YORK, Maine – In her Grade 11 English class last winter, Claudia Corcoran read “A very large expanse of sea“, a book about a young Muslim girl who fought back after being a victim of racism in her school.
The story inspired Corcoran, an artist now in her senior year at York High School, to create a visual work of art with a message. Her father, also an artist, always told her: âThe bigger the art, the bigger the impact. So she took inspiration from the book and her father’s advice to create a large format statement piece.
It is safe to say that his art made an impact.
After the piece was displayed at YHS, complaints prompted school principals to remove it. After the coin was removed, another round of complaints prompted principals to put it back. All the while, discussions of the art message have spread far beyond the school grounds.
YHS principal Karl Francis said Corcoran’s artwork came from a school project that asked students to formulate a topic inspired by a book. Students researched and developed projects based on a wide range of topics, including Islamophobia and post 9/11 health impacts, frontline workers, Persian culture, break dancing and music therapy, a said Francis. Then the students presented their projects to the class.
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For his project, Corcoran created a two-panel painting that included multiple blocks of text, portraits, and American symbolism. The article describes racism as something that does not exist purely in the past, but continues to plague American society in the present. After receiving her note, she offered the book to the YHS librarian, who posted it prominently near the library entrance.
The prominent exhibition drew complaints from parents, students and staff, so that the York School Department administration ordered the artwork to be taken down, Francis said. Corcoran said she put the artwork away in the art room cupboard, biding her time with a sense of hope the school would change course.
The deletion sparked an outcry from people on social media. Several publications have gathered hundreds of comments, both for and against the artwork itself and the school’s decision to remove it from the library.
Corcoran said Francis tried to explain to him what the people who were complaining said about the painting.
“He said some people thought I was imposing my opinion on other students,” she said. “I feel like my freedom of speech and expression at YHS has been taken away.”
School leaders explain why students’ artwork has been suppressed
Francis emailed parents, students and staff on September 28 explaining the administration’s decision to remove the artwork.
âWhile we appreciate all of our students, their voices and their creativity, we do recognize that the display of the artwork has caused some confusion,â Francis wrote. âDisplaying student work is essential in providing students with the opportunity to learn from each other and appreciate each other’s work. At the same time, we understand that not all perspectives are aligned. “
This explanation drew a new round of criticism.
Aaron Fontaine, who chairs the city’s anti-bias committee and whose daughter is a freshman at YHS, responded to Francis in a September 28 email he shared with The York Weekly. Fontaine said a student filed a complaint with the committee.
âI’m a little confused by the sequence of eventsâ¦ What was displayed in this art was a historically accurate representation of separate schools in America,â Fontaine wrote. “Art should not be hidden from view, the student should not be ashamed for creating it, and my child should not worry about not being able to submit similar work for fear of being harassed. by adult extremists in the community. “
In an interview, YSD Superintendent Lou Goscinski defended the administration’s decision to remove Corcoran’s artwork.
âThe problem is not student artâ¦ the students in our high school have a voiceâ¦ but once we display it, it becomes the speech of the school. And there has been some confusion and concern about labor policy, âGoscinski said on September 28. âThis is not about student censorship. It is not about penalizing a student.
Goscinski said some of the people who complained about the artwork described it as propaganda. Others said schools shouldn’t display things of a political nature, and one person said they thought it was an affront to their religious beliefs, Goscinski said.
The artist shares what his work means
On the lower left panel of Corcoran’s work is a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. with the text âStill Dreamingâ.
âMy intention behind this statement is that Martin Luther King’s dream is not yet realized,â Corcoran said. “We, as a world, especially this country, still need to take adequate steps towards real fairness.”
Another statement from the article is a quote from Ruby Bridges, which says that “racism is an adult disease and we should stop using our children to spread it.”
Another statement, “A nation, separated under God,” aims to describe a nation that is not united, according to Corcoran, who said she believes we can never be truly united as long as the issues surrounding racism and inequalities will not be resolved. (Critics noted that the original piece misspelled the word “separate,” so Corcoran corrected the spelling before the piece was on display again.)
Corcoran’s thesis statement for the project was âThis is Americaâ, which inspired the phrase âwhere racism is taught and your social status determines the education you receiveâ.
Corcoran said her intention was to build a strong portfolio for the art school and get a good grade in the English class, and she also thought it would be good to share her work with her peers.
According to Corcoran, last year’s English program focused on topics of racism and inequity – topics the York School Department has specifically sought to tackle in recent years.
Superintendent: School had to take a break
Initially, Goscinski told York Weekly that the librarian did not get permission to display the artwork, which is why it was removed.
âWe pulled it out just for downtime to look at our processes to determine what we should be in place for student work,â Goscinski said.
However, past practice associated with exhibiting student artwork at YHS has allowed librarians to decide whether to hang artwork given to them by students – as Francis confirmed in Friday in his email to the YHS community.
Goscinski said the decision-making process is not that simple.
âIf the school is okay with putting in place something that is political, then we really need to assess what we are going to put in place and what we are not going to put in place,â he said. . “We need to have discussions before it is put in place, not after the fact.”
Goscinski said he asked Francis to have the art removed, and Francis said he asked Corcoran to remove it. Corcoran put the piece away in a cupboard in an art room. Meanwhile, several other student artwork has been on display in the library, and none has been removed, according to Francis and Corcoran.
Corcoran said the librarian had inspired her throughout her high school experience to be genuine and stand up for her beliefs.
Francis said Thursday that the removal of Corcoran’s job prompted many YHS teachers to come together to support Corcoran and his right to express his political views at school.
Students add pressure on administrators
Corcoran held a walkout on Wednesday, September 29, demanding that the school return their works to the library.
Corcoran said she planned the event for the same day and spread the word via Instagram, about an hour before. At around 1:30 p.m., about 45 students each year from the YHS school attended, she said.
“It was a huge move that put a lot of pressure on the administration,” she added.
Two days later on Friday, Francis released his statement to the public saying that Corcoran’s art would be returned to the library.
âAfter reviewing the facts and listening to students, teachers and parents, I worked with the superintendent and the chairman of the school committee to make a decision,â Francis wrote in a separate email.
Some community members said this whole situation could have been avoided. Fontaine, the chairman of the city’s anti-bias committee, expressed concern over what he described as the school’s slowness in taking action on a number of issues, including an audit of the equity in progress for two years.
âWe were frustrated by the difficulty of getting the school department to work with us,â he said. “These situations could have been avoided if they had done the audit quickly.”
Francis said on Thursday that a firm had not yet been selected to perform the audit. Goscinski and the York School committee have said it will happen this fall.
Despite all the animosity surrounding his work, Corcoran said his message was ultimately uplifting.
“I have always used art as an outlet to express myself … I have hope for the future, which runs through much of my work,” she said.
And perhaps because of that animosity, Corcoran said she believes her message has spread faster than it otherwise would.
“I feel like my voice has been heard,” she said, “and I feel (more) seen by this community than I have ever been.”