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With morality in mind, D-11 rips "controversial" works from student show

click to enlarge Fountain Valley School senior Addie Greens painting, - Dismantled Stereotype, was not allowed in this years - District 11-sponsored Young Peoples Art Exhibition - because it includes an image associated with gay pride. - REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
  • Reprinted with permission
  • Fountain Valley School senior Addie Greens painting, Dismantled Stereotype, was not allowed in this years District 11-sponsored Young Peoples Art Exhibition because it includes an image associated with gay pride.

Addie Green wasn't looking to blow anyone's mind. She wasn't looking for a fight, or to create a tempest.

She was seeking to examine, even challenge, human biases. And she seems to have succeeded.

This year, Green, a senior at Fountain Valley School, created an enormous painting; it is the first of 10 in a series as part of her advanced art program at the prominent private school. The painting, called "Dismantled Stereotype," is 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide, and shows a high-school football player standing in front of a pickup truck.

"You're assaulted with this image, that this is a very large, obvious stereotype," Green says. "You make assumptions about this person, but the more you look at the piece, the more you notice something to throw off the assumption."

On the truck is a football-shaped bumper sticker, maybe 3 inches wide, in the colors of the rainbow.

The piece was impressive enough to help Green be named a "Wunderkind," one of 12 area art students invited to show their work at the Business of Art Center in Manitou Springs. But when Green's art teacher, Jeff Brown, entered "Dismantled Stereotype" in the region's largest student art show, the Young People's Art Exhibition, the painting was met with a chilly reception.

Brown recounts his exchange with a Palmer High School art teacher who was a member of the selection committee. "[He] looked at it and said, "Is that a gay pride sticker?' I said, "Yes,' and explained the contradictory role. [He] said, "We can't have that it's a reference to a gay issue.'

"I said, "Don't you get it?'"

"Dismantled Stereotype" was deemed too controversial, and banned from the April show. A second Fountain Valley School entry, a portrait of a homeless man, soon followed. Called "Falling Ash," the piece was made by a student who had spent a lot of time with the homeless, capturing the gritty life of the streets. The man was smoking a cigarette.

"[The judge] said, "No, no, no, no tobacco use,'" Brown says. "I said, "This isn't exactly promoting tobacco use. It's not a glamour thing.' She said, "It doesn't matter.'"

A third Fountain Valley piece was also deemed unacceptable. It was a portrait, manipulated from a photograph, of a young Sudanese girl, maybe 12 years old. The artist had wanted to put a face to, and make a statement about, the genocide in Darfur. The committee, Brown says, wanted to know how closely the image had been copied from the original photograph, which the artist had gotten off the Internet.

"I said, "What is she supposed to do, go to Sudan?'" Brown says. "Portrait artists work from photographs, and [the student] manipulated the photo to use for her own painting. She is a student artist engaging in important events, not just painting an eagle or a vase of flowers ..."

In solidarity of protest, the Fountain Valley students decided to pull a fourth piece of artwork from this year's Young People's Art Exhibition.

"It's unfortunate it had to happen that way," says Green, the student artist. "I was surprised, and a little frustrated because I thought the message was benign. In a way, it's a little backwards. I think art is supposed to be a commentary, and was frustrated this piece was not allowed to create a dialogue.

"It's a little shocking [that] it could be an issue. I'm not showing nudity or burning the American flag, nothing that powerful."

click to enlarge This portrait of a homeless man, called Falling Ash, was - banned from the student art show because the man is - smoking a cigarette. - REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
  • Reprinted with permission
  • This portrait of a homeless man, called Falling Ash, was banned from the student art show because the man is smoking a cigarette.

Art criticism

In all, 10 pieces of student art were banned from the Young People's Art Exhibition this year up from a single censored entry last year. An official from School District 11, which sponsors the event in conjunction with the Kennedy Center Imagination Celebration, maintains that the judges who banned the artwork were only following D-11's rules that prohibit controversial subject matter a broad category that includes everything from weapons to nudity to "alternative lifestyles" (see box, page 18).

