by Mack Liederman and Nick Lawrie
From Fox News to nj.com to Facebook, it’s the story that turned a local art show into a national discussion. Last week’s Westfield District Art Show controversy saw students’ depictions of a prominent current issue turn into a debate over the extent of free speech.
It started with a graphic design class continuing a long-standing tradition. For the seventh year, Art Teacher Mr. Roy Chambers’ graphic design classes have created a display titled “Controversial Topics,” which appeared in this year’s annual art show. This installation consisted of three student-selected current issues featuring varying perspectives through artistic expression. The topics chosen were modern technology, gender equality and police brutality.
Images from the section titled “Law Enforcement—Police Brutality” quickly became the focus of a wave of unexpected attention. The silk screen pieces included a man being stabbed by a police badge, a black officer choking a white man and an officer pointing a gun at a crowd.
One student’s statement below his work read, “The message that I am trying to convey is how some police officers have spilled the blood of many innocent people.”
All district students, parents and art show visitors were able to view those images. On the last day of the art show, those images went viral, sparking a heated discussion among officers, citizens and students across the nation.
Edward Kelly, a former police officer in Livingston, left one of many negative reviews on the Westfield High School Facebook page, saying that the school “has done a disservice to everyone who has worn a badge and has placed their life in jeopardy for others. Shame on you…[for] depicting false versions of police brutality.” In the last week, almost 500 comments have been left on the page, and “Westfield High School” has been listed as the number one trending topic locally on Facebook.
Negative reactions have not just been isolated to the internet. On the May 14 broadcast of Fox News’ The Five, host Eric Bolling called for the exhibit to be taken down, saying, “Hey, I get the idea of free speech. But teachers at Westfield, would you do it? Would you put up an art exhibit showing teachers abusing students? I don’t think you’d do it, nor should you have done that.”
WHS Student Resource Officer Mr. Jeff Johnson declined to comment, and Westfield Police Chief Mr. David Wayman was unavailable at press time.
In response to the controversy, Principal Mr. Peter Renwick issued a statement exclusively to Hi’s Eye,
“Over the last few days, I have had many conversations with parents, teachers, community members and students about the student artwork being discussed on the news and social media. These have been fruitful and productive conversations. I have heard the views of some who believe this controversial artwork could have been presented with clearer information about the educational goals of the assignment. We are examining ways in which we can address the format of our presentations in the future. In each and every conversation, I have been sure to stress that our school community respects the good work of police officers across the country and we value the positive and productive relationship we have with the Westfield Police Department.
I am disappointed that much misinformation has been reported through social media related to our recent Westfield Art Show. I understand that the topics of Law Enforcement and the recent and rare incidents of police brutality in the news are difficult topics to address, but we support our students’ right to express their opinions on these and other controversial topics. The assignment given our students was instructionally sound; this assignment invited students to express a variety of perspectives through their artwork on controversial and topical issues of their choosing. The misunderstandings propagated in the media reveal how often some in our society rush to judgment without taking time to ask appropriate questions or gather relevant facts. The process of gathering information, evaluating different viewpoints, and asking meaningful questions is exactly what we ask our students to do on a daily basis as part of our curriculum. My hope is that the young adults in our building know that art can foster meaningful conversations with productive outcomes.”
Throughout the past week, some of the artists have defended their work. “Our intent is not to offended or hurt anyone but rather [to] state an issue,” said junior artist Marius Cheneken. Another junior, Kayla McMillan said: “It upsets me that there are people out there that don't let other opinions be heard. This is the reason we did this piece...not because we wanted to shut out police.” McMillan added, “No one taught us [to be] against cops.”
Many WHS students and alumni have left supportive messages for WHS on Facebook in response to negative comments left on the page.
Chambers said he stands behind his students’ right to self-expression. He said,“Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I fully support my students’ opinions and their right to express themselves through their artwork...We didn’t think it would have offended as many people as it did.”
In a statement released May 15, Superintendent Dr. Margaret Dolan wrote:
“I have worked closely with law enforcement for over 20 years and have the utmost respect for the men and women who put themselves on the line each day to keep our communities safe. Our schools support and respect our police department and law enforcement officers. We work cooperatively on a daily basis with the police department and will continue to do so.
Our 2 ½ day district art show, which featured hundreds of pieces of artwork created by students in kindergarten through twelfth grade, is now closed. The art project in question included drawings and captions depicting different viewpoints on a current controversial issue which was chosen by a small group of students. The teacher was attempting to encourage the students to look at more than one side of an issue. One student, for example, had drawn a poster he had seen online during the unrest in another state. The student then wrote his observation that people often rush to judgment before hearing what the real story is.
I am sorry that information that has been passed along via social media and elsewhere has not told the entire story and has led some to believe that we do not respect law enforcement. We do, and we are teaching our students to do the same.”
BOE member Mr. Brendan Galligan told nj.com, “I believe the display to be in bad taste, but I wouldn't go so far as to say it, or something similar, should ever be banned in the future.”
Supervisor of Visual Arts Dr. Linda King said, “Please know that I have respect for law enforcement and appreciate all they do for our community, our state and our country.” She added that she also believes in art’s power to teach and inspire.
Chambers called an open forum on Tuesday to discuss the controversy with his students, as well as with King and Renwick. At the meeting, Renwick, Chambers and King supported the students’ work and their right to freedom of speech. Chambers said he will keep the “Controversial Issues” project going for as long as his students remain interested in it.
After a student told the forum that people online and in the media were attacking Chambers unfairly, Chambers told his students, “I need to do a better job of preparing you to be attacked.”
Renwick praised the students for how they handled the controversy. He said, “It always makes me proud when the students are a shining example, and it makes me sad when the adults [online] are not.”
King called a private meeting of her own with the art staff, to be held this Wednesday. Her goal, she said, was to “reflect on, review and discuss this year's reactions and future displays with [the] art staff.”
At Tuesday’s forum, King concluded that the controversy at hand was the product of social media. “The issues we are facing are because we are being viewed through this,” King said as she held up a cell phone to the room of students.