Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Continued Press

The plight of Jackson's piece has continued to garner the attention of local and national press. Honestly, at this point I have lost count of the number of interviews that I have given.

Local AM news radio station 740 KTRH did a piece this morning, with Jackson and his mother Sue appearing on the air. The station also added a poll to their site along with some background information about the story, and some other photographs that Jackson has shot.

The piece was reported on by the Associated Press, and was picked off the wire by some media outlets, including the Washington Post and MSN.com. Why the article references its location as Dallas is beyond me.

The blog Get Religion saw the AP article, and speculates why more background information hasn't been included in the reporting. I must admit it's a question that I've been asking myself. I plan to contact them after writing this post and hopefully help them out with some of the missing information.

I was also on the phone today with a reporter from the Wall Street Journal - I expect the piece will run tomorrow. This article, it appears, will be a more thorough examination of the situation, so I am looking forward to it with great anticipation.


Marc Brubaker
Curator, Xnihilo Gallery

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

For the Children?

In this post I present a few points for consideration:
  1. Briefly touch on the questions voiced about the artists' ability and quality of the piece in question.
  2. The agreement to veil the piece and why this wasn't considered adequate protection for children.
  3. Call attention to the parental responsibility and question if it is necessary to censor so parents are relieved of their responsibility in educating and protecting their children.
  4. And lastly, compare this piece with a piece in last year's exhibit.

Since the controversy on this piece began I have been challenging myself to identify the root of my unrest. The different perspectives from which I could view this controversy left me perplexed and I had to take time to genuinely reflect on each one. This issue isn’t simple, in fact it is so complex that in the discussion surrounding it there are many rabbit trails to peruse. In the interest of full disclosure, here are the various angles from which I approach this topic.
  • Former curator.
  • Former gallery board member (I resigned 2 weeks ago).
  • Church member.
  • Participating artist in this show.
  • Mother of 5 children, ages 2 months to 11 years.
  • Friend of the family of the young artist.
  • Family of 4 “crowd” members in the photo, including the girl in the blue dress.
There are, of course, other lenses through which I view the piece itself (apart from the controversy) that are more personal in nature including, but not limited to, my own history with abuse and interaction with law enforcement (which has been very positive).

When I learned of the concept of the piece some time ago I never questioned the appropriateness of the proposed content. There was never, in my mind, a divorce from the intended purpose of the project in depicting one of the Stations of the Cross. Perhaps if I had not originally been aware and experienced with this particular show red flags would have been raised in my consciousness but I only understood the photo within the context of the Stations of the Cross exhibit, and as such I saw no problem. If I had considered it too inflammatory or potentially traumatizing I would not have hesitated to bring the details of this piece to the attention of the gallery board of directors.

Since it has been stated by those that made the decision to not allow the showing of this work in Xnihilo Gallery that there is no question about Jackson’s talent and that this is an impressive work of art, I will only touch on the idea that this is something other than just that. The argument, that has threaded through many comments in the various venues, that this subject matter is too complex for a 10 year old to conceptualize and that the quality of the skill demonstrated in the composition of the piece are too advanced for one so young are not the actual points of dissension. It is simple, really: a young child, say 3 or 4 years old, does not understand what a Roman guard is in the retelling of the story of Christ’s sacrifice and in an attempt to help the child comprehend, the story teller, which we hope is the parent but could be a children’s ministry volunteer, explains that it is the law enforcement of Bible times and is like a police officer. Within the context of that moment nobody is making any kind of polarized statement regarding law enforcement but merely drawing a parallel to something a young child could understand. When presented with the opportunity to depict said scene in a modern setting, a child, of most any age, would not see the potential controversy of applying this comparable figure. As for the technical skill required to execute this image, a young, talented child exposed to specific skills from an early age due to a talented and skilled parent sometimes exhibits ability beyond their years. This isn’t that unusual. The fact that a parent would invest their time in a child so young in sharing their skill and talent is laudable. It is not outside the range of reason that the son of a skilled and talented photographer who takes the time to impart his knowledge and experience would have the capability at 10 years old to construct an impressive piece of art demonstrating the skill associated with more mature artists. These points have nothing to do with the photograph not being included in the show, however.