The exhibition, which celebrated its 44th anniversary this year, is the longest-running area art show for students, not just from D-11, but from schools throughout the region.

Fountain Valley School headmaster Jack Creeden points out that District 11 officials have the prerogative to set their own rules. "It's their show; they can do that," he says. Students from Fountain Valley with a rich history of the arts have the ability to show across the country, often in famous venues, including the Parsons School of Design in New York.

"Our students are quite capable, and we're happy to exhibit our work in places where we meet the criteria for evaluation," Creeden says.

Other students, however, don't always have that option. And many longtime area high school art teachers cite a convergence of various factors that they say stifles creative expression.

Among their criticisms: This year, the individuals who accepted or banned the submissions were overzealous and seemingly completely subjective in rejecting student artwork. Some pieces were banned outright; others were treated with suspicion. There was no formal system to record rejections, or to report why a piece was rejected.

In addition, while most teachers and school officials appreciate Imagination Celebration's donating space for the show for the past three years, that space is in The Citadel mall. Not only does such a high-traffic, family-oriented location simply turn some people off, it also has the potential to limit the range of "acceptable" creative expression. The exhibition formerly was held at the Fine Arts Center.

Finally, some teachers maintain that D-11 officials are scared to death of area fundamentalists a vocal minority who might complain that a nude painting is pornography, or that a rainbow flag signals sympathy for the "gay agenda."

That's a problem for which officials should blame themselves, some say.

"They seem to have a problem that is entirely self-created," says Michael Cellan, who has taught art at Manitou Springs High School for 42 years. "Once you let people tell you what to do, then you can't go back."

While critical of D-11's timidity in dealing with potentially controversial artwork, several teachers and school administrators interviewed for this story agree that the sponsoring organization has the right to set its own contest rules.

Since the controversy began over a month ago, Brown, with the support of 10 to 12 other area art teachers, has hatched a plan to organize a separate art show, conducted independently from any D-11 supervision or oversight, to highlight student works.

The Smokebrush Gallery, just west of downtown, has already agreed to provide the space; Brown hopes to have the new venture in place for an exhibition next year.

"We would love to be the venue," says Julie Cole, the gallery and administrative director at Smokebrush. "The goal ... is to give young people who are serious abut their art a place to express that without censorship not to be where anything goes, but finding a way to let them create art and what's on their minds."

"It's a travesty'

click to enlarge D-11 art show organizers disallowed this portrait - because it was manipulated from a photograph of a - young Sudanese girl. - REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
  • Reprinted with permission
  • D-11 art show organizers disallowed this portrait because it was manipulated from a photograph of a young Sudanese girl.

Yet the message that student artists in Colorado Springs must work within increasingly rigid guidelines has some wondering whether the region's premier student art exhibition can retain its prominence.

The show is currently the area's largest, and many participating students are vying for scholarship money from schools like Colorado College, the Art Institute of Colorado and the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design.

"The censorship keeps getting tighter and tighter," says Judith McKay, an art teacher at Coronado High School, which had two submissions rejected from the show this year. Art, she says, ranges from the pretty to the profound, and is always open to interpretation. "How nitpicky do you want to get?"

Floyd Tunson, a highly respected former Palmer High art teacher who retired five years ago, doesn't mince words when asked his opinion.

"It used to be such a great program when it was at the FAC, but then they started coming up with all kinds of criteria for students' work," Tunson says. "It seemed so restrictive, it was like a church program. I'm glad I'm not a part of it. It's a travesty."

Tom Fleecs, the D-11 administrator who oversees arts instruction districtwide and who has been coordinating the Young People's Art Exhibition for eight years, says restrictions in content in the students' artwork stem directly from the written policy dealing with controversial issues. The 10 pieces that were rejected this year, he adds, were incorrectly matted, deemed not to be original enough, or too controversial.

Teachers who had any questions about whether a piece might be accepted were supposed to call ahead of time this year, but didn't, Fleecs says.

"This is the most controversy we've ever had," Fleecs says. "If anything, we erred on being too consistent.

"This is not easy in any way."

