Educational cards depicting Impressionist and Rococo nudes were accidentally shown to 6th graders, and now a Utah art teacher is fighting for his job back. A pornography complaint lodged against him was rejected by prosecutors.
Mateo Rueda plans to appeal his firing, claiming defamation of character over how Lincoln Elementary School handled it. The school, however, reportedly didn’t fire Rueda strictly over the nude paintings, but for how Rueda reacted once students were upset by them, according to the Herald Journal.
The incident occurred on December 4, when students were instructed to study art postcards from the Cache County school’s library. ‘The Art Box’ collection had been a part of the library for years, before Rueda began teaching there, and he says he was unaware that several of the 100 cards contained nudity.
Two of the controversial art pieces were Italian painter Amadeo Modigliani’s ‘Iris Tree’ (1916) and French artist Francois Boucher’s ‘Odalisque’ (1749).
“I immediately took back from students the postcards I felt could make students feel uncomfortable,” he told the Herald Journal. “Then I explained to the whole class that art can sometimes show images that are not always comfortable to all, that art is better understood when placed in its proper context, that the human body is often portrayed in art, and that the images in the school collection are icons of art history and a patrimony of humanity.”
That isn’t how parent Venessa Rose Pixton’s 11-year-old son relayed the event to her. Pixton told the newspaper that it wasn’t the paintings themselves so much that offended her, but how Rueda responded in the situation.
“My son felt that Mr. Mateo belittled them,” Pixton told the newspaper. “He said Mr. Mateo even told the class ‘There’s nothing wrong with female nipples. You guys need to grow up and be mature about this.’”
Rueda denied saying that, and he does have his supporters. Parent Kamee Jensen told the newspaper that her daughter never felt uncomfortable but was “very upset that her teacher was in trouble.”
An unnamed school district official told the newspaper that the firing was based on his exchange with students after the artworks were discovered. Rueda’s termination wasn’t official until four days after the Monday, December 4 incident. First, he was given a one-day administrative absence, then upon returning Wednesday received a two-day suspension.
That Friday, a Cache County Sheriff’s officer witnessed Lincoln Elementary School Principal Jeni Buist shredding all of the cards containing nudity, the newspaper reported.
“In a Friday meeting, they gave me two choices: to resign, accepting their terms of my alleged wrongdoing (eliminating any possibility to voice my opinion in the future), or to be terminated with a scathing and defamatory letter. Frankly, neither option was agreeable to me,” Rueda wrote to the newspaper.
Rueda, a Colombian who immigrated to earn a master’s degree in fine art at Utah State University six years ago, says his professional interactions in the Utah area are the true reflection of who he is, not this termination.
“The terms of termination are belittling of my character, and to that end they are a defamation of character,” he wrote to the Herald Journal. “My intent when it comes to the hearing has [nothing] to do money or anything like that, but it has to do with exercising my right to be heard so that I can have a clean name, a clean reputation… This could be something that follows me for the rest of my life.”