Auburn student’s sculpture separated from exhibit

Friday, April 24, 1998

Art teachers at Auburn University in Alabama recently removed a sculpture from the school's student union, saying the piece — described as male and female torsos with fluids flowing through their genitals and breasts — was inappropriate for a general audience.

Jenny Root, a senior in graphic design, said fine arts faculty members initially approved her artwork called “Mother/Father” for the department's annual student exhibition in Foy Student Union. But she said she was told the piece would be moved from Foy to a room near the arts department in Biggin Hall.

The 60-piece show, which was supposed to start April 13, has yet to open.

Root's large two-part sculpture is composed of “Mother,” a female torso in which white liquid flows through vinyl tubing in each breast, and “Father,” in which fluid moves through male genitalia.

Nancy Hartsfield, temporary head of the art department, said faculty members determined that Root's work was not suitable for display in the student union because it was “a location frequented by visitors of all ages.”

“Just as movies are subject to classifications which alert parents to sensitive subject matter and language, the Art Department and Fine Arts faculty decided this student project was better suited to an exhibit area typically visited by university students, faculty and other adults who appreciate art in many forms,” Hartsfield wrote in a prepared statement.

Root said that she offered to put paper around her work and suggested the faculty could hang signs warning visitors that some of the work may not be suitable for children. But she said the faculty disapproved of the suggestion.

Art professor Billie Grace Lynn, who was exhibiting some of her own work in the Biggin Hall gallery, pulled her pieces out in protest. Lynn said the fact that it had been censored stigmatizes Root's work.

“It will never be seen as originally intended,” Lynn said. “When people determine for others what they can see or not see, they really steal it at that moment. It's a real shame. To me, it was such a simple and clear abuse of power.”

After Lynn pulled her work, department officials said they would divide the student exhibit, placing some pieces at Foy and others at Biggin.

The matter reached the attention of such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, the College Art Association and the National Coalition Against Censorship.

In a joint statement, they urged Hartsfield to reconsider the decision to move Root's sculpture and offered to organize a public forum to address the situation.

“To deem such a work 'inappropriate' for public viewing seems to us profoundly incompatible not only with arts education but with the fundamental principles of artistic and academic freedom,” the letter said.

The groups noted a 30-year-old court case in which a federal court in Alabama ruled against Auburn for denying a venue to a controversial speaker it had invited.

“I'm hurt by my department not backing me in this situation,” Root said. “But it does feel good that I have a lot of support from the ACLU and a lot of other students.”

Although she's organizing a protest, Root said she doesn't plan to sue the school.

“Not at this moment,” she said. “I'm really just trying to get through school right now. I don't want to have a lawsuit running my life right now.”