James Parlin: The most talked about show that no one saw

The most talked about show that no one saw is how Pennsylvanian artist James Parlin describes the controversy surrounding his exhibit at the Little Gallery on the Firelands branch of Bowling Green State University in Huron, Ohio. Yesterday evening, I got the chance to catch up with Mr. Parlin to talk about what happened and what he plans on doing next. This story caught my eye because I grew up in Huron, Ohio and took classes at Firelands, plus I had to scratch my head at the reason it was removed.

Mr. Parlin’s work was subject to a controversy last week when one of his statues was removed from the Little Gallery by dean James M. Smith. Mr Parlin said that he exhibited art for 20 years and that nothing like this has ever happened before. He does understand that it is very reasonable for the gallery and the campus to take action to protect children and that such a policy makes sense. Mr. Parlin said, “Firelands has every right to decide what to show.” All of his work, including the one that was removed, was located in the main Little Gallery space. He delivered the items and help set them up, but could not remember where that particular item was placed.

Mr. Parlin said that the University could have taken more steps to deal with the themes his sculptures deal with. He sent photos of all of his works to the gallery in his application to exhibit there. He felt the normal procedures that other galleries follow to prevent people from seeing work they don’t want to see were not followed in this case. “Some adults should be warned and not blindsided. If there was a warning posted, then one has a choice.” Parlin said, “My decision to make or try to exhibit piece did not cause controversy in my mind. Not taking adequate safeguards created the controversy.”

When asked about the particular piece that was pulled titled, “The Middle School Science Teacher Makes a Decision He’ll Live to Regret” and the message it sends, Parlin stressed that it is a “it is a moralistic piece about the freedom of will, compulsion and decision making.” According to Parlin, that piece was created as he explored the moment when someone makes a bad decision that can change their life. “We all do wrong things.” Parlin said. “People usually do little things wrong, with small consequences…Sometimes people do big things wrong, with big consequences. Sexual assault is one. This piece is based on someone who lost a job, family and freedom. He made a decision that lead to disaster."

Some artists thrive on the controversy they create with their work, but that is not Mr. Parlin's reason for creating this piece. He said, it “…makes me feel bad. I work hard at art. This was a preventable, overblown controversy and is not how I would choose to get attention.” The unfinished show at the Little Gallery was planned as the last show of these items and they will be retired.

My take on the incident:

The photo of the work is out there on the Internet, but out of respect to Mr. Parlin’s wishes I will not post it here. I can say it is not as graphic as one would imagine and I have seen worse in trendy fashion and culture magazines and even on TV. If you can think of two clay figures in a compromising pose, then you could imagine the work. One could also title it "Student falls in front of teacher" and it would be believable given the work does contain innuendo. While the sculpture subject is controversial given all of the stories we read about teachers abusing power with students, the power of a decision-a moment, when someone tosses their life away is an understandable topic that an artist would want to pursue.

BGSU wishes to “to not expose the children and families we invite to our campus to inappropriate material.” .. but the gallery knew about the figurines way in advance and did nothing to prevent them from being displayed by putting up paper on the windows, so they are not entirely without fault. Let's hope that after this incident that BGSU Firelands can take the proper steps to make sure this does not happen again.

OF NOTE: I put the Little Gallery was located on the second floor of the West Building which was incorrect. It is located in the North building across from McBride Auditorium. The second floor does have an art exhibit gallery and this is what caused my confusion.

3/25 Update:

MSNBC/AP story

NCAC statement
A new reason why it was taken down? http://ncacblog.wordpress.com/2009/03/25/bgsu-art-censorship-update/

In an email to faculty today BGSU Interim Provost Mark Gromko stated that “the piece was initially removed so that [...] legal review could occur.” Apparently BGSU administrators were wondering whether “the sculpture constituted child pornography or breached restrictions on depictions of child abuse under Ohio law.” An 'apparent' act of censorship http://www.sanduskyregister.com/articles/2009/03/25/viewpoints/blogs/mat...

Ohio College Censors “Inappropriate” Sculpture

BGSU Firelands accused of censorship

Last Week: For more on this story, please see:

http://www.toledoblade.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090321/NEWS16/90... http://glasscityjungle.com/wordpress/?p=6344 http://www.jamesparlin.com/ http://www.foxtoledo.com/dpp/news/WUPW_Art_exhibit_censored_at_BGSU_fire... http://www.sanduskyregister.com/articles/2009/03/20/front/doc49c3aea76c0... http://www.firelands.bgsu.edu/arts/littlegallery/page63380.html http://www.toledoblade.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090320/NEWS16/90... http://www.sanduskyregister.com/articles/2009/03/21/front/doc49c3aea76c0...

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viewer to contemplation on a deeper level, like virtues - not PC , but challenging . This sexual theme is everywhere in society today , but in our pornified culture , it 's where our minds are at I suppose.

after hearing him describe it, it is not a sexual piece per se. It is about a poor decision being made and it is based on a real story. There are about 13 pieces to the whole set and this is only one of them. The whole set is not about sex.

Where on the Internet so we can make up our own minds?

