Student’s art battle winds up unifying

May 20, 2005
A Palmer High School student who had her art banned from a school exhibit may have the last laugh. Two large paintings of nudes by Courtney Alyn Eichengreen were not allowed in a student art show; those two and a third had to be finished outside school hours, when no other students were present.
None of the pictures would get an “R” rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. But the problem wasn’t nudity and the issue wasn’t censorship, said Palmer’s principal, Karin Reynolds. It was that a friend of Eichengreen’s had posed for the photographs from which Eichengreen painted. “Courtney’s artwork is phenomenal,” Reynolds said. “But we’re not going to hang pictures of our students nude.” The subject of the photos was not identified. Eichengreen chose the human form as the subject of her Palmer High School International Baccalaureate senior art project. The program requires the student to complete 12 works in his or her senior year. Her first nine paintings weren’t of nudes. The problems began in March, when Eichengreen, who had been painting at home, brought in the 10th canvas — a large, copper-colored acrylic of a woman folded over herself against a black background. “The art teachers really liked it,” Eichengreen said, but one teacher warned her, “I don’t know if we can enter it in any shows.” The reaction was chillier a few days later when Eichengreen brought in the 11th painting, a more sensuous rendering of a crouching woman. As in the previous piece, the figure’s face and breasts were partly visible. The pieces were locked away, where Eichengreen could neither work on them nor show them to her friends. Eichengreen was allowed to work on the 12th and largest painting, in which neither face nor breasts are visible, but only when other students were not present. Meanwhile, Eichengreen’s research workbook, which contained the original photographs, was confiscated and given to the school’s on-site police officer, who passed them to the Police Department’s sex-crimes unit. Aside from the privacy issues involving the subject, it is illegal to bring pornography onto school grounds. Reynolds said such a procedure is unusual but not unheard-of. “We always check when we have questions,” she said. “The Police Department said they were OK.” For a couple of weeks in March and April, the paintings were in limbo, which could have had serious ramifications for Eichengreen. Her International Baccalaureate portfolio was due April 15. The degree would enable her to enter the University of Colorado at Boulder next fall as a sophomore. Eichengreen’s mother, Jody Alyn, said she is unhappy with the way the school handled the situation. “When we repress everything, kids can’t tell the difference between exploitation and exploration,” she said. “That’s where the principal really fell down.” Reynolds defended the school’s handling of the case. “This was a very unique situation,” she said. “You can’t make everyone happy.” Eichengreen’s story has a happy ending. After the police signed off on her art, she was allowed to finish the paintings in time to get her International Baccalaureate degree. She’ll attend CU-Boulder in the fall on a full scholarship as a chemical and biological engineering major. The Smokebrush Foundation, a downtown gallery, is going to display her banned works. And she’s already had four-figure offers for them. Though she described the experience as stressful, Eichengreen said she was heartened by some of the support she received, including praise from District 11 school board member Craig Cox, a conservative. “That was cool,” Eichengreen said. “People we thought we didn’t agree with on anything came out to support us. The art was a unifying thing.” Eichengreen’s banned works will be on display at the Smokebrush Foundation from May 29 to June 22, with a formal opening reception June 10 from 5 to 8 p.m.
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