North Oldham High School students sound off on controversial artwork display

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Amanda Tu

art
The controversial artwork hangs on a window in a North Oldham English class. Photo courtesy Dave Hamblin.

Even before a parent raised concerns about a controversial student-made work hanging in his daughter’s classroom, North Oldham High School (NOHS) students responded to the drawing with mixed reactions.

The piece depicts a hooded Ku Klux Klan member pointing a gun at a black man alongside a drawing of a modern-day police officer raising a gun at a black teenager. The former image is labelled “1930” with a Confederate flag under it, while the latter is marked “2015” and features an American flag.

“This Honors English class read the Pulitzer Prize Winning book, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ by Harper Lee, and were supposed to do art, based on the book,” North Oldham High School parent Dave Hamblin said in a public Facebook post Tuesday night.

“The book is a beautiful piece of art describing social and familial dilemmas of the early 1900s, and has NOTHING to do with the hatred filled propaganda coming from some in this country today,” wrote Hamblin, who is an officer with the Louisville Metro Police Department. “The ‘art’ is not from a student in the class, it was from a student last year and the teacher liked it so much she placed it back on the wall.”

In an interview with WDRB, Oldham County Schools spokeswoman Tracy Green said that the district would leave the decision about whether or not to remove the artwork up to the teacher. The work, along with the other examples from the same assignment, were ultimately taken down on Friday after completion of the project.

North Oldham senior Meg O’Brien said that she believes the drawing should be left on display, though she respects Hamblin’s right to express his concerns about the piece on social media.

“I think that it’s fine up because I think art is a way to express yourself,” she said. “The art was based off of the book ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ so if this student thinks that the work portrays what she’s thinking about the situation, then it should stay up. I don’t think the art should be censored, but I also don’t think the police officer should be censored in expressing his opinion about it too. Because of the profession he’s in, he has every right to feel that the picture should not be up.”

O’Brien added that the controversy surrounding the teacher’s decision to leave the work hanging sparked widespread debate among her classmates.

“I don’t know how much was different at school, but it was a really big discussion,” she said. “People were talking a lot more about how they felt about the issue and what they thought the picture portrayed.”

Kelsey Moore, also a North Oldham senior, said that the majority of her friends believed the controversy surrounding the artwork had been blown out of proportion.

“We were all really confused,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday evening. “There were really few kids who thought it should be taken down [or who] thought that it was offensive. Basically, the general attitude was that it’s not breaking any rules. It’s freedom of expression which is what artwork is supposed to be… All the attention it’s been getting is really confusing to us.”

A freshman student currently in the class where the drawing is being displayed said that about half of his classmates believed that the work should be removed.

“It’s about 50-50,” said the student, who wished to remain anonymous. “We have some pretty conservative kids who believe that it should be taken down, while some other people believe that it should be up there.”

The student also said that he personally believed the work should remain public, since it serves as an example for current students working on the “To Kill a Mockingbird” project.

“I don’t think it should be taken down because the reason why it’s up isn’t a political message,” he said. “It’s simply an example of something from last year. This is is simply what was going on last year because when this painting was made, Ferguson had just happened.”

Another North Oldham freshman who also wished to remain anonymous recently completed the same “To Kill a Mockingbird” assignment in a different English class and said that she believes leaving the work on display does send a negative message.

“I think they should take it down,” she said. “I think the whole idea of generalizing someone like that is wrong, and it’s sending the wrong message.”

The student also said that the artwork expressed the sole opinion of its creator, and that “the school doesn’t teach that type of ideology.”

Manual teacher Ms. Alesia Williams (English) said that she believes the work in question is an example of satire, and that it should be displayed, accompanied by some explanation to provide appropriate context.

“When I look at that poster, it seems to me to be satire,” she said. “Although it’s a hard thing to look at, a lot of satire is difficult to look at and offends a lot of people. The job of satire is to make a change in society by drawing attention to something that’s wrong. Even though it’s shocking, I would have to say, as a teacher, leave it up. I would want to ask my administration to let me leave it up. I would hope it would start a conversation about why people are so offended … I think you would need context to hang this poster, which would either be an explanation with it or it would need to be hung with other work that came from the same project. People need context to be able to understand where it came from and what it’s purpose was.”

The artwork was, in fact, displayed alongside several other examples of student work from the same assignment.

Williams said that over the course of her teaching career, she’s only made the decision not to publically display student work when it was overtly sexual in nature.

“I have only ever had a trouble displaying a student’s work because it was lascivious in nature,” she said. “I think questions about racism are appropriate for high school students … The only time I haven’t asked a student to display their artwork is when they are just trying to be shocking in order to get a rise out of people. Most of the time they are doing it very knowingly, and they hope I don’t catch on.”

Though RedEye was able to contact the student who created the artwork in question, they declined an interview. RedEye was unable to reach both Hamblin and the English teacher who displayed the work in their classroom after multiple requests for comment.