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Artist forced to remove community center paintings over ‘obscenity’ issues

Artist Elena Karavodin holds one of her paintings, a piece that was not among those removed from the Encinitas exhibit.
(Courtesy of Elena Karavodin)

Encinitas said ‘some of the pieces were just not appropriate’ for the venue

Carlsbad artist Elena Karavodin is the first to admit that her artwork can be “pretty edgy at times,” but she certainly wouldn’t call it obscene and she’s stunned the city of Encinitas forced her to remove half her exhibit at the city’s Community & Senior Center.

“I was kind of in shock, I think,” she said last week as she described how she reacted to the phone calls she received from city officials after she installed her work in the hallway of the then-still-closed-to-the-public community center.

Initially, she was told that there were issues with nine of her paintings, but ultimately she had to remove 11, or about half her exhibit before the building opened to the public, she said.

In some cases, the city’s arts administrator, Jim Gilliam, told her that she might be able to keep a painting up if she was willing to give it a new title — a startling request because this would completely change the meaning of the piece, she said. In other cases, the city just wanted a painting removed.

The city’s reasons, which Karavodin spells out on her website at https://www.karavodinstudios.com/censored-art/, ranged from concerns about the use of the word “dummy” in a comic strip tucked into the background of a painting titled “Bubba and Hobbes” to issues with depictions of teens smoking, a bloody battlefield scene and an image of poisoned people with gas masks playing cards. Title changes were requested for “Playboy Mommy” and for “I did a bad thing,” a painting of a sunglasses-clad girl with a house burning down in the background.

Artist Elena Karavodin's painting titled "I did a bad thing"
Artist Elena Karavodin’s painting titled “I did a bad thing” was ordered removed due to a “disturbing title,” the artist states on her website.
(Courtesy of Elena Karavodin)

The city’s arts administrator last week referred a reporter’s phone call to the city’s public information officer, who issued an emailed statement saying the pieces weren’t appropriate for the community center location.

“When we looked at the pieces, we determined that because it was a public facility that was going to host summer camps for children, some of the pieces were just not appropriate for that type of atmosphere,” public information officer Julie Tabor wrote.

She acknowledged the artwork installation process was somewhat unusual due to COVID-19 and that resulted in Karavodin’s artwork being removed after it was hung on the walls.

“During ‘normal’ times, staff are checking on programs and completing other tasks in the main hallway where the art is hung, which provides more oversight,” she wrote.

She said the city is now considering creating a new artwork review process where all pieces in a proposed exhibit are reviewed before they are hung.

Currently, in order to exhibit at the community center, City Hall or the Encinitas Library, artists submit a few photographs of their work through an online portal and those samples are reviewed by a city-appointed committee. Once that process concludes, the artist is scheduled for an exhibition. In Karavodin’s case, her committee review process occurred in 2019, and she was scheduled to exhibit at the community center in spring 2020, but the building closed due to the pandemic before she could install any of her paintings, she said.

A year later, city officials contacted her and told said she could put up her artwork because the building would be reopening. She brought 20 paintings to the building in late April and started installing them with the help of several city employees, who appeared to like the pieces, she said. A few days later, she started getting calls from Gilliam and the city’s then-parks and recreation director Jennifer Campbell saying they had concerns.

After multiple discussions with city officials, she ultimately removed the pieces May 13 before the building opened to the public, she said.

Karavodin grew up in Encinitas and has exhibited in private galleries for several decades, but said this is the first time she has worked with government officials to hold an exhibit in a city building. Given her experiences with Encinitas, she said, she’s unlikely to do so again.

She said she’s been contacted by a national censorship organization offering her legal advice on fighting the city’s artwork removal order, but said she’s not interested in doing that.

“No way would I ever be taking them to court for anything,” she said. “I don’t have the time and I don’t have the money.”

Instead of fighting City Hall, she contacted Melissa Walker, a longtime friend who operates the ArtHatch gallery in Escondido, and reached an agreement to put up her censored paintings in that gallery. Walker said Thursday, July 22, that the pieces have been quite popular and she’s already sold four of them.

ArtHatch does exhibit some “cutting edge” art that might be considered shocking, Walker said, but stressed that Karavodin’s work definitely does not fall into this category.

“We’re both moms with kids,” she said, adding that Karavodin’s pieces are quite popular with families.

She said she was extremely surprised to hear Karavodin’s censorship story given what kids can view on the internet.

“With all you see on social media these days, it’s pretty shocking to see her art censored,” she said, adding that she really couldn’t believe that the “Bubba and Hobbs” piece had to be removed.

But Danny Salzhandler, the longtime coordinator of the Arts Alive banner program for the 101 Artist Colony in Encinitas, said he sympathizes with both the artist and the city.

“I can see both sides of it ... it’s a community gallery,” he said, later adding, “It’s tough to do art in a facility that’s run by tax dollars.”

Salzhandler said he recently checked out Karavodin’s website to see what was censored by the city. He said he found her to be an extremely talented artist, but said he would have had concerns about some of her pieces being in a community center where young children were congregating.

The “Remains of the Day” painting, with several dead bodies in a pool of blood, is more gory than the Vietnam-era photographs he’s putting together for a private exhibit, and the burning house painting maybe isn’t appropriate for little kids to view, though it does call attention to youth runaway issues, he said.

Salzhandler said he knows firsthand about struggling with censorship because of his experiences with the downtown art banner program and the 101 Artists’ Gallery. He’s dealt with complaints about everything from bare mermaid breasts to diaper-free baby paintings, he said.

In this case, he added, he was very glad he didn’t have to be the one judging what ought to be on display.

The remaining paintings in Karavodin’s “Now or Never” exhibit will be on display at the city’s community center through Aug. 4. Her exhibit of censored pieces, “NEVER: An uncensored solo show,” at the ArtHatch gallery on Escondido’s Grand Avenue will remain up through Aug. 5.


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