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http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/showcase/chi-0305100060may10.story

School tries to patch up student art controversy

Wheeling High School officials' response to a student's revealing self-portrait has sparked a schoolwide controversy about censorship

By Colleen Mastony
Tribune staff reporter

May 10, 2003

High school artist Mary Loeffler wanted her self-portrait to make a statement about freedom and women's bodies. Instead, it prompted a schoolwide discussion about age-appropriate art and censorship.

Loeffler, 17, painted a life-size portrait of herself wearing a bright red dress with her left breast exposed. On Wednesday, she hung the painting in the lobby outside the Wheeling High School cafeteria.

Within an hour, administrators asked her to take it down.

"It did disrupt the learning environment," said Principal Dottie Sievert. "It may be a wonderful picture, but it is not appropriate for a school."

On Friday, the painting was back on the wall. Loeffler, a senior who plans to attend the School of the Chicago Art Institute next year, had covered the offending breast with a fluorescent green construction-paper patch--and wore a matching one over her own left breast.

"Censoring me was a ridiculous act, so I countered with an equally ridiculous act," she said.

The painting became the center of controversy at the school Friday as administrators indulged a daylong protest and students decried what they called an act of censorship.

Halls filled with teenagers arguing about free speech. Dozens wore green patches on their chests to support Loeffler. Some boys put patches over their groin area, insisting they were mature enough to appreciate art. Others wore tape with the word "censored" over their mouths.

And, as happens with teenagers, there was lots of talk about breasts. Male students were particularly eager to prove they were experienced in such matters.

"I just think some people really, like, aren't really, like, mature enough to see a woman's chest," said Michael Nixon, 15, a freshman. "Look at `Family Business' [a program on Showtime]. There are breasts on every show!"

Sievert said some students behaved inappropriately when the painting was first hung. She recalled gawking and boys kissing the glass.

She also was concerned about how the painting would affect younger students, including the 100 1st graders who toured the high school Friday morning. And she worried that students from other cultures might be uncomfortable with the painting.

Yet many students were angry the portrait had to be covered.

"It's just ridiculous," said Angie Haban, 15, a sophomore. "What's next? Are they going to start crossing words out of books in the library?"

Students hung signs around the painting: "Self-expression. R.I.P." "Censorship is wrong." "Open your mind."

Along the road in front of the school, about 40 students waved at cars, cheered and held signs that read: "Wheeling Censors Art." A boy with fluorescent orange hair wore a shirt that said, "Self-expression is dead."

Sievert said protesting students were allowed outside as long as they were on the sidewalk, off the grass, not in the road and not skipping class.

Loeffler, who wore all black except for the patch, stood with the protesters. She said she had hung a seminude painting in the school before--but it was abstract--so administrators might not have noticed. "If you looked at it, there [were] two breasts at the top. They were right there!" Loeffler said she assumed seminude paintings were acceptable.

"I thought people here were more honest and accepting. Obviously, they aren't."

Some teenage boys insisted they didn't want to look at a woman's breast. Girls argued for baring it all.

"We don't think she should have to cover it," said Angie Haban. Next to her, Samantha Mozal, 15, a freshman, said the picture wasn't about sex. "It's about vulnerability," Mozal said.

David Lee, 17, a stocky football player, didn't care. "I prefer not to walk by pictures of breasts when I'm walking to class," he said, taking an unpopular position. "The administration has an obligation to create an appropriate learning environment."

Two boys debated in the middle of a crowd.

"First of all, the breast is not a sexual object," said Chris Ranvestel, 18, a senior who was backed up by a throng of girls.

"You can't always hide behind the title of art," shot back Billy Caputo, 18, a senior and baseball player who was quickly outnumbered.

Freshman Robert Skoglund, 15, held a small replica of Michaelangelo's David and questioned why teachers hadn't covered the statue's bare buttocks.

"Sexism," another boy replied.

Watching the protesters outside, Sievert sighed. "This is giving them lots of attention, and they thrive off attention."

Copyright 2003, Chicago Tribune



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