centre of a row between the artist and the tiny Gaspé village that once displayed it with pride.

The spat centres around the fish sculpture as well as a memorial statue for veterans both of which once stood on shore of the municipality of Cloridorme, population 743.

In 2013 the municipality altered the art in ways that sculptor Claude Rioux said violates their integrity.

"I created sculptures for that municipality. I was very proud. They were very nice sculptures," Rioux said. "Now they have disfigured them."

The argument has recently become so heated that in May the municipality of Cloridorme paid to have the cement sculptures yanked from public display. 

The sculptures are sitting in a municipal garage, and the artist is threatening to sue.

Municipality makes changes to artwork

Back in 2013, the municipality added a park bench to the base of the giant cod.

A few months later it repainted the veterans memorial statue, changing the colour from the imitation bronze patina to a khaki-green paint. It also accented the soldier's straps and boots with rust and black, a colour scheme Rioux calls "ugly."

"I said to myself, 'The people who did that have never studied art. They don't know colours.'"

The workers also removed Rioux's name from the work, he said.

Sculpture photo

Sculpture by Claude Rioux. (Pierre-Paul Côté)

Artist calls action illegal

Rioux said the changes break the law.

"You can't do that. You can't take a work from Picasso and change the background because you don't like the colour."

Rioux said he told the municipality they didn't have the right to change the art when they first started to alter the base of the cod sculpture.

He said at first he thought they were acting out of ignorance. But, then they painted the veterans memorial.

"It was really bad faith."

The sculptor sent two emails to the city manager, including links to information about artists' moral copyright over their work and he asked to meet with city councillors.

He has since been sent two letters from municipal lawyers and has hired an attorney of his own.

The municipality is not commenting on the issue because of the legal dispute.

Moral copyright

Rioux's attorney, Normand Tamaro, said even when a person buys a work of art, they do not have the right to alter it, destroy it or remove the artist's name.

He said it's not like buying a piece of furniture. "I have more control if I am the owner of a sofa. I can throw it out tomorrow. For a painting, it's different." 

Tamaro, who said he was speaking generally about moral copyright and not specifically about Rioux's case, said the act of removing a piece from public view does not solve the problem.

"If I create a work, it's to say something to the public. It's not for it to be hidden somewhere."

Space where codfish sculpture use to be

This space is where the giant codfish sculpture by Claude Rioux use to stand. The sculpture is now sitting in a municipal garage while the town is in a dispute with the artist. (Radio-Canada)

Rioux had been paid $3,000 per sculpture by Cloridorme's economic development corporation. The person who originally hired him is now the municipal manager. Rioux said that official is playing a key role in the decision to alter and remove the sculptures.

On top of this, since the sculptures were commissioned, Rioux, who lives in another municipality an hour away, has struck up a romantic relationship with Cloridorme's mayor.

She has had to recuse herself during all municipal discussions on the matter.

It's been very ugly for her, Rioux said.

"The fact that she is muzzled does not create a good climate at work."

Rioux said he would have settled for having the village pay for the paint and other costs of returning the sculptures to their original state.

"I find this completely unacceptable. You know, little villages don't have much of a budget and when I see administrators that squander funds for a court proceeding, that goes against common sense," Rioux said.

"It's the whole population of Cloridorme who pays then."

with files from Martin Toulgoat