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Censorship? Not at GMU

University officials decide to let controversial painting in an on-campus art exhibit stay on the walls.

Jessica Clements faced pregnancy with uncertainty and intrigue. She wanted to actually see what her body was about to go through, but the only images she found sugarcoated the experience.

Clements, a graduate art student at George Mason University, decided to paint her own version of childbirth. She wanted other women experiencing similar emotions to see a "healthy, natural and beautiful" image of birth.

"It started out as a personal explanation," she said. "I realized I wasn’t the only person afraid of this."

But when her painting ended up on the walls of a GMU building as part of a student art exhibit, some passersby didn’t think the image was in a healthy location, said Dan Walsch, a GMU spokesperson. Mason Hall is an art gallery, but it also houses faculty offices. Several people who walked through the atrium where the painting hangs complained to university officials about its graphic nature, he said.

Three women who work in the building said that while they’re open to artistic expression, they believe the painting belongs in buildings like the Johnson Center or specifically designated art galleries, not in a hallway where children might potentially walk by it.

The painting is done in a beautiful renaissance technique, said Paula Crawford, the instructor of the graduate art seminar. Clements used indirect painting with a dry brush and then glazed it over with color, she said.

"It’s a very traditionally painted painting, but the subject matter is very, very graphic," said Crawford.

The painting shows a breech-position baby’s feet dangling from a naked woman’s vagina. Clements said her intent is not to offend anyone, but to depict childbirth in a realistic way.

"The painting wasn’t hung with the intent of upsetting anybody," said Clements. "I think the people who are uncomfortable, they’re adults, they should be able to deal with it."

University officials faced a decision: move the painting to another location, remove it completely or leave it where it is throughout the remainder of the exhibit, which ends Friday, April 13.

"Most pieces of art are designed to be enjoyable; stimulating; provocative," said Walsch. "Everyone has different taste; that’s the nature of the beast."

LAST WEEK, Tom Hennessey, the chief of staff to the president of the university and the building manager of Mason Hall, met with Clements and Crawford. Hennessey struggled with the decision, said Clements, since the "gallery" also serves as office space, causing some people to inadvertently walk through when they might otherwise choose not to view the artwork.

"It’s a funny space," said Crawford. "It’s listed as a gallery … but it’s open. To get to the offices, you have to walk through this [gallery] space."

The other two galleries on GMU’s Fairfax campus are more traditional, she said. The issue turned more into whether the location was appropriate, rather than whether the painting itself was deemed appropriate.

"We’re not in the censorship business," said Walsch. "We do advocate free speech and look for any way we can to support that."

Hennessey ultimately decided to let the painting stay where it is and told Clements the university would use the controversy as a learning experience for future exhibits. He said in an e-mail that the university would acknowledge the concerns brought to its attention and also admit there is a misunderstanding about what is displayed in Mason Hall.

"I’m ecstatic," said Clements.

Hennessey met with art students, Tuesday, April 10, and told them the building would continue to serve as a gallery space, but student should think about what’s appropriate for that space. He suggested that all artists should provide a personal statement about any work that might be difficult to understand, said Clements. That way, Hennessey could distribute the statement along with the university’s policies on the gallery space to anyone with a complaint. Clements recently provided an artist statement about her painting so people can better understand why she painted it and what it symbolizes.

Artwork hangs in a number of buildings on campus, said Walsch. A controversial piece is very uncommon, he said, but the university looks at each situation on a case-by-case basis to determine what is best "to help students learn and grow."

Clements said she is considering painting a collection of similar works for her thesis project. She used this painting as a test, and said she still wants to use her work to help break the taboo of childbirth. She has photographs that she’s collected from midwives, and wants to use them as inspiration for her paintings.

"It’s kind of a grotesque thought: a child passing between your legs," said Clements. "I was trying to come to terms with that."

Editor's note: To view Clements' painting, follow the link below.