The ruling to not permit the piece to hang in the gallery, outside of the evening of the artists’ reception, was an attempt to protect the impressionable minds of young children that could be frightened by the image of a police officer, a presumed safe protective authority figure, beating a young child. Deemed too graphic for a meditative prayer art exhibit, the image that was created by a child was removed from the exhibit in deference to children. As a gallery board member I was a part of the conversation regarding an effort to be sensitive to the loss of a church member’s son due to an incident with police almost exactly a year prior to the opening of the show. The decision to hang a curtain along with a written warning in front of this depiction of the station was determined to be the best solution. The piece was to remain in the show, just veiled. It wasn’t until after this conclusion had been reached that the concern that young children would be traumatized was approached and then became the basis for eliminating the art from the show.

I understand the concern. As a mother I can see the potential for a young child to be disturbed by what they would see. What I don’t understand is why a veil wasn’t considered an adequate protective measure. With a curtain hanging out of the reach of a very young child, parents would be given the opportunity to determine for themselves if the piece is appropriate for their child to view, and older children and adults would still have access to the piece which was intended for the exhibit. Within the context of the annual show, most older children and adults posses the critical thinking skills required to see beyond the charged controversy of a uniformed officer beating a young child (or anyone, for that matter) and comprehend the artist’s intent in depicting the Station he was assigned. Perhaps their experience of viewing the work would leave them disturbed and unsettled but I fail to see how that is not a common effect of the entire body of work for a Stations of the Cross exhibit, if not a desired effect. The Christian faith is controversial; indeed, the cross and empty tomb are one of the greatest controversies of all time. Anyone that would claim that the cross is not offensive, that the death of one innocent man for all of human kind is not offensive, does not understand the implications of such conviction. Regardless of what the leadership felt they needed to protect young children from seeing and experiencing in this depiction, however, what they have expressed is a distrust of the parents of their community to know their own children, to know what their own children can and cannot see, to understand the overall nature of the exhibit and to take the responsibility of educating their children in the faith. Instead of supplying the parents with the tools to have rich discussions with their children, the church leadership has chosen for them, censoring what they personally determined was too much. The argument should not be based on the question “is this image damaging to a young child that views it?” but rather “can parents be trusted with the responsibility of educating their children and determining what they can and cannot view.”

The artist did not step outside any of the given guidelines for his interpretation of the station he was asked to depict. Though it is clearly stated that the gallery could, at their own discretion, refrain from displaying any work considered inappropriate, if art featuring authority in a less than favorable light, if potential confusion on the part of the community’s children that come in contact with any given work, if controversial subject matter in general, are all considered unacceptable for the gallery, then perhaps the guidelines communicated to participating artists should be revised to reflect these restraints. Additionally, if parents can’t be expected to actively participate in their child’s experience of any of the art hanging in the shared space of Xnihilo gallery and Ecclesia’s worship gatherings, then the themes and subject matter of all potential shows and art work should be only of the most benign nature. Surely, even a meditative prayer exhibit on the torture and death of The Innocent God Incarnate should be eliminated from the gallery’s calender. Or, parents could be encouraged to discuss with their children the work presented in the gallery and to determine the appropriateness of any given piece themselves. Given that parents have to exercise their judgement responsibly in such matters on a daily basis I don’t think that it is asking too much that they continue to do so in an art gallery and worship experience unless it is actually desired that parents abdicate this responsibility to the church.

To compare a contrast, please consider this image from Stations of the Cross 2009.

Last year during Lent, I suddenly found my then 5, almost 6 year old daughter hugging my midsection as I talked to someone in the coffee shop at the Ecclesia community space. I asked her to go sit down with our family in the worship area but she refused. When I had finished speaking with my friend I asked my daughter why she wouldn’t go in and she explained that she was afraid of “the person.” Confused, I asked her what person she was referring to and she told me “the dead one with blood all over.” I quickly realized that she was talking about the piece for Station 11, a figure covered with a white piece of cloth, soaked with red paint with darts jutting out from the face and upper torso. Because the service was starting we found a different path to our seats that didn’t require us to pass that particular Station and I saved discussing the piece for later. Following the service I asked if she’d like to go with me to look at it. I read the artist statement to her and how the piece was created but she never let go of my hand and was anxious to get away from the piece.

