A portrait of pain: Rock Hill student’s work made art group squirm

Rock Hill student's art gets picked for a downtown show, but leaders said it was too graphic

Dutchman Creek Middle School student Heylie Harvell of Rock Hill, South Carolina had her artwork selected for an Arts Council of York County show before the council decided it wasn't appropriate for young children.
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Dutchman Creek Middle School student Heylie Harvell of Rock Hill, South Carolina had her artwork selected for an Arts Council of York County show before the council decided it wasn't appropriate for young children.

They disagree whether the painting should hang in the gallery, but nobody is arguing whether Heylie Harvell fulfilled the assignment.

“It seems to make everyone uncomfortable,” said Nicole Lewis, mother of the Dutchman Creek Middle School eighth-grader who thought her recent painting would be featured by the Arts Council of York County.

Harvell, 14, got her assignment. She had to produce something to make people uncomfortable, to make them think. It didn’t take a second thought to pick the theme.

“It was supposed to be controversial, about a topic that is controversial,” Harvell said. “Physical abuse is very broadcasted, but verbal abuse hurts, too.”

The painting depicts a female figure, eyes and mouth covered. Injuries inflicted on her. Each one named, among them “slut,” “ugly,” “screw up,” “unwanted.” Above the figure the phrase, “just because it’s verbal doesn’t mean it can’t kill.”

The piece drew enough positive attention to make, after some deliberation, her school art show. Then it was one of eight Dutchman Creek pieces selected by Harvell’s advanced art teacher for the eighth annual Teachers’ Choice Youth Art Exhibition downtown. The show is a partnership between the arts council and school district.

Pieces from all 27 Rock Hill schools, high schools to elementary, are displayed through March 16. Harvell was congratulated, told to let family know and invite them to a reception where hundreds of guests will view the artwork. She did.

Days later the art teacher had to pull Harvell out of class and explain her piece wouldn’t be included.

“I don’t think the piece itself was inappropriate for public display,” said Debra Heintz, executive director with the arts council. “We felt it was inappropriate for this show.”

With its focus on Youth Art Month, Heintz expects a many families to attend the reception including elementary school students. Attendees may find the piece depicting a blood-stained body unsettling, she said.

“This is a Youth Art Month show,” Heintz said. “About 700 people pass through, and that includes children and their younger siblings.”

Show guidelines distributed to the schools, among hanging and measurement rules, state the arts group can choose to remove a piece submitted by a school.

“This is a K-12 show, so please keep content/imagery in mind when selecting works,” it reads. “The Arts Council of York County reserves the right to remove any works that they feel might be inappropriate for elementary students and their families. If you have a question about the content of a work, please email.”

The majority of the pieces hanging or sitting in the downtown gallery aren’t likely to spark controversy — still lifes, self portraits, fanciful or cartoonish scenes. There are a few involving skulls, like one with buildings rising from it. There is a piece on famous dictators, including a depiction of Adolf Hitler.

Lewis had to go downtown to the gallery to get her daughter’s painting back after it was rejected. She said she was confused seeing other pieces.

“It’s not like all of them were rainbows and bunnies,” Lewis said.

There is one key difference, and it’s the color red.

“They said it was too mature because of the blood,” Lewis said.

Harvell found out about the arts council decision the day after 17 students and adults were killed at a Florida high school. She and her mother didn’t consider a connection between that event and the arts council decision. The arts council didn’t state one either, saying the piece generally could be unsuitable for young children.

“We did feel like that piece was not appropriate for this particular show,” Heintz said. “We understand it is a situation that needs to have attention called to it, and of course, the school if they would like to do a show about that, they’re welcome to do it.”

That compounds Lewis’ frustration.

“It’s a topic for us,” Lewis said. “It’s something that we feel strongly about. It’s something that not enough people talk about.”

Lewis said she lost two family members, a neighbor and a friend to suicide. She and another friend started Soul Sisters to host benefits for families after someone commits suicide. The school art show, Harvell’s first, was an opportunity for discussion. The arts council show could’ve been another.

“It sent a strong message, and that’s what it’s supposed to do,” Lewis said. “It’s supposed to make you feel.”

While the middle school assignment leading to the piece involved controversy and discomfort, the arts council show didn’t set those guidelines. Heintz said she wasn’t aware of that assignment. It wasn’t a basis for other artwork being selected.

Though the current show format is heading into its eighth year, Heintz said student work has been on display with her group dating back at least two decades. She only recalls one other time a piece was sent back without being displayed. It depicted suicide.

Harvell said she’s been called “many names.” She knows friends have. Most of her work — drawings, sketches, florals, paintings based on quotations — aren’t graphic. The latest one was, she said, because of the assignment. But now that she painted it, she feels like people need to see it.

The idea of it being inappropriate for children doesn’t resonate with her.

“This is an insight from an eighth-grader,” Harvell said. “An actual child is doing this.”

She and her mother wish more people would talk about self harm, including suicide. And, yes, even younger people.

“The age for it is getting younger and younger,” Harvell said.