Teacher Suspended After Getting Cheeky With a Painting

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 14, 2006

In the case of Stephen Murmer, Richmond area high school art teacher, avant-garde painter and entrepreneur, the issue comes down to this:

Does his personal business -- slathering his posterior with paint, pressing it against canvases and selling them as art -- cause too much of a disruption in the hallways of Monacan High School in Chesterfield County?

School administrators seem to think so. Last week, they placed Murmer on paid administrative leave and are conducting an investigation to determine whether he should be reinstated, suspended longer or fired, school officials said.

"It's one of the strangest things I've ever encountered in my 15 years on the board," said Marshall Trammell, chairman of the Chesterfield County School Board.

The beef over Murmer's buttocks began last week because -- of course-- a video surfaced on, featuring Murmer demonstrating his talents. Students, acting on their proclivity to gossip about teachers, especially those who may be rear-end-painters, circulated the news. Eventually, school officials, for lack of a better phrase, got wind of it.

The incident raises all sorts of high-minded questions. What is art? What are the limits of the First Amendment? And what do today's students, jaded to practically every purported cultural indecency, think of it?

"This one kid came up to our lunch table and said, 'Did you hear about the video that was on the Internet?' " said Stephanie Kazlauskas, 17, a senior and a field hockey player. "A lot of people didn't believe it. We were just laughing that a teacher at our school would have some kind of video doing something like that. But most people think it's kind of stupid that he's being so criticized."

Cue the YouTube clip: Murmer is appearing on what appears to be a live-audience TV interview show called "Unscrewed with Martin Sargent," and he's going by a similarly spelled pseudonym -- Stan Murmur. He's dressed in a white robe with a towel wrapped atop his head and is wearing fake glasses and a fake nose.

He's peppered with all sorts of questions. What's with the disguise? "I do have a real job, where I do have real clients," he says. "I don't think they'd be too understanding if I was also the guy that painted with my [rear]."

"To your knowledge, are you the first [fanny] painter in history?" his host asks him.

"To my knowledge, I am the first one to focus specifically on that area of the body," he says modestly.

Enough talk, the host says. The teacher strips. Down to essentially nothing but a black thong bathing suit. Then, he spreads out black paint on some paper, sits on it, then walks over to a canvas and sits on that, adding to a camouflage design of black, green and beige splotches. The paintings sell for hundreds of dollars.

Murmer could not be located -- a phone number listed for him reaches a recording that says the line is disconnected.

Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, who is speaking for Murmer, said that public employees have a right to express themselves freely but that schools also have a right to ensure that those freedoms do not interfere with students' learning. ACLU officials confirmed that it is Murmer in the video.

"How much disruption did this cause?" Willis asked. "Common sense indicates that this is the sort of thing that students giggle about for a few days, and it disappears. But the school has upped the ante by suspending him."

Does the teacher stand to make any money out of the frenzy? Students at his school are apparently getting their first lessons in diplomacy. "I'm just not an art connoisseur," Kazlauskas said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company