As a family we decided that for the remainder of the show we would avoid that side of the worship space so our daughter wouldn’t have to worry about seeing the art work that so disturbed her. It was possible that I could have requested the curator to veil the piece, spoken with the elders about removing the work jutting into the worship space or expressed my concern to other parents and the children’s ministry director about an overly graphic and realistic form, but instead we worked it out as a family. This was an excellent learning opportunity for all of us and when she expressed that the figure on the wall was scary we talked about how the entire story of the cross is scary but that the beauty is in the love demonstrated in Christ’s suffering for us and in the victory of the resurrection. The piece disturbed her enough to affect her sleep, but we worked through it and I appreciate that the piece was a part of the show, and though its three dimensional presence made it seem very real to a young child, that same realness was part of the impact of the entire show. Outside the context of Stations of the Cross, I would have found work that was the likeness of a corpse covered with a bloody sheet with darts protruding from the body to be wildly inappropriate for our gallery/shared community and worship space for families. The show, however, made the piece appropriate and though it was unsettling I understand that participants and viewers should be unsettled. My husband and I appreciate that the decision was left to us, the parents of our children, and that such a graphic, gory and disturbing piece could remain as part of the whole exhibit, challenging and speaking to those mature enough to regulate for themselves the appropriateness of any given piece for their spirit. Four of my 5 children have seen and responded to the photograph for Station 7 for the 2010 show and the reaction to it was strong but nothing like the reaction to what looked like a dead body on the wall last year. Yes, 3 of my children were in the photograph and experienced the construction of the shot and that may have made a difference but even if that were not the case, their father and I would still exercise our responsibility as their parents in helping them to understand what they are seeing and determining if it was appropriate for them to view at all.

I'm interested to hear your views on these points.

Thank you,

Jessica Martin-Weber
Former curator, Former Xnihilo Gallery Board of Directors member

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Press Links

There's been a good amount of press coverage regarding this event. If you're interested, you can follow some more discussions about the piece at the following locations.

Warning: Some comments are not for the faint of heart.

Houston Chronicle: Friction Over Young Photography Whiz's Art by Moises Mendoza

This article was also posted on Digg and Reddit, where it has recommended nearly 1500 times and commented on nearly 600 times.

There was more discussion of the piece on two of the Chronicle's blogs, Christ & Culture and Talking Tolerance.

AM radio station 950 KPRC covered the story twice, first on Monday the 1st at 11:00 AM, then actually having Jackson & Jack on the air on Friday the 5th at 11:00 AM. You can listen to them online or via podcast. Unfortunately there aren't direct links for the episodes, you'll have to find them in the list.

If you know of any other press that we haven't seen yet, please inform us. Again, we hope to see you all at the reception on March 13th, where the photograph will be on display.


Marc Brubaker
Curator, Xnihilo Gallery.

Friday, March 5, 2010

An Update From Jack

I'm Jackson's dad.

First off, today around 11:45 am [Central Time] Jackson and I will be on the radio with "Outlaw Dave" on KPRC. You can listen online via their website.

I can say that I was very careful to not "help" him with his image. Jackson has been learning photography most of his life, and all the lighting was his idea. He did the lighting diagram, story boards, and the concept.

What I did do, mostly, was act as the AD (assistant director) - helping with organization, i.e. getting people together, making sure he had food, small details for the shoot. The largest contribution I made was to suggest shooting it with different lenses, so that he had options. It's funny, this was actually not my favorite image.

A few details about Jackson's "career" - he shot a wedding at 9, and has his second wedding this month. He's also shooting a 4 day culinary conference in June and a few other projects that I cant talk about yet. Jackson has been my main assistant for over 100 shoots now.

Last night

Jackson has decided to do a replacement image, as was offered by the church. He had been debating this since he was told his original image was not going to be shown.

Today he was thinking about it and did not know what to do - his thoughts were all over the place and he was feeling pressure, as time was running out. We talked about his frustrations, and his fear that no matter what he creates it would not be allowed to be shown. We discussed sarcasm - he knows it well - but I explained that an image of a fluffy bunny being pushed playfully down with a candy cane in a field of flowers would be sarcasm. We both laughed as we bounced ridiculous ideas around, and then he went into the garage to think alone for a while.

He came out later, silent. I waited; I could tell that something was not right. So I asked him what... He was still silent, and I gave him a hug. As I held him he started to cry. He explained to me that he could not make an image (specifically for this piece) with Jesus smiling.

This was hard for me - I could see his heart on the issue. He believes this is important and is trying to make a compelling image, but he was getting frustrated - he had exhausted all his thoughts on the last image.

