Strawberry Festival poster described as racist by some, beautiful by others _lowres

Photo provided by Facebook -- The Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival poster

A painting of two black children that appears on posters for the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival has drawn comparisons to pickaninny stereotypes and other racist depictions of black people.

Festival leadership unveiled the poster Tuesday night and posted photos to Facebook the following day, where many users said they found the painting distasteful.

By Thursday afternoon, hundreds had shared, liked or commented on one photo of the poster on the Northshore Parent page. Not all reviews were negative; some users called the painting beautiful and questioned others who called it racist.

To Pat Morris, the painting is a reminder of blackface performers and a time when black children worked the fields instead of going to school.

“I know what that poster represents. … It is offensive. It is distasteful,” said Morris, president of the Greater Tangipahoa Parish NAACP branch.

Artist Kalle Siekkinen did not return a call for comment.

“Art is subjective. It is interpretive. There was no intent other than to pay tribute to the festival and the strawberry industry,” the Strawberry Festival and Ponchatoula Kiwanis Club wrote in a late Thursday news release. Siekkinen’s “African American paintings are free and spirited and express feelings of joy, happiness and laughter.”

The Kiwanis Club chose Siekkinen’s painting from entries in a contest, the release states.

On his website, Siekkinen expresses his admiration for the late Southern folk artist Bill Hemmerling, who also painted depictions of rural black people.

Festival organizers wrote the painting used in this year’s poster was inspired by “Sweet Olive,” one of Hemmerling’s works offering several depictions of a black woman that was used to promote the event in 2008.

“The 2008 poster was immediately embraced by our community,” the group’s release states. “Kalle’s poster was inspired by Sweet Olive; therefore, the Ponchatoula Kiwanis Club thought it would have the same positive reception by the community. … Sweet Olive’s face is detailed in only a few of the paintings, but her facelessness does not mean she is a nobody. It means she is everybody.”

Morris said the painting chosen for the Strawberry Festival poster has united people who oppose it.

“People black and white are saying ‘Take it down,’ ” she said.

Others are considering a boycott of the festival which, as the poster notes, will be held April 10-12. According to the Strawberry Festival website, the event has been held since 1972. A number of local civic organizations help organize it.

Morris is calling for festival leaders and local politicians to denounce the poster, and soon. She also wants the festival to stop selling prints, which cost $25 to $40.

“This is kind of like a time bomb waiting to explode,” she said.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.