An Ahwatukee Foothills student found herself at the center of controversy this week when she submitted an illustration of Jesus Christ on puppet strings to her high school’s winter art show.
Mountain Pointe senior Erika Vogt-Nilsen, 17, won honorable mention in the digital art category for a full-color image portraying a sinisterlooking puppeteer dangling a crucified, handless Christ from six marionette strings. The caption quotes Matthew 21:13: "My house shall be a house of prayer."
A Christian club on campus and other students and teachers raised concerns about the image before Wednesday evening’s show, but school administrators allowed the piece to be displayed.
"I can understand where somebody could have been offended," Mountain Pointe assistant principal Bruce Kipper said. "But we deal with things in this life that we don’t always agree with."
He said Mountain Pointe administrators generally suppress only school-sponsored speech that crosses certain lines — such as racial slurs, obscenity, libel and invasion of privacy.
"We’ve always encouraged students to think for themselves," Kipper said. "We also teach them there’s a responsibility that goes along with it, too."
Vogt-Nilsen said nobody approached her with concerns about the illustration.
"If you do not like my artwork, do not look at it," she said. "I take the attention as a compliment."
Vogt-Nilsen said the illustration’s message is open to interpretation — and she has heard several from her friends. "My opinion isn’t important," she said. "It’s all how the viewer looks at it."
Mountain Pointe science teacher Phillip Moon has a definite opinion.
"There is justifiable outrage, sadness and dismay," he wrote in an e-mail to the Tribune. "I talked to students, faculty and janitors — anybody who would share their thoughts with me — and the dominant opinion was that this so-called work of art was not only insensitive but also downright sacrilegious to many at my school."
Mountain Pointe principal Brenda Mayberry said the show occurred in the evening after regular school hours, and attendance was voluntary.
"Every time there is an event, something comes up that causes an issue in somebody’s mind," she said. "But we don’t get involved in saying ‘you can’t say this, this or this.’ "
Shirley Miles, superintendent of the Tempe Union High School District, attended the show before Wednesday’s governing board meeting and was so impressed with some of the artwork that she made inquiries about purchasing items for her home.
She said she did not see the pieces by Vogt-Nilsen but generally supports freedom of student expression.