Yet Manitou High art teacher Cellan calls the restrictions "ridiculously stupid." If artwork can be banned because it looks gay, or includes a cigarette, at what point does subjectivity reach the ranks of the absurd?

One of the pieces in this year's Young People's Art Exhibition, for example, was almost banned; it contained an image of a crab nebula. One of the judges thought it looked like a pair of breasts and recommended rejecting it from the show. The artwork was eventually allowed.

"They say, "Please use appropriate stuff.' Well, what's appropriate? Who decides?" Cellan asks. "You can look at anything and see anything; I call it the face on Mars."

Though Cellan's students have participated in the District 11 show in the past, this year they did not. Rather, Cellan encouraged his students to compete in the Tri-Peaks League art show, which attracted 13 Colorado schools.

The Tri-Peaks League's Best in Show winner this year is called "Battling Difference," created by Manitou Springs High School senior Stephanie Krupka. The artwork shows the forms of two breasts; Cellan has no doubt that it would have been banned from the D-11 show.

Another piece in the Tri-Peaks League show was a still life. It includes images of a bottle of glue, as well as a razor blade. Can't glue be sniffed? And razor blades used to cut up cocaine?

Cellan continues: Should the scenes of accidents be shown? Or graveyards with obituaries? Should a cowboy with a gun be censored? District 11 has a rule that stipulates no weapons are allowed, but what kind of cowboy doesn't carry a gun?

click to enlarge Manitou Springs High School Michael Cellan, next to a - piece of student artwork on permanent display in the - school library. The piece was entered in the Young - Peoples Art Exhibition several years ago; Cellan insists - theres no way the artwork would be accepted into a D - -11 show today. - L'AURA MONTGOMERY-RUTT
  • L'Aura Montgomery-Rutt
  • Manitou Springs High School Michael Cellan, next to a piece of student artwork on permanent display in the school library. The piece was entered in the Young Peoples Art Exhibition several years ago; Cellan insists theres no way the artwork would be accepted into a D -11 show today.

Tobacco is currently forbidden. What if the artwork includes a cup of coffee, which contains addictive caffeine?

Or, "What if a guy is standing there with his hand in his pocket? What is he doing?" Cellan asks.

Fleecs concedes that the slope seems slippery. For example, if a piece of art is banned, how should he respond when he learns that a student is dressing provocatively and using a cigarette as a prop in a high-school play?

"You know the community we live in, and it's come down on us hard, where we're being scrutinized for everything we do," he says.

For Cellan, the answer is easy.

"Nobody's angry at District 11," says Cellan. "I understand that schools are scared to death. It's up to the administration to say, "It's just a piece of art.' "

"Weirder and weirder'

Art and controversy have been inseparable ever since, as Cellan puts it, some human etched a cow with a penis on a cave wall.

District 11 experienced its own "Guernica" last year, when Palmer High senior Courtney Alyn Eichengreen produced a series of nudes, based on photographs of a friend who had agreed to be her model. The artwork contained no frontal nudity and the model, by most accounts, was unrecognizable.

Eichengreen says she initially had full permission from her teachers to proceed with her project. Over time, things got "weirder and weirder." At varying points, she was told she could not work on the three oil paintings during school hours she had to go to the school at night. The works were not allowed to remain in the studio space at the school; officials insisted they be stored in a closet, face-down, against a wall.

Eichengreen eventually was ordered to remove her works from the school entirely. Then-principal Karin Reynolds ultimately confiscated the student's sketchbook, and turned it over to the Colorado Springs Police Department's sex crimes unit. The unrecognizable model, it turned out, was an underage fellow student, leading school administrators to conclude that the authorities needed to be called.

Eichengreen's nude was banned from the Young People's Art Exhibition, but several members of the school board jumped to the young artist's defense, including Sandy Shakes, Willie Breazell and Craig Cox, who works as an investigator for Eichengreen's mother's lawyer.

The conflict and resulting publicity led to a special showing of Eichengreen's artwork at the Smokebrush Gallery. Eichengreen, who just finished her freshman year at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has traveled to San Antonio, Texas, among other places, to lecture students and others about her censorship experience.

