PCC painting stirs debate
A painting on display at Portland Community College for three years depicted Annie Oakley, Rosa Parks, a Klansman and a monkey in a dress.
To Carol Smith, who used to teach biology at the Rock Creek campus in a classroom near the painting, the work was a jarring and painful reminder of racist attitudes in the United States, sentiments that were resurfacing in 2015 when PCC hired Smith as a black female science instructor.
"I was really stung by it," Smith says, recalling the first time she saw the art. "I was trying to rationalize it as a black woman. But it wasn't rational."
PCC officials removed the painting on May 1, just days before a Multnomah County jury awarded $1 million to two African-American maintenance workers at Portland Public Schools who argued successfully that PPS had failed to remedy a racially hostile workplace.
But for three years, PCC defended the work by Kay Bridge, a white artist and former student, today classifying her work as a "learning tool in support of higher education."
Smith, who was let go from PCC and now teaches at Warner Pacific College, says she's raising the issue publicly now because PCC officials continue to insist that the painting isn't derogatory. The college says it's social commentary designed to critique U.S. history, not something meant "to spread ill will," as Kate Chester, a spokeswoman for the college, wrote in an email to the Tribune.
"The painting was offensive," Smith says, "and PCC is saying it wasn't."
The diverging views on the painting echo debates happening at colleges across the country, including at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University, over the most appropriate way to address painful history on campus without glossing over historical figures' racism or glorifying it. Last year, the University of Oregon announced it would change the name of a dormitory that honored a former professor who was also a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile, this year, President Michael Schill said the university would not rename Deady Hall, which honors Oregon's first federal judge, even though Matthew Deady also held racist views.
At PCC, administrators have addressed racial privilege with its controversial Whiteness History Month, launched in 2016.
But it's not possible to ask the PCC artist to describe her intent when in 2009 she used charcoal and acrylic to paint what she then called "Rosa Parks and Annie Oakley."
Bridge, who studied art briefly at the Rock Creek campus, died in 2014 shortly after PCC bought the painting for $12,000 with proceeds from its 2008 construction bond. Bridge was in her late 70s.
But after complaints surfaced about the work from Smith and others, PCC posted a lengthy explanation on the wall next to the 5-by-5 painting.
"A quick glance at this painting," the description read, "might make you uncomfortable and send up all sorts of red flags—and it should. Artist Kay Bridge is referencing the ugly history of racism in America as well as a moment of remarkable civil disobedience."
The written explanation went on to say that Oakley, the famous sharpshooter of the late-19th century, was poised to defend Rosa Parks from the Klansman "and from anyone else who might see Rosa Parks as a monkey in a dress."
Smith wasn't alone in finding the painting objectionable.
The Portland branch of the NAACP, in a Sept. 10, 2016 letter to PCC leaders, called the painting "so offensive it defies artistic expression" and asked that it be removed immediately.
Jo Ann Hardesty, president of the local NAACP and now a candidate for the Portland City Council, says she then urged PCC leaders to talk with community members about the college's support for the painting. Instead, Hardesty says, PCC invited her to present her opposition to the painting in a forum the college would organize, with speakers it would convene. Hardesty declined, saying she didn't want the college to control the discussion.
PCC voluntarily sets aside 1 percent of its construction dollars for art. A committee of 12 volunteers picked Bridge's painting to buy with 2008 bond proceeds.
Prudence Roberts, an art history instructor on the Rock Creek campus, is quoted in PCC materials online saying the group looked for artists who pushed their limits. "We wanted to avoid what the committee called 'bland corporate art,'" she told the college.
Chester, the PCC spokeswoman, says the painting had served its purpose when the college decided this spring to take it down.
"The painting elicited reactions, which created an opportunity for community members and leaders—along with student leadership from the campus—to discuss the painting and its intent, to address the issue of censorship, to problem solve and to express concerns with one another," Chester wrote.