I then called Marc (curator of the gallery) to see if he would be okay with my helping Jackson to the point of collaboration on the image. Marc was fine with that, so I went back to Jackson and asked him if it would be okay if I worked with him on the concept, and he agreed

My suggestion was to go simple - a studio image that would not require much setup. We chatted back and forth until the idea was formed - I guess I should keep the cat in the bag as it will be on display soon.

Even though this is a collaborative image, I am glad that he will have something in the gallery after the opening night.

- Jack Potts
Father of the Artist
Photographer, Bohemian Photography.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Dissenting Opinion

The following is my dissenting opinion of the Decision by the Elders of Ecclesia to remove Jackson's Station, and although I do not agree with the decision, I do respect the decision and understand why they made it.

First off I felt he did what he was asked to do, he reflected on Christ's journey to the cross and this is what he thought best represented a modern interpretation of his specific station. He wasn't asked to take pictures of a cute fluffy easter bunny, but to reflect on Christ's suffering during His journey to the cross, in order to better understand the sacrifice Jesus offered himself up to, on our behalf. Likewise I think his piece was perfectly in line with the mission of the gallery and not allowing it to be shown is in contradiction of that mission, which is "To Spark Spiritual Dialogue through the exhibition of works that integrate faith and art."

Although I did not participate in the decision or discussion leading to the removal of this piece. I felt the solution arrived at by the Curator (between the one family in the congregation with potential deep personal connection with the piece and the artist's family) to hang a curtain in front of the piece with a sign warning of its graphic nature, was the most reasonable solution for all parties involved. This would still allow the one family to attend church and enter the sanctuary without fear. It would make the piece inaccessible to the younger children 2-5 years old. Older children could discuss the image with their parents and its symbolism relating to the Stations of the Cross, and most importantly this would allow the piece to be viewed, by those who chose to, in its proper context as part of a fifteen piece exhibit on Jesus's journey to the cross and ultimately his resurrection.

Eric Hartley
Former Curator and Member of the Gallery's Board of Directors
Father of children ages 2, 5, & 7

Monday, March 1, 2010

News piece in the Houston Chronicle

If you haven't seen it already, Moises Mendoza of the Houston Chronicle interviewed Jackson & several other people involved. I spent a good half hour on the phone with Moises, and while he did not see fit to quote me on anything, I believe he tried to relate the story as best he could.

You can read the piece at the Chron.com website.

I'd encourage you also to read my comment on the article, which provides a few points of clarification. It's really stunning sight to behold all the people chiming into this conversation.

Thank you,

Marc Brubaker
Curator, Xnihilo Gallery

A Letter from Marc, the Curator

I'd like to preface this first by stating that this post is my opinion, and does not represent that of Xnihilo Gallery or Ecclesia Church. This blog is merely a space to shed a bit of light upon the conversation that resulted in not hanging the piece, as well as a place that will give people an opportunity to view Jackson's work and leave their thoughts.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should also tell you that I used to work for Jackson's father, Jack Potts, as a photographer's assistant. In addition, it is not my aim or intent to "smear" or "defame" anyone involved. Reasons and opinions are just that, and I hope that you will not read anything I type as an attack on anybody.

[At this point the post has gotten rather long, so I'd also like you to read this with the knowledge that we did ask Jackson to create a second piece, and that he accepted the offer.]

First, some background information. The space that Xnihilo Gallery occupies is the same space in which Ecclesia holds its weekly services. Each year, Xnihilo hosts a Stations of the Cross installation that begins on Ash Wednesday and runs a few weeks past Easter. We [the board of directors of Xnihilo] invite fifteen artists to recreate the traditional Stations [14 + the Resurrection] as they interpret them. I've personally had the privilege of being involved in the creation of three such pieces. Recently we've also managed to tie this show into FotoFest's biennial exhibition, having each of the pieces utilize some photography/photographic process. When we chose artists last fall, we thought it fitting to ask Jackson to create a piece.

The station that Jackson was awarded is Station #7: Jesus falls for the Second Time. The corresponding scripture that accompanies this station is Psalm 22:6
But as for me, I am a worm and no man,
Scorned by all and despised by the people.
This is what Jackson was provided with when asked to create a piece.

I received the piece on Monday, February 15th, while at the gallery, and was immediately struck by its power and Jackson's prowess. This is an image wholly created by a ten year old boy - he crafted the image in his mind, did test shoots with his brother to get the pose right, scouted for a location, did a lighting diagram, and shot the image himself.

