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Gainesville State decision sparks silent protest
Controversial artwork was removed from college's faculty show last week
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Stacy Koffman, Gainesville State College professor of art, left, joins Sean Herlihy and students Friday in a silent protest in front of the school's Roy C. Moore Art Gallery. The group was protesting the removal of a piece of artwork from a faculty art show. - photo by SCOTT ROGERS

With black tape stretched over their mouths, several members of the Gainesville State College community stood in silent protest Friday afternoon of what they say is a blatant act of censorship by college administrators.

Last Tuesday, campus officials removed from a faculty show a piece of artwork painted by art appreciation professor Stanley Bermudez.

The piece, titled "Heritage?" depicts a Confederate flag with hooded Klansmen, a lynching and an angry woman in the backdrop.

Bermudez said the art was removed from the gallery by college president Martha Nesbitt without consulting the artist or gallery employees.

In a statement released Friday, Nesbitt said she stands by her decision to remove the art, a decision that "was not based on any one group's agenda, complaint, or the overall content of the painting. It focused solely on the image that has been perceived as aggressively hostile in other areas of the country and other academic institutions - that being the graphic depiction of a lynching."

In an earlier statement, Nesbitt said she considered the "health and reputation of the college" when making her decision.

Many at the protest said they believe the administrations actions were in response to public pressure, namely after negative remarks about Bermudez's artwork were posted on a "Southern Heritage Alerts" website, along with information about how to contact the college's president.

Friday's protest, held at the Roy C. Moore Art Gallery, was organized by the campus' Students for a Progressive Society and was attended by about 20 students and faculty.

Karin Bolender, professor of art appreciation, said she was stunned when she heard about the piece being removed.

"I actually had a very visceral reaction and felt shocked and felt a little sick," she said. "But I would also say that I feel like it gave us a very rich opportunity as educators to address issues of censorship."

Bermudez, who wasn't able to attend to protest due to family conflicts, said he was humbled by the showing of support. Rather than put another piece of artwork where the former piece had been, Bermudez chose to simply display a box with information about the picture.

"If I bring other work to cover the space where my painting is, it's like agreeing that I was happy with that decision and I wasn't happy about it," he said. "I didn't agree. I respected (Nesbitt's) decision to do that. But I didn't agree with that decision."

He said the artwork was a personal expression.

"I wasn't trying to push my opinion on people," he said. "It's just that artists express their feelings."

Bermudez, who lives in Athens, said that while some people view the flag as a sign of Southern pride, he sees it as a symbol of racism and slavery. Growing up in Venezuela, he saw images of the Confederate flag while learning about the Civil War in school.

"And then in 1983 I moved to the United States to go to college in Houston, Texas, and I remember driving one morning to class and on a street corner I saw Klansmen wearing the hoods, waving the flag," he said. "... That image kind of stuck in my head."

Bermudez has been working on a companion piece which will show some of the more positive parts of the flag's history.

At Friday's protest, John Amoss, coordinator of the college's art program, said he has received hundreds of e-mails from the campus community, all denouncing the administration's response. While not all agree with Bermudez's message, many on campus see the administration's action as a form of censorship and an infringement of freedom of speech, he said.

"I believe the lack of ability to discuss such issues severely reduces our ability as educators to do our job regardless of the subject," Amoss said.

Gordon Purcell, a freshman history student and member of Students for a Progressive Society, said the piece wasn't "universally offensive" and was meant, rather, to spark discussion.

The faculty show from which Bermudez's work was removed ended Friday. Students for a Progressive Society is planning a panel discussion which will center on perceptions of the Confederate flag as well as censorship issues. A date has not been set.

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