Art students at Palmer High School are claiming censorship after school officials covered up an annual art show.
Over the last year, 16 students in the International Baccalaureate program at Palmer High School have worked diligently to make sure their year-end art show was ready for display. Their works -- a mix of paintings, drawings and sculptures -- went on display earlier this month in the school's upper commons area -- the school's main lobby.
Despite some graphic elements, most students accepted the work -- until one school visitor didn't.
This week, the school, citing that people using the school had no choice to opt out of the show, placed a red paper barrier around the works before later taking them down.
Students are claiming censorship, while Palmer principal Reese Everett calls that characterization “inaccurate.”
“For a variety of things, an issue arose out of respect for individuals that might use facilities in the evening,” Everett said. “They didn't have a chance to have the option of viewing the works or not viewing the works because of where the display is located.”
Everett said he and the school district worked to come to a solution that included moving the show to the school's library -- an area where people could make a conscious decision to subject themselves to the show's controversial elements, which include depictions of nudity, homosexual relationships, school violence, gender/transgender identity and cultural taboos.
A 'show' not a 'seclusion'
But students are saying their First Amendment rights are being violated.
“We worked all year for this,” said junior Lindsey Barbee, “This is not an art seclusion, this is an art show.
“We deserve an explanation, we don't deserve to be shoved in a corner somewhere.”
The show itself isn't anything new for Palmer High School. It's part of the school's International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program -- an educational program designed to help students prepare for college that Palmer High has participated in for the last 11 years. The program prides itself as giving students a balanced, comprehensive education. Art is a critical component.
As part of a IB visual arts course, students must create a body of work, documenting the process and influences, with the entire process culminating in a public art show.
That show went up on April 5 with little outcry. According to Palmer High Art Instructor Shelli Franckowiak, issues over the show arose when a parent who attended a basketball awards event earlier in the week was offended by some of the imagery in the show and emailed the principal, school district superintendent and local lawmakers.
By Wednesday the red paper was up surrounding the exhibition. By Thursday students learned they had two options -- either move the show to library or take the art down.
Students, upset, went with the latter option, but placed posters in place of their art in demonstration.
“The protest was to bring awareness that we aren't going to go down without a fight and we deserve to have our voices heard,” Barbee said.
'A strong message'
Franckowiak noted students get to decide the content of their work. While many of them connect studio pieces to a common theme of their own choosing, the IB program does not limit what students create.
“Their art is so personal, it's essentially extensions of them as people,” Franckowiak said. “To censor them or to put it in a less popular space, is sending a strong message to who these are as kids.”
Junior Jordan Brooke's 6-foot-long drawing of a AR-15 rifle was inspired by the slew of recent mass shootings in the U.S., in particular, the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. She created the work to promote awareness, not violence. Brooke has a 7-year-old sister, and the deaths of 26 students deeply affected her.
Brooke was disappointed that instead of talking to students, administrators were quick to react to works by covering them up.
“Art is not an argument, we want to deal with (the censorship) in the most professional way,” Brooke said. “It's really hard to not be angry, especially with them saying they don't want it without talking to us.”
Artist Lee Post, best known for his “Your Square Life” comic, was one of a handful of professional artists who offered to help with the students' year-end portfolio review.
He said it was clear from talking to students that their artwork was reflective of the influences they absorbed in their research and things they felt passionate about.
“Some of their work included nudity and some had images of violence, but it was all done with purpose and not simply to shock or see what they could get away with,” he wrote.
It's not the first time the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District has dealt with controversial art in its schools. Last year, administrators at Wasilla High School placed a tarp over a statue commissioned as part of the state's One Percent for Art program after some complained it resembled female genitalia. The tarp was eventually removed, and the statue still stands at the entrance to Sarah Palin's alma mater.
Franckowiak said she discussed the Wasilla incident with her students last year as a lesson in censorship. She was disappointed that it hit close to home this year.
“The bigger question mark is what precedent does it set?” she said. “As an educator that is my big question. What is OK in our English classes for students to read? What masterworks can I show with my art history students? Where does it stop?”
The Palmer High students will still get their show, as they've been allowed put the works back up in their original spot for an opening Friday night from 6 to 8 p.m.
Where the show will go from there is unclear. But for Barbee and the rest of the students, it's been a first-hand lesson in the power of ideas.
“It's extremely unacceptable and it's violating the right of artists,” she said. “Administrators are completely disregarding (the First Amendment) and doing what one person thought was right.”
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com