It was surprisingly absent when I visited his gallery when I blogged about the story when the media broke the story last week.


We don't remember days only moments...

why that piece was absent on his site and he said it was because his friend put together the site and said he needed x many pictures. So it appears the pictures that you see there were the ones that made the cut.

I didn't spend hours searching for the piece, but nothing came up using his name or the name he titled it. In fact, I think that's part of the problem if it's really not considered pornographic then why would he not want pictures of it that exist out there on the net to be seen?

Had I found a picture of the piece? I would have linked it, it would have been then up to those out there to make the decision if they wanted to view it or not.

We don't remember days only moments...

relate, that piece is dumb art to me, at least how it was described. Some of the other ones are funny.

need to see to know that it is pornographic and not art. The visual description made up my mind for me.

To Whom It May Concern:

As a full-time student at BGSU Firelands and an active member of the community, I am disheartened by the censorship that has recently taken place in The Little Gallery. The Little Gallery is a vital part of BGSU Firelands. It lends a University feel to our commuter campus and enriches the student experience by bringing local, national, and international artists’ works to our small, rural community. However, the removal of “The Middle School Science Teacher Makes a Decision He'll Live to Regret” from the James Parlin exhibition with no input from the community has cast a pall on our campus that sets a dangerous precedent for the removal of controversial works at the peril of academic inquiry itself.

I am absolutely appalled by both the actions taken by the Interim Dean and the very misleading language used by the University in the subsequent press release. I question whether the author of this release has viewed the piece of art himself, or if he has ever visited our campus. If so, he may have noticed that the depiction in the sculpture was anything but graphic; the participants were fully clothed and were depicted in an abstract manner. He would also have found that the Little Gallery is only open during traditional business hours. “The Middle School Science Teacher Makes a Decision He'll Live to Regret” was not visible through the window; even if it had been, the Gallery is darkened and locked during the evening and weekend hours, when Children’s Theatre practices and performances take place in the McBride Auditorium.

While most adults would undoubtedly understand what was being implied by the piece, I am certain that my own school-age child would have overlooked it completely. I feel that this sculpture was no more offensive than many of the “adult” jokes inserted into popular “family” films and television programs, yet it served a much higher purpose. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse myself, I believe that visual art, literature, music, and films play an important role in provoking meaningful discourse about the horror of such acts and educating the public about the devastation they can cause. Like censorship, sexual abuse can only be addressed if we bring it out into the open.

For me, the heart of the issue is this: Is the University a business, as one fellow student I spoke with suggested? Or is it an institution of higher learning, as I have always believed? If the University is a business, an entity that merely exchanges money for degrees and considers customer satisfaction to be of the utmost importance, then the decision to censor a controversial piece of art makes perfect sense. However, if the University is an institution of higher learning which, as suggested in the "BG Experience" program guidelines, encourages and expects critical thinking from its students, then the administration has done a serious disservice to the learning process.

The actions of the administration regarding this matter are an affront to thinking persons. The BG Experience mission statement claims that the University requires students to “examine the role values play in decision-making… evaluate, explore and build on their own personal beliefs.” If Bowling Green State University is no longer a place to examine and analyze society, but rather one where we are taught to bow to its pressures, the community needs to be made aware of this so that it may choose to spend its money - and its time - elsewhere.

While you may choose not to show your children an abstracted sculpture of a small figure kneeling facing a larger figure, you have a lot more to worry about if you want to keep your kid free from sexual information and innuendo in this world.

Any chance your child may have learned that Caylee's remains were found separate from her head? Or that abuse was suspect in one child or another's household? Or that some other child was hurt by a stranger? Some parents overemphasize that information to a child, in hopes of protecting them from harm. Often, what it does is make a child feel that all the world is dangerous.

At any rate, if the sculpture was near a window and could actually be seen from outside, it should have been shielded, I suppose. What would determine the limits of what would be acceptable if a child were perchance to see?
Locally, artists can't show depictions of the nude in one city-supported gallery, no matter how tasteful, because children also visit the area on field trips. Should museums have the same restrictions? No Reubens, no Renoir?

Obviously, Parlin's work differs from those two Masters, but art ought to be a launching point for discussions, even uncomfortable ones. In a place of higher learning, people should be able to confront some of these complex problems of being human. It needn't be a prurient or abusive discussion for it to take place. And the merits of such art can also be discussed.

It is a shame the gallery director did not take his community's mores into account when planning the exhibit, but I don't think that is the fault of the artist, nor does it mean the show is of no artistic value for anyone.


I'm somewhat disappointed in the school for this decision. I'm not a huge fan of artwork, quite frankly, but I am a fan of freedom, and if we're going to allow 50% of what we allow on TV and in movies (even G, PG, and PG-13 movies), then this is no worse. While I am parentally conservative (ie. I would not personally like my child to see this), I do not believe that the university should quiet this artist's voice like this. I remember a similar incident in my hometown, at our small art museum, when a local artist had a painting of some indecent acts taking place in tanning beds -- however, much like this, it's only suggestive, not explicit, and was a part of a broader story about the town, not something advocating for the acts.

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