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Controversial painting moved from gallery

Christina Proctor

When does art become pornography or too graphic for a general audience? Who is qualified to make that decision?

These were all questions the staff and administration at Lake Tahoe Community College were required to ponder when faced with one student’s work.

“History of the World,” a painting by Colleen Donaldson has nudity, but that isn’t the issue. There are numerous examples of nudes, both male and female, in the college’s 1997-1998 Winners’ Exhibition displayed in the Main Gallery.



Donaldson’s painting depicts a colossal man and woman engaged in a sexual act. The man’s penis is featured prominently in the painting and adorned with a royal cloak and crown.

Phyllis Shafer, instructor and gallery director, was forced to weigh the public’s sensitivity against the artist’s right of self expression. The “Main Gallery” where the exhibit is displayed is also a lounge, study area and cafe. Students must walk through it to get to classrooms.



“If I had a real gallery I wouldn’t pull this piece aside,” Shafer affirmed. “But the area is public, people bring their children through there. In a gallery a warning could be placed at the door and people would have a choice whether or not they wished to view art of a somewhat sensitive nature. Here at the college putting the piece in that gallery wouldn’t give people a choice.”

Shafer took the week before the exhibit’s opening to do some research. She called other colleges and asked if they had any similar experiences and how they dealt with them. It was finally decided that the painting would be placed in a separate room where people could still view it, but it would be viewed by conscious choice.

“We’re an educational system, and I wanted to turn this into more of an educational experience,” Shafer said. “It’s been good. Everyone is talking about it. It’s generated discussion about censorship and forced people to ask themselves questions. Throughout history art has been censored. It was acceptable for nudity to be portrayed if it appeared in the form of a Greek god or goddess. But, if it looks too real and of the world it’s censored. Painting is a vehicle of expression. I’m sure this won’t be the last sensitive work a student creates.”

A sign at the beginning of the main exhibit tells where the painting is and states, “This is an attempt to allow the work of art to be seen while also being sensitive to the public nature of our gallery space.”

The painting is located in Room E101, the former multicultural affairs office, and can be viewed Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Donaldson writes, “This painting is my expression of men that make decisions with their penis and not with their brain.”

In a comment book left under the work one viewer said, “Right on. It’s a pleasure to know the university supports the expression of the artist.”

Another viewer expressed approval for the college’s decision, “I do appreciate all forms of art and I think all artists should be able to express themselves. However, it does make me just a little uncomfortable and I am glad that I don’t have to walk by it everyday and blush.”

Donaldson, 30, an architect with Smith Design Group in Incline Village, said she is pleased with the college’s decision and Shafer’s support.

“The painting is about lust, greed, and pleasure and the decisions that are made because of those things. I respect that there is an appropriate audience for certain subject matter,” Donaldson said. “I support the university in providing a space where people can go on their own free will.”

The Winners’ Exhibition allows students who won in the college’s annual spring show to bring back the winning piece and three new pieces of art for display. Shafer said Donaldson’s work illustrates a need for a real gallery at the college.

“There are some people in the community who might say no way, no how should this painting be displayed. It’s a tough position while I don’t want to lose community support I don’t want in anyway to enforce censorship,” Shafer said.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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