Denver Mayor Calls Uproar Over Student’s KKK Painting A ‘Teachable Moment’

Photo: Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy Student Art Controversy
A Denver Public Schools security officer watches as media prepare for a press conference with city and school officials inside Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy in Denver on Friday, March 25, 2016.

The Denver high school student whose controversial painting of a police officer aiming a gun at a black child met Friday with public officials to discuss the controversy.

The painting depicts the police officer wearing a white KKK hood. In the background, a hole torn in the U.S. flag also reveals a Confederate flag.

Controversial #art from @DPSNewsNow students on display in #Denver's Webb bldg. Some @DenverPolice take issue w/ it.

After meeting with the sophomore at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, Mayor Michael Hancock said the student wanted her work to point to the Klan’s history in Denver.

“She educated us that she lives in a city with that history and she wanted to allow it to come through her art,” Hancock said. “We wanted to promote a dialog. This was one of the more teachable moments than I’ve ever had as mayor of this city.”

The painting was removed from the Wellington Webb municipal building earlier this week after it sparked public outcry. It was on display as part of a citywide high school art exhibition. Some have called the piece “hate art,” while others say the artist has a right to free speech.

“At the end of the day, we also don’t want to censor or douse the spirit of the artists,” Hancock said. “But we have got to recognize this is a public venue and we honor our employees every day and we want them to be honored by the art there.”

Denver Police Chief Robert White expressed concern over the painting’s portrayal of police and its placement in a public building. But it was the student’s choice to remove the artwork, he said.

“No, she didn’t have to. She chose to take her picture down,” White said. “And I will tell you after speaking with that young lady, I don’t believe that she was intimidated.”

White said he expressed the sentiments of members from his police department to the student.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in our community and communities across the country as it relates to trying to get the two to become one -- the community and the police,” he said. “But at the same time I was reminded that there is still a lot of work to be done.”

The student is not speaking out publicly. Mayor Hancock says the city will keep her identity private to protect her and her family.

Old, New Works Inspired Student

School officials said Friday that the student created the painting in a studio arts class. The assignment asked students to research a master work of art and re-contextualize it to reflect how the student sees the issue in contemporary times. The student chose "The Third of May 1808" by Spanish painter Francisco Goya. The 1814 piece depicts a firing squad composed of French soldiers aiming their guns at Spanish captives after an uprising.

The student also drew inspiration from a controversial 2014 painting "A Tale of Two Hoodies" by Michael D’Antuono. The piece is a direct reference to George Zimmerman, who fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012.

D'Antuono shared a statement with CPR News. It reads, in part:

"The goal of my art and (I assume) the student's was to shed light and spark debate over the problem of racism in the criminal justice system. I applaud the Denver Police Chief's willingness to have a conversation with the student and fairly address her concerns... I’m disappointed that the student was bullied into having the piece removed as it apparently was doing its job in bringing attention to the issue. She should have been praised and encouraged for inspiring critical thought instead of being derided by those who just might have a guilty conscience."

The student’s piece was selected by a jury to be included in the DPS exhibition. Kunsmiller principal Peter Castillo said the work will be returned to the student. He said he hopes this incident does not affect the jury’s selection process for future DPS art exhibitions.

“I don’t see this as censorship,” Castillo told CPR News. “This isn’t something that the school would do. We love the display of our kids’ artworks.”