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GSC professor teaches the importance of art as his own work comes under fire

POSTED: February 1, 2011 1:30 a.m.
/For The Times

One of Stanley Bermudez's works, "Heritage?," seen here, was removed from the annual faculty show at Gainesville State College because the imagery was too controversial.

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As an art appreciation professor, Stanley Bermudez does more than teach his students about the differences between a Van Gogh and a Monet.

He also teaches them how to handle their reactions to different works of art.

"I tell my students that they may come across art that they don't like — they may even hate it and that's OK," said Bermudez, an instructor at Gainesville State College.

"If you don't like the way something looks, you don't have to look at it."

As they prepare to move out into the art community, what his students shouldn't do is censor others' artistic expression, Bermudez says.

"When I was growing up in South America, we had the freedom of expression in my country. But when Hugo Chávez came into power, he started manipulating that freedom. Everything from the media to art was being censored," said Bermudez, who is from Venezuela.

"Anyone who made a negative comment about the government ... was being attacked or repressed. I don't agree with that kind of censorship."

As an artist, Bermudez often takes to canvas to express his feelings and thoughts. One of his most recent works, "Heritage?," illustrates what comes to his mind when he thinks of the Confederate flag.

The red flag, with the blue St. Andrew's Cross emblazoned across the front adorned with white stars, was carried onto the battlefield by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. While some people argue that the flag represents Southern heritage and pride, other people — Bermudez included — see it in a less positive light.

"In school (in Venezuela) we learned about the United States' Civil War and slavery. I learned to have a negative view of the flag — I basically associated the image of the flag with slavery, racism and the KKK," said Bermudez.

"In 1983, I was a college student in Texas and saw a group of KKK clansmen in their hooded robes, standing on a street corner yelling and waving the (Confederate) flag. My English was limited at the time, so I'm not sure what they were yelling, but I probably wouldn't want to know.

"It only happened once in the 12 years that I lived there, but that image stuck with me."

For his 7«-foot long painting, Bermudez used the traditional Confederate flag image, but added depictions of a hooded clansmen bearing a flaming torch, a hanging and an angry women in the background of the acrylic painting.

"This is very much what I feel and think about when I see that flag. It's just my personal feelings about it. It's an accumulation of the things I've seen, studied and read over the years," Bermudez said.

"When visiting the KKK website, the (Confederate) flag is used often. Recently, the KKK has had public meetings near (my home), which scares me because of their anti-Latino immigration sentiments.

Although the finished piece is how Bermudez sees the flag, not everyone agrees with his views. Public response to the piece was so strong that Gainesville State's administration asked that the picture be removed from the faculty showing in the Roy C. Moore Art Gallery on the college's Oakwood campus, Bermudez says.

"I wasn't expecting that kind of feedback. I've been an artist for 25 years. I've always known that artwork can be powerful, but I never dreamed it would be this powerful to the point that I would be censored," said Bermudez.

Instead of a painting, his artist's statement explaining what inspired the absent piece is now hanging in the gallery.

The college declined to share with The Times any of the feedback that prompted the removal of the painting; however, at least one "Southern heritage" website described the painting as "despicable" and prompted visitors to contact Martha Nesbitt, the college's president, about the picture. Site administrators even posted her e-mail address and telephone number.

"Even though I don't agree with the decision to take it down, I do respect it," Bermudez said.

"I know if I was in that kind of position, I'd have a difficult time making a decision, because it's a hard one to make."

Although he's working on a companion piece where he hopes to portray some of the more positive aspects of the flag's history, Bermudez says finishing the piece will take a lot of research.

"I'm probably always going to have a negative view of the image, but I have met some people in Georgia who don't agree with me and I plan to have a dialog with them to see their point of view," Bermudez said.

"I always like to show two sides of an argument. Maybe I'll be able to hang both side-by-side and let the audience make up their own mind. Let them decide which one they align themselves with."

 

 



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