Any serious discussion of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work is bound to touch upon her provocative use of feminine imagery.
The great American painter is celebrated not only for her renditions of Southwestern landscapes and New York skyscrapers, but also for her iconic, colorful flowers. Despite repeated denials by the artist prior to her death 30 years ago, critics have long held that those flowers were overt allusions to female genitalia.
Allison Wint, a substitute teacher at a middle school in Battle Creek, Mich., told the Detroit Free Press that she was hoping to provoke a thoughtful dialogue about historical interpretations of O’Keeffe’s work on Friday when she used the word “vagina” during a discussion with eighth graders.
Now, Wint claims that the verbal reference to female anatomy — a word she freely admits to having used — has cost her a job at Harper Creek Middle School.
“Yes, I did say that word; however, I was saying it in the context of art history,” she told CBS affiliate WWMT. “I wasn’t being vulgar.”
Wint told the Free Press that, in total, she estimates she used the word 10 times during the course of the lecture, prompting giggles from her students, but eventually a substantive discussion.
She told the paper that also remembers saying: “Imagine walking into a gallery when [O’Keeffe] was first showing her pieces, and thinking, ‘Am I actually seeing vaginas here; am I a pervert? I’m either a pervert or this woman was a pervert.'”
— GeorgiaOKeeffeMuseum (@okeeffemuseum) April 22, 2016
The next day, according to Wint, she was reprimanded by a school official, who noted that she had said the word “vagina … without previous approval.”
The official told her that referring to female reproductive organs without approval violated school policy, Wint told the Free Press.
She told the paper that she was instructed to gather her belongings and leave the school within one hour.
“She said there are a thousand other ways to teach controversy, and that it was inappropriate,” Wint told the Free Press.
“I was really invested in those kids,” she added. “And I miss them a lot.”
A GoFundMe page, which details Wint’s version of events, has raised $300 in three days.
Asked to comment on Wint’s allegations, the district denied she was fired.
“Harper Creek Community Schools prides itself on being an outstanding educational institution which consistently operates with purpose, respect, and integrity,” the district said in a statement sent to The Washington Post. “We are aware of the allegations that controversial subject matter resulted in a substitute teacher, employed through a third-party agency, not being invited back for further service. This is not the case.
“We do not shy away from controversial issues. The District did have concerns that the substitute teacher did not follow district art curriculum. These concerns, in addition to other failures, were the basis for the determination. We work very diligently to ensure that all students, staff and contracted personnel are treated fairly with respect and privacy.”
The statement did not elaborate on the outcome of the incident.
O’Keeffe has stirred interpretive debate and speculation for decades — almost all of it centered around her flower paintings.
“There are few artists in history whose work is consistently reduced to the single question: flowers or vaginas?” the Guardian noted last month.
— Tate (@Tate) March 12, 2016
Ahead of an O’Keeffe retrospective at the Tate Modern in London, the Guardian wrote that the late artist “is best known for her large-scale studies of flowers, painted as if looking at them through a magnifying glass. However, since the early 1920s the vast oil works have been dogged by erotic interpretations and, despite O’Keeffe’s six decades of vigorous denial that her paintings were in any way sexual, it remains a commonly held assumption to this day.”
Achim Borchardt-Hume, the Tate Modern’s director of exhibitions, said a key reason for hosting the retrospective was to offer O’Keeffe the “multiple readings” she had been denied in the past as a female artist.
“O’Keeffe has been very much reduced to one particular body of work, which tends to be read in one particular way,” he said. “Many of the white male artists across the 20th century have the privilege of being read on multiple levels, while others – be they women or artists from other parts of the world – tend to be reduced to one conservative reading. It’s high time that galleries and museums challenge this.”
Tanya Barson, who will curate the Tate Modern show, emphasised how much O’Keeffe had resisted the sexual reading into her paintings, which began in the 1920s but was then revived by feminists in the 1970s who took her work as a statement of female empowerment.
The Freudian theory that her flower paintings were actually close studies of the female vulva were first put forward in 1919 by Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer who first promoted O’Keeffe’s work and later became her husband.
— GeorgiaOKeeffeMuseum (@okeeffemuseum) October 23, 2014
Michigan’s Harper Creek district encompasses one high school, one middle school and three elementary schools.
District officials sent WWMT a quote from a school handbook that says teachers are required to get approval before discussing any topic related to reproductive health.
Wint told the station she was unaware of the policy. She said she’d been substitute-teaching at Harper Creek Middle School since January and claims she’d had no other disciplinary issues.
“They were entirely within their right to remove me,” she told WWMT. “However, I was not aware of this policy beforehand.”
“If I had known about this policy, I would have never done it without approval,” she added.