In the wee hours of Dec. 3, University of Colorado graduate art student Clarissa  Peppers installed two of her pieces in the lobby of the school's Visual Arts Complex.

The works, entitled “I Don't Whistle” and “When in Rome,” were both looping videos of a swinging bell and cyclamen flowers, respectively, below female genitalia.

“A lot of the way I work is just by intuition and impulse,” said Peppers, 24. “I was thinking of a part of the female body that, to certain people, may be seen as having a singular use...My mind immediately went to the vagina.”

A few hours after setting up her exhibition, Peppers returned to the VAC to find that the screens displaying her work were blank, and the extension cords she'd used were nowhere in sight. Some viewers of her art, she would soon learn, were so offended that the chair of CU's Department of Art & Art History thought it best to remove the exhibit altogether.

“When I arrived the morning of Dec. 3, I immediately received a number of complaints," said department chair Kirk Ambrose. "It's a space that is used by all sorts of individuals, not just art students. Weighing that, and the fact that I received four complaints, I contacted my building proctor. We decided the best thing to do would be to relocate the work to a space with a warning sign that gives people a choice.”

The exhibit was moved to a corner of the VAC's basement – a less-than-prime spot.

Peppers said she views the individual complaints as artistic responses, not cause for relocation.

“I don't feel that, as an artist, I'm responsible for the reactions of the viewers,” she said.

The decision to relocate Peppers' exhibition sparked a months-long controversy, in which fellow students, faculty members and national anti-censorship advocates spoke out in support of the artist. The saga culminated with Peppers re-applying for the VAC lobby space and, ultimately, reinstalling her work there last week — albeit with the accompaniment of cautionary signage and a floor-to-ceiling curtain to protect people who would be offended.

Her work came down on Saturday, the scheduled end of its run.

“The work is not even sexually explicit. It's a human body, which we all have,” said Dr. Svetlana Mintcheva, director of programs at the National Coalition Against Censorship. “It's a very damaging cultural message to say that the body is shameful. It's not a healthy perception.”

The issue at hand, however, had less to do with the exhibit's vaginal imagery than with the decision to censor a student who broke no rules. CU students pursuing their master of fine arts in Studio Arts are eligible to sign up to display their work in the VAC lobby, which is a designated studio space. Peppers' supporters cited that fact, as well as the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“Everybody says they're for freedom of expression, until the moment comes,” said Jeanne Liotta, an assistant professor in the film studies department at CU. “These are important protections we have as Americans, and they're tricky. We have to have public discourse about them.”

Peppers sees the opportunity for open discussion as a silver lining. No other student has ever been censored in the same manner she was, so CU has never established a procedure for handling controversial or potentially offensive works of art.

“What I'd like to come of this is for there to be some kind of policy. The fact that this is the first time this has come up has become a learning experience for everyone, which is great. I'm happy to facilitate that,” Peppers said.

Though the censorship of Peppers' work may lead to positive dialogue and increased preparedness from CU, some feel that the damage is already done.

“People are trying to make what was an embarrassment into something more positive for future students,” said Taylor Dunne, a classmate of Peppers'. “I think it's a really depressing aspect of our culture that we can't get
past this.

“I think that by trying to censor that sort of thing it just further illustrates the problem with society in general. I can't believe that any part of the human body could be considered explicit at this point.”

While many were upset by what they see as a violation of Peppers' right to free expression, Peppers says she was also disturbed that the school would deny her the chance to share her art with an audience.

“I felt robbed of that, which is why it felt necessary to push to have my work shown again in the exact same space,” she said. “If I knew there were any restrictions as far as the content of my work goes, I couldn't have
come here.”

Added Mintcheva: “It's important for them to be able to show their work, because it's part of the educational process. It's not only about creating the work, but it's about seeing how people will respond to it.”

CU administrators will continue to work toward a policy for student art, which may include a permanent sign outside the VAC, warning visitors that the building's exhibits may be offensive.

But Peppers worries that a sign would prejudice viewers, and is also uncomfortable with potentially generalizing language on such a sign.

“Warning people that the content inside may or may not offend – I think that can come from a wide range of work,” she said. “That's why I'm so confused that the vagina we were all birthed from has been, and is still,
such an issue.”

Contact Camera Staff Writer Alex Burness at 303-473-1361 or burnessa@dailycamera.com.