Millions of people worldwide have marveled at Amedeo Modigliani’s “Iris Tree” painting and Francois Boucher’s “Odalisque,” but several parents whose children attend Lincoln Elementary in Hyrum, Utah, are outraged that their children were exposed to the works.
Students were shown postcards featuring the classical nude portraits last month by their art teacher, Mateo Rueda, and a handful of parents complained to the Cache County School District, causing an uproar that resulted in Rueda’s firing.
Now, with art lovers worldwide coming to his defense online, the school district is working on reaching a resolution with Rueda, who says that the controversy has made it impossible for him to return to the classroom in conservative Hyrum, even if he were to be rehired.
School district officials did not respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment, other than to say they will be soon issuing a statement.
“The damage has already been done,” Rueda, 32, tells PEOPLE. “This is something that will follow me for the rest of my life. I would like my name cleared and an apology from the school district. They need to admit some wrongdoing here, because I had no due process and wasn’t even allowed to speak before I was fired.”
A native of Columbia who received an undergraduate degree in fine arts from Utah State University in 2014, Rueda says he was thrilled to be hired as a part-time art teacher at Lincoln Elementary in 2016.
“I made it my purpose to be a positive influence for the kids’ visual thinking and their notions about the world,” he says, “so even though I was overqualified, I took the position with an open heart to make a difference in a predominantly-Mormon community where there isn’t much culture. I hate that this controversy happened, but I stand for art, altruism and enlightenment, and I’ll never back down from that.”
The dispute started on Dec. 4, when Rueda decided to use a set of 100 educational postcards printed by Phaidon Publishing in a package called “The Art Box.” He’d found the cards in the school library and thought they’d help him to explain a lesson about color theory to Lincoln’s fifth and sixth graders.
“Either the school district purchased these materials or they were donated,” he tells PEOPLE, “and I did not realize what paintings were included until the kids started looking at them. When some of the kids seemed upset by three or four postcards featuring nude art, I immediately took them away, but figured the can of worms had been opened. I decided that a good educator would explain what the paintings were about.”
Rueda says he told the class that “art can be uncomfortable sometimes, but there should be no shame about nude artwork that is inherently beautiful and is seen in museums worldwide.”
“Several of the students went home and told their parents,” he tells PEOPLE, “and one parent anonymously called the sheriff’s office to accuse me of showing pornographic material.”
A Cache County deputy came to the school to investigate, but no charges were filed. The school’s principal, Jeni Buist, shredded the postcard collection then apologized to parents, and that led to more complaints, says Rueda.
At the end of the week, “I was given two choices: resign or be terