Rutland gallery exhibits censored high school student's photos

RUTLAND, Vt. (WCAX) A Rutland County high school senior's art project that was removed after being deemed inappropriate by the principal is now on display in Rutland.

It's said that art is in the eye of the beholder, but what is and is not appropriate for young people is up for debate, and that includes an art project from by 16-year-old Lea-Or Tooti Zarfati-Eirmann.

"Rope is a very strong medium," said Zarfati-Eirmann, whose photos are of high school students tied up in different positions. It's called Shibari, originally used centuries ago in Japan to torture and restrain prisoners. Today, it's considered an art form and is associated with sexual bondage.

The photos are part of a final project in an A.P. Studio Art class at Mill River Union High School in North Clarendon.
Zarfati-Eirmann, who goes by the nickname "Tooti," says everyone can relate to the work."This represents some aspect of them because no matter what, we are all restricted in some way," she said.

But three days before graduation in June, instead of putting up the photos, Zarfati-Eirmann put a sign on the wall that said "this is my final now." The day of the show, she says Mill River's principal, Tyler Weideman, told the senior she needed to take the art down.

Reporter Adam Sullivan: What was the reason he gave you?
Lea-Or Tooti Zarfati-Eirmann: That young children could see it. That was it. That was the sentence. Which is kind of ridiculous because it was hanging in the art room for like five or six months.

The censorship spread quickly on social media and the local newspaper picked up the story. Weideman declined an interview with WCAX, but he told the Rutland Herald students complained about the pictures.

"It is a huge missed opportunity. I think it was mishandled," said Zohara Zarfati, Tooti's mother. She says her family never intended to make a big deal out of the issue. She also acknowledges some people could be taken aback by the photos. But she agrees with her daughter that provocative art does exactly what it's intended.

"If the administration feels strongly that it will impact the social environment at the school for some reason, then it is their responsibility to find an alternative setting for this," Zarfati said.

"I think that Tooti's work is inspirational," said Sherri Birkheimer Rooker with the Chaffee Art Center in Rutland, where tooti's exhibit is now on display.

Reporter Adam Sullivan: Do you think it is appropriate for a middle school kid?
Sherri Birkheimer Rooker: I do... Once you read Tooti's statement of what she meant by it, I think you understand it more and look at it in a different way.

Tooti graduated early and and is still contemplating her future plans. Those plans will certainly include art, something the 16-year-old now knows can be censored in one setting while celebrated in another. "I know it has the connotation of bondage and it has that sexual connotation, but it is so much more than that," she said.

The art will be on display through July 19th, though that will likely not be the last show. Other galleries across Vermont have also expressed interest.