The artist behind the divisive Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival poster has introduced a series of response paintings that address the controversy.

The festival poster depicts two black children ringed by strawberries and carrying a basket of the fruit. Their faces are featureless except for pairs of bright red lips. Some viewers said the painting resembled racist caricatures of black people, and the head of the local NAACP branch called it offensive and distasteful.

New Orleans-based artist Kalle Siekkinen, who is white, has hotly contested those claims and recently released a new painting titled “Not About Color.” It features four girls, all drawn in the style of the children on the festival poster. However, while one has dark black skin, others have vivid pink, yellow and blue flesh.

Another work features a young black angel surrounded by people praying, with the words of Mother Teresa’s poem “Anyway” in the background.

The two other paintings in the series are titled “Letting Go,” in which the figures from the poster release a flock of doves, and “At the Festival,” which shows the pair looking out at carnival rides at the event.

“I was inspired by the controversy and all the conflict,” Siekkinen said. “It’s not about the color of our skin, of my skin. It’s about how we treat one another.”

Siekkinen is selling poster versions of the new works for $30 to $35, while fine art quality prints cost $500 to $625. They can be viewed and ordered at kalleart.com, which also has information on ordering Strawberry Festival posters.

Siekkinen said he didn’t know precisely how many festival posters had been sold, but he estimated the total number of sales in the “thousands upon thousands,” with buyers ordering all over the country.

Fueled by controversy, festival organizers have said the poster will smash all previous sales records. The proceeds from the sale of the festival posters go to the Kiwanis Club of Ponchatoula. The new posters are on sale by the artist.

Vatican group backs Redemptorist decision

The Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education has thrown its support behind Bishop Robert Muench’s decision to close Redemptorist Junior and Senior High schools, according to the Catholic Commentator.

Redemptorist parents, students and alumni made several attempts to keep the school open after the bishop announced in December that declining enrollment counts would force the school to close at the end of the school year.

The Redemptorist supporters wrote a petition to Pope Francis, asking the Vatican to intervene and keep the school open, and they appealed the bishop’s decision.

The “Save Redemptorist” supporters also asked the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge to relinquish control of the school and let a board of parents and alumni run it instead. The diocese denied the request.

The Vatican’s letter says Muench was within his rights to close the school after consulting with the Diocesan School Board, the Diocesan Finance Council and the Diocesan College of Consultors, the Commentator reported.

“Thank you for your helpful letter regarding the appeal against the planned closure of Redemptorist High School in Baton Rouge,” the Vatican letter read, according to the newspaper for the diocese. “After careful examination of the documentation you presented and within the range of its competence, this Congregation for Catholic Education has deemed that it should not modify the decision that was made.”

The final Redemptorist senior class graduated on May 8, and the remainder of the students finished exams last week.

Advocate staff writers Steve Hardy and Andrea Gallo contributed to this report.