It is a heavy photograph that causes a visceral reaction to develop in many viewers, and I believe that it sincerely fulfills its intent. The Stations of the Cross are supposed to make viewers reflect on the gravity of the moments before Jesus was crucified, and I'm very proud of Jackson for accomplishing that.

It was brought to my attention later in the day that the image would be a point of contention - a member of Ecclesia Church had lost her son, almost exactly a year prior, as a victim of an unnecessary police shooting before her eyes. The story is truly a tragic one, and I'll let you read more about it.

Immediately it became apparent that we needed to be very sensitive to this woman and her family. In a discussion with one man, Jim, who has counseled her for some time, we offered the option of a shroud in front of the piece, as well as a warning about the graphic nature of the piece. Jim then approached Pam, informing her of the content of the piece [without describing it in detail], and the lengths to which we were going to be considerate of her. She declined an option to view the photograph, but informed us that she would be okay with it hanging on the wall if it was covered with a shroud. Such a compromise would thus make the piece available for viewing but ensuring that it would be covered should she enter the room.

After a very busy day and a half of installing most of the other pieces, I had been bouncing conversations back and forth with several persons - Eric Hartley & Jessica Martin-Weber, former curators of Xnihilo and members of our Board of Directors, Jeremy Wells and Tyndall Wakeham - board members and elders of Ecclesia, Stephen Hicks - a member of the church staff, Jessica's husband Jeremy, and some other artists involved in the show. At 3 pm on Tuesday it appeared that our compromise had been approved, and I had already troubleshot the installation of the piece in my mind.

Shortly thereafter I received a conference call from the elders, Tyndall & Jeremy, informing me that we couldn't hang the piece. I began to explain that we had resolved the situation already, and they informed me that it wasn't the Hobart's situation that was the problem, but the small children that attend Ecclesia with their families.

Despite my statements that the photograph would be veiled, and that most of the children in the church would be able to comprehend the symbolism in the piece, they insisted that it had been decided the piece could not hang. I lobbied for everyone involved to come view the piece in person - to give it a fair shake - but was told that it was a decision that had already been made by the elders of the church.

It was decided that we needed to talk to Jackson as soon as possible, to discuss the situation with him. Jeremy & Tyndall expressed their desire to stress that Jackson had not done anything inherently wrong, but that the elders had determined it could traumatize small children. I see their point, as well - to little kids policemen and firefighters are heroes, incapable of wrongdoing, and to see such a striking and powerful image could, in theory, cause them unnecessary trauma. Small children - while capable of being very bright and "wise beyond their years" - often are not capable of comprehending the symbolism behind complex and very realistic depictions; it is difficult for them to separate the allegory from the reality of what they are beholding.

Initially the two gentlemen wanted to initiate a conference call, that evening [by now it was nearly 5:30 pm on Tuesday], between themselves, Jackson & Jack, and myself. Instead, the five of us met the following morning at a Starbucks [much to my coffee-drinking dismay], and discussed the situation with Jackson. We offered to compensate him for the piece, impressed upon him that it was not because he did something wrong, and Tyndall & Jeremy explained why the elders felt it wasn't proper to hang the piece. In addition, we invited Jackson to create a replacement piece for the installation, and decided it fitting that Xnihilo display his original piece for the official reception on March 13th, 2010. Jackson took the news like a champion - I know it must have been very hard for him to hear - and handled it with the grace of a man thrice his age. All of us stressed how talented we think Jackson is, and that we know he will be creating amazing work for ages to come.

I'm exhausted - this post has taken me nearly two hours to concoct, and there is much more to be said in this discussion, I am certain. I will be returning with an additional post, giving my thoughts on the photograph itself, and my personal opinion of the matter. Likewise, I believe that we will have some of the members of our Board of Directors weigh in on the piece, and hopefully we can get statements from Jackson & Jack as well.

I do hope you'll come back and leave some comments about the piece, your feelings on the matter, or just to read the additional posts. Also, I'd love to see you at the reception on March 12th from 7-10 pm at Xnihilo Gallery, located at 2115 Taft Street in Houston, Texas. In addition to having the opportunity to view the piece and meet Jackson, the rest of the show is quite stunning as well.

Thank you,

Marc Brubaker
Curator, Xnihilo Gallery