Professor’s art sparks controversy

Burning crosses. A hangman’s noose. Hate. Fear.

Images of white robes with pointed hoods evoke a myriad of images and emotions. An art display featuring an image of a Ku Klux Klan member is raising concern for some W. Frank Steely Library visitors.

Created with two rubber stamps and black ink, “First Class, Second Class” depicts a portrait of a Klansman in full costume between two smaller pictures of a woman and a black man.

“When you look at it, the largest piece, the center of the focus, is the Klansman,” said Michael Providenti, an associate professor at Steely Library. Providenti helps acquire and organize Steely Library’s art collection.

A closer inspection of the artwork reveals the Klansman stamped with the words “first class,” and the woman and black man with the words “second class.”

Almost as soon as the piece was installed, some library visitors complained.

“We had a student come up [to my office], very upset, asking why we were glorifying the Klan,” said Arne Almquist, associate provost of library services.

At the time the complaints were received, the artist’s statement was not posted, so there was nothing to explain what the piece means, Almquist said.

“When people look at it, they don’t grasp the message,” Providenti said. “It’s a product of a time and place.”

When “First Class, Second Class” first appeared in the library, it was part of a contest sponsored by the now-defunct Institute of Freedom Studies at Northern Kentucky University.

The trio of photos, created by then-student Hans Schellhas, was displayed in the Eva G. Farris Reading Room with other works that represented struggles people involved with the Underground Railroad might have faced.

Robert Wallace, an English professor at NKU, oversaw the contest. He called “First Class, Second Class” provocative, saying it’s not something people can understand at first glance.

“Instead of just saying, ‘We don’t like that the city favors the Klansman,’ it makes you work through and think about it,” Wallace said.

Schellhas is now a graphic design professor at NKU. He said he was inspired to create the piece after witnessing what he viewed as Cincinnati Police violating some demonstrators’ free speech in 2001.

“[It] had to do with a protest led by the black community in regard to two deaths of African-American males that died in police custody within 24 hours of each other,” Schellhas said. “I was very in tune with a lot of the issues that were going on in Cincinnati in terms of racial profiling with the police.”

Schellhas said he saw false arrests, police officers using tear gas on crowds and some people being restricted from attending protests as he attended a rally sponsored by Trans-Atlantic Business Dialog in 2001.

“The stuff I witnessed that day was shocking,” Schellhas said. “I came out just pretty much outraged as a citizen of what went down that day in terms of how people’s rights were violated.”

Schellhas decided to create something to make people aware of what was going on in Cincinnati.

“[Art] was my sword. It was my way to respond back in a positive way, but hopefully an effective way,” Schellhas said.

Schellhas said “First Class, Second Class” has been shown on campus three times before, and has not had a complaint until its recent move. But the artist’s statement was not there to put the piece in context, he said.

“Oh my God,” Joanna Frasier, a junior elementary education major, said the first time she looked at an image of the artwork on Steely Library’s website. Frasier said she was offended the library would display the piece.

“Most people aren’t going to stand and read [the artist statement],” Frasier said, after reading the statement posted online. She added that she thinks the piece should be part of a themed exhibit so it cannot be taken out of context.

Christian Smith, a junior sociology major, said he thinks the piece is appropriate for Black History Month, but the artist’s statement didn’t change how he felt about the piece.

“People are going to make their own assumptions,” Smith said.

Schellhas said he didn’t design “First Class, Second Class” to be shock art, but to document real events.

“Yeah, it’s scary to see,” Schellhas said, “but if you want to see something really scary, see the real deal. See the cross on the Square and see real-life Klansman in front of these people, erecting the cross.”

Story by Cassie Stone