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Abstract genitalia get room of their own

Ashland High School senior Colette Paré Miller will show her abstract paintings of the male and female genitalia at tonight's First Friday art walk, but they will be in a separate room and manned by a monitor to make sure children can't see them.

Saying they were not appropriate for students to view, Ashland School District officials insisted the large abstract works should be away from the public viewing area of student art at the Briscoe Art Wing in the former Briscoe Elementary School, which the district leases out to artists.

"When I painted them in class, there was as positive reaction. People thought they were beautiful," said Miller. "I don't think they are pornographic. They have all those colors. I didn't do them to scare anyone, but I did want to paint something controversial. I wanted people to be able to understand that a taboo subject can be presented in a beautiful way."

The pictures were viewed at Briscoe by AHS business manager Pam Lucas, who said, "Several administration officials didn't feel they were appropriate to be in the main hallway. Lithia Arts Guild (the consortium of 27 artists in Briscoe Art Wing) does classes for our children. We asked that they be in a separate room with a disclaimer on the door, so people who see them will be making a choice to see them."

The blank space on the hallway wall where the pictures were originally hung will be emblazoned with a "censored" banner put up by Miller. Her first reaction was that all or none of her art should be shown, she said, and she was set to take it to Nuwandart on A Street, noted for its edgy, alternative showings.

Miller finally heeded the advice of Briscoe Wing artists who told her the old saying was true: For an artist there's no such thing as bad publicity, except your own obituary — and decided to leave the art, separated, on display where it was. Tom Kane, a fellow artist in whose studio the paintings will hang, contacted the media seeking coverage of the controversy.

Making the display especially inappropriate, said Lucas, was the fact that the Ashland Middle School band will be playing at the Briscoe art walk tonight.

"I understand how people are worried about the middle school kids seeing a penis and vagina and how scary that could be," said Miller, "but I just feel cheated out of something because I was the only one censored."

Kane objected to a high school business officer serving as an arbiter of what's artistic, noting, "There's nothing immoral about this showing of body parts. This is 2008, not 1808. I told Colette to let the world know the stand she took and leave the art here."

Jim Young, chairman of the Lithia Arts Guild, said, "I'm fine with the art. It's an abstract penis and vagina. The (Ashland Gallery Association)

[see correction below] didn't realize these controversial paintings were among her works when they assigned her to show here. We understand about the children (coming to the showing) and we will monitor the door (to Kane's studio). The school district must be politically neutral. They are responding to parents who were irate in the past, I'm sure."

The Ashland Gallery Association organizes the First Friday art walk program.

The works were also banned from the high school's Winter Arts Festival in January, deleted from this week's Rogue News (the high school paper) and from the yearbook, Miller said.

"It's kind of unfair," said Adom Balcom, an AHS senior who works on the paper. "That people would be offended is ridiculous."

The young artist's mother, Gerry Paré, an AHS orchestra teacher, said "I'm very proud of my daughter and proud to hang her art on the walls at home."

Miller's art teacher, Mark Schoenleber, termed her a "sophisticated, amazing and pretty driven" art student and said, "it's not so much that the art is inappropriate but that hanging it in a school district building is inappropriate. It's really unfortunate. They're abstract, not pornographic. It's just a kid expressing her creativity."

Miller said her approach to the paintings is inspired by the American artist Georgia O'Keefe and is intended to "make people freak out in a beautiful way with subject matter they're obviously not comfortable with." She didn't think small children, if they did recognize the abstract images, would "have a problem" with it — and that while such art might be a problem in other places, "I thought Ashland would be encouraging, because it's open to all art forms and creativity."

Miller graduates from AHS in June and plans to study art and psychology in college.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

CORRECTION: A quote from Jim Young in an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the group that organizes the First Friday art walk. This version has been corrected.

Artist Colette Paré Miller objects to having her two abstract nude paintings partitioned from the main viewing area of the Briscoe Art Wing during Ashland’s First Friday art walk. - Bob Pennell