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Local teen’s art finds home

In Warren’s Box Gallery

May 25, 2017
By ANDY GRAY , The Town Crier

POLAND - Art class was Gina Armeni's escape at Boardman High School.

It was the one place where she could create, she said, where she could do "the only thing I've ever stuck with my entire life."

Now it's the most stressful place in school.

Article Photos

Special to the Town Crier / R. Michael Semple
Gina Armeni, 17, a Boardman High School senior, discusses some of her artwork at her Poland home. After much of Armeni’s artwork was deemed inappropriate and banned from display in her high school art show, she was invited to show her work at downtown Warren’s Box Gallery in an exhibition opening Saturday.

The 17-year-old senior didn't show her Advance Placement art portfolio in the school's art show May 18 because some of her paintings were deemed inappropriate. Instead the work will be shown at downtown Warren's Box Gallery in an exhibition opening Saturday.

Armeni, surrounded by her art at her family's home in Poland, said she was excited for her first gallery show but frustrated by the situation that made it possible.

She decided to explore chakras - a Sanskrit word used to describe the centers of spiritual power in the human body - and body image for her senior portfolio, and many of the pieces involve nude figures.

"Over the course of the year, I've grown a lot as a person and become aware of my body, my mind and my thoughts, and I think expressing it in my art is the easiest way for me to talk about it," Armeni said.

The Advance Placement board doesn't restrict the themes students can explore in their work, Armeni said. However, the school has stricter policies that weren't communicated until after one of her pieces appeared in a display case earlier this year. It depicts a faceless nude woman shown from the side with the breast visible.

"It's about the sacral root chakra, located in this area (lower abdomen) of your body," Armeni said. "It's basically the foundation of who you are, what you are now and what got you there ... She's kind of like healing and trying to grow as a person."

Boardman High School Principal Cynthia Fernback said she received complaints about the piece when it was on display, and she had it removed to be consistent with the school's policies.

"We have a dress code policy for the building," Fernback said. "Some of the things we prohibit students to wear on shirts is anything drug related, anything racially or religiously offensive, nudity or gang-related images. Basically those same limits would apply to art ... If it's not OK for a kid to wear on a shirt in the hallway, it's not OK to hang it in the hallway."

Armeni does not believe the piece is objectionable.

"It's one side of a (breast), so I really don't understand," she said. "It's not objectifying the body or sexualizing it in any way, so I was really shocked."

Armeni admitted that she didn't expect the school to show all of her work. And Fernback stressed that Armeni could have displayed work in the school show that fell within its code of conduct. But Armeni believed too much of her best work would have been excluded by the school, so she decided to focus her attention on the Box Gallery exhibition instead of displaying what she believes is inferior work.

She held up one of the nudes and another painting that was a head-and-shoulders portrait to illustrate her point.

"This one (the portrait) is less personal to me than this one would be," she said. "This one (the nude) I put a lot more emotion in, more time thinking about it and trying to express something intangible in a tangible way ... The things I made that are controversial are just way more personal to me, and I put way more emotion into them than the other things."

Someone familiar with the situation contacted Box Gallery owner and Warren artist Aaron Chine, and he offered to let Armeni display her work in the gallery space at his tattoo studio.

"I thought (her work) was great, especially for a high school senior," Chine said. "The way I looked at it, I thought this is a kid who should be encouraged, not discouraged."

Chine saw a lot of himself in the young artist.

"If it wasn't for art, I wouldn't have any of the things I have now," he said. "Art was the one thing I was better than all the other kids at. I got a lot of encouragement from my parents; my art teachers were always encouraging. I was a rowdy, rambunctious little kid, and it was the one thing that calmed me and put me in my happy place."

Armeni will study studio art at Youngstown State University in the fall and she ultimately would like to become a tattoo artist. She alternates between being happy for the amazing opportunity of her own gallery show while being angry about the situation at school.

Last week, she used a palette knife to cut several gashes into a painting of a headless figure manipulating two marionette puppets.

"It's about the problems at school and how it was frustrating me," she said. "I was angry about it, so I stabbed it with my palette knife. Then, I was like, 'Wait, that looks cool,' so I kept doing it."

She hasn't decided whether to include that piece in the Warren show.

Fernback said she is happy Armeni is getting a chance to have her work seen.

"Her talent is immeasurable," the principal said. "There is no question she's a gifted and talented artist."

But she also believes a private gallery is where it belongs. The high school has children as young as 14 years old in its student body, and many younger siblings attend the art show with their parents.

"Adults in a non-school environment is the appropriate audience for that work," Fernback said.

The principal said the school will make a greater effort to explain its policies to students at the beginning of the school year to avoid a similar conflict in the future.

Armeni hopes the freedom she had to create, if not exhibit, isn't lost for future students.

"If I didn't have the opportunity to make things I wanted to in that class, I would just absolutely hate school. Art is the place where I go to take a break from my day, and now it's just becoming so stressful because we have to constantly ask ourselves, 'Is this OK to draw?' 'This could be controversial.'

"I totally understand why you can't show some things in the art show, because it's an all-audience thing. Everyone should be able to go and bring their kids. But having the freedom to make whatever you want in an art class is the most important thing to me," Armeni said.



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