'Phone is ringing off the hook' at Kiwanis Club with people buying controversial Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival poster _lowres

2015 Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival poster

The controversial Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival poster that invoked the ire of the NAACP will not be sold at the festival next month — though collectors can still get their hands on a copy.

When festival leaders revealed the design last week, hundreds flocked to social media in response. Some said the depiction of two black children drew from racist stereotypes, while others defended the painting, calling it beautiful folk art.

The festival board of directors, Ponchatoula city leaders, members of the local NAACP chapter and leaders of the Ponchatoula Kiwanis Club, which selected the design, met Wednesday morning to discuss the poster.

Afterward, Festival Chairman Donald Lanier apologized for offending people and announced the poster would not be sold or displayed at the festival.

However, the Kiwanis Club will still sell prints, which run $25 to $40.

“The irony is the controversy has actually increased the sales,” Kiwanis President Randy Tomeny said. “The phone is ringing off the hook.”

While Lanier and Tomeny both apologized on behalf of their organizations for causing offense, both said they had also heard support from black residents, and neither found the design objectionable.

“I personally don’t see where it’s offensive,” Lanier said.

“It’s a great poster. It’s a great design. It’s art,” Tomeny said.

Multiple attempts to reach the Greater Tangipahoa NAACP on Wednesday were unsuccessful. President Pat Morris has said the painting used in the poster was reminiscent of blackface performances and called it offensive and distasteful. In a parish still slogging through a school desegregation lawsuit, she said the painting is a reminder of a time when black children worked the fields instead of going to class.

Lanier said the outcry over this year’s poster could affect how the design is chosen in the future. The festival board also may approve the poster chosen by the Kiwanis for events in the coming years, he said.

“If it offends some people, we at least need to be aware of that and be sensitive to that,” Tomeny said.

New Orleans artist Kalle Siekkinen, who painted the design used in the poster, defended his work, and countered claims that the children resemble pickaninny or Sambo caricatures.

“I think that is just heinous and slanderous,” he said. “I don’t believe in any way I’ve done anything offensive, and I don’t apologize for my artwork.”

Siekkinen, who said he is of Finnish and Italian descent, said he’s wondered since the outcry began if people would have responded to his work differently if he was black.

“I’m certainly not going to change my style. ... I certainly believe in my work,” he said.

Siekkinen has painted the two children a dozen times in the past — while jumping rope, at a lemonade stand or in other scenes. He’s even named them: Simon and Louise.

“I thought of them almost as my children,” he said.

He drew inspiration from his mentor, the late artist Bill Hemmerling, particularly his depictions of a black woman known as Sweet Olive. A painting of Sweet Olive was used to advertise the Strawberry Festival in 2008 and “was immediately embraced by our community,” event organizers wrote in a news release last week.

In a Wednesday interview, Lanier said there was “a little bit of the same outcry” over the Sweet Olive poster, again because of her racial depiction. But others appreciated the design, and the posters sold out.

Tomeny declined to comment when asked how many posters have sold this year. Siekkinen said he was awarded $500 for winning the poster design contest but does not receive any portion of their sales.

The money raised from the prints goes back into charitable work the Kiwanis perform in the community, Tomeny said. Festival fundraising is responsible for “well over 50 percent” of the Kiwanis budget, he continued.

More than 50 nonprofit organizations depend on the Strawberry Festival to raise money. The rumored boycott over the poster would harm all groups, Tomeny said.

“This festival is not just about this poster,” Lanier said. “One poster does not make this festival.”

He said some of the public has lost sight of the festival’s purpose — to promote local farmers and nonprofit groups.

“Don’t let a poster affect your judgment on coming to our festival,” he said.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.