"More than anything, I'm still angry about it," Eichengreen said last week. "It just felt so personal, and so fear-driven."

Eichengreen's mother, Jody Alyn, notes that fear usually leads people to make "the worst possible decisions."

"We're dealing with a much larger issue, with repression and whether we're creating an environment where [teenagers] end up with distorted ideas of sex and sexuality and body image," Alyn says. "Do we want them to instead explore all of this on the Internet?"

click to enlarge Coronado High School senior Kayla Ormandys Self- - Portrait was banned this year because judges thought - the female image portrayed within the tree looked naked - which was news to the artist. - L'AURA MONTGOMERY-RUTT
  • L'Aura Montgomery-Rutt
  • Coronado High School senior Kayla Ormandys Self- Portrait was banned this year because judges thought the female image portrayed within the tree looked naked which was news to the artist.

The naked tree

This year, Kayla Ormandy, a senior at Coronado High School, was excited when her teacher selected her painting, "Self-Portrait," as one of the school's four entries in the Young People's Art Exhibition. In the self-portrait, Ormandy expressed herself as a tree, shaped like a woman, standing tall and proud, stable and unmovable.

Ormandy's parents and both sets of grandparents were thrilled that her teacher had singled out the painting, and made plans to attend the awards ceremony and opening of the exhibition on April 25.

But then Ormandy learned from her teacher that "Self-Portrait" had been banned; the judges deemed it too controversial. It looked to them like a nude which was news to the artist.

"It's a tree," Ormandy says. "I meant it to be a womanly shape, but I don't think it's naked it has bark on."

And then there was the way the exhibition administrators handled the rejection. The district never formally notified Ormandy, or her parents, why the work had been rejected.

"I've always taught [Kayla] to express herself," says her mom, Amy Keeney. "We've never gotten any explanation at all [for why they banned the artwork], except from her teacher.

"If they can do something like that, then they could at least give us an explanation."

Chip Shaw, an art teacher at Cheyenne Mountain High School, reports that this year the school which also has a well-respected arts program had a clay sculpture of a female nude banned from the show. "I told them it wasn't nude; she had an underglaze on. But they didn't buy it."

Shaw calls the censorship "kind of backward, but not unreasonable."

"I just take it with a grain of salt," he says. "It is sort of closed-minded, but this is Colorado Springs."

Shaw praises District 11 for its sponsorship of the exhibition; after all, putting on the show requires a lot of effort. He is heartened, however, by the idea of a new art show for young people, and also hopes the Fine Arts Center will consider showcasing young local artists at its new space at the Plaza of the Rockies. "It would be a step up from the mall," he says.

As much as this year's dust-up has inspired Fountain Valley School's Brown to create a new venue for youth art, he still dislikes the message that was sent to those who were banned from the show this year. Not all student artists, he says, should be expected to delve into such challenging sociological and political subject matter but those who choose to should be honored and encouraged, not punished.

"These students are choosing to involve themselves in issues homelessness, gay and lesbian issues, genocide. There was nothing in [their] subjects that was objectionable or offensive, not in-your-face, no girls kissing, no drugs or partying.

"This experience was not good for them. They were offended, and I'm sad and embarrassed."

No, no, no...

Guidelines prohibiting "controversial issues" were distributed to parents, teachers and students entering the 44th annual Young People's Art Exhibition. Here is District 11's Fine Arts Division of Instruction's definition of controversy:

"Controversial issues ... are defined as those problems, subjects or questions about which there are significant differences of opinion, for which there are no easy resolutions, and discussion of which generally creates strong feeling among people. Although there may be disagreement over what the facts are and what they mean, subjects usually become controversial issues because of differences in the values people use in applying the facts, or, more specifically, themes of violence (includes any kind of weapons), ethnic biases, religious denigration, alternative lifestyles, nudity, gender or racial biases, bias toward socioeconomic and physically or mentally handicapped populations, and safety and humane treatment of all life. Subjects of drugs, drug paraphernalia or alcohol and gang related [sic] subject matter is also considered controversial."

  • With morality in mind, D-11 rips "controversial" works from student show

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