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Artists rue loss of nude models

UO cancels figure drawing class, citing safety, funding concerns

Jud Turner covers his heron sculpture near the University of Oregon campus with a knitted fig leaf in protest over the canceling of a figure drawing class at the university. (Associated Press)
Jud Turner covers his heron sculpture near the University of Oregon campus with a knitted fig leaf in protest over the canceling of a figure drawing class at the university. (Associated Press)
Mark Baker Eugene Register-Guard

EUGENE – Leave it to local artists to respond creatively to the recent decision by the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts to cancel a long-running weekly figure drawing session involving nude models.

“Who knows where a heron’s genitals even are?” Eugene metal sculptor Jud Turner said Monday morning, admiring his work on the edge of the UO campus.

So Turner, a graduate of the UO arts school, took an educated guess on Sunday when he applied a “fig leaf,” made of yarn by his friend and fellow artist Janet Harris, to his 16-foot-tall Great Blue Heron sculpture that’s been looming over the corner for the past couple of years.

“When something like this comes up, there’s always a creative response,” said Turner, whose heron was commissioned and funded by the city and the UO as part of Eugene’s 150th birthday celebration.

“And the UO could have done that,” Turner said. “They could have said, ‘Let’s have a small community meeting or at least a dialogue between the university and the artists affected.’ ”

The School of Architecture and Allied Arts’ art department has taken a lot of heat since deciding last week to cancel the free three-hour sessions that were held on Saturdays and open to the public. The department cited concerns about safety for the nude models and a lack of funding to keep the sessions going. The final one was held this past Saturday.

Turner said the “fig leaf” will remain on the Great Blue Heron for a week. The display includes two placards explaining what happened and encourages passers-by to contact Brook Muller, acting dean of the School of Architecture and Allied Arts.

The decision to cancel the sessions was “so patently ridiculous,” Turner said.

The decision also has captured plenty of media attention. After the Register-Guard reported the story last week, it was picked up by the Associated Press and even landed in London’s the Daily Mail.

And the story caught fire on social media and in the blogosphere, too.

Local artist Heather Halpern’s response?

She took one of the models from the Saturday drawing sessions, Lindsey Belleau, and posed her naked in front of Autzen Stadium.

Halpern, a regular at the Saturday Figure Drawing Group that has run in its present incarnation since the mid-1990s, photographed Belleau in various poses, including one in which she flashes open a trench coat at the stadium’s giant yellow “O.” That’s a play on the infamous “Expose Yourself to Art” poster from the 1970s featuring former Portland Mayor Bud Clark flashing a bronze sculpture of a nude woman.

“As an artist, I am offended by the suggestion that participants ‘might have the wrong thoughts’ and that the model ‘might be an exhibitionist,’ ” Halpern wrote in her open letter to the UO that she posted on her blog. “Such assertions demonstrate ignorance and intolerance of the artistic process.

“First of all, these are outrageous, unfounded claims,” she wrote. “Secondly, they smack of rape-culture sentiment, as they echo the assertion that women ask to be raped when they expose skin.”

Muller said Monday that the decision to cancel the sessions was strictly a decision he made along with art department head Carla Bengtson.

Rumors have been circulating on campus and throughout the arts community that the decision came from university administrators as part of a larger effort toward sexual assault prevention on campus in the wake of three UO basketball players being accused of raping an 18-year-old student in March.

“Honestly, we weren’t really thinking about it in terms of the sexual assault discourse,” Muller said in a phone interview.

He said the school’s art department received several disturbing calls earlier this month in response to fliers posted around campus that advertised the need for new models who get paid hourly.

The department normally gets a couple of calls per week from people inquiring about serving as nude models, but about 20 a day were coming in after the fliers were posted, Muller said. “And this persisted for several weeks.”

Most of the calls were fine, he said, but some callers made “off-color” comments, such as “What do the models look like?” Muller said.

“And we just didn’t feel comfortable,” he said. “I really trust our staff, and if they are receiving calls they felt were uncomfortable, we felt we really needed to act.”

Muller said there are no plans to reconsider the decision.

Artists such as Turner and Halpern, though, say the arts community should have been included in the discussion to cancel the sessions.

“Part of their job is to educate the community,” Turner said. “If you got a pervy call from someone, I’m sure the university has a policy for how to deal with harassing phone calls.”

Amy Isler Gibson, who owns The Gallery at the Watershed near downtown, said Monday that she has been busy trying to help the group find a new location.

“I think it’s a terrible decision,” Isler Gibson said. “I think this is exactly opposite of what higher education should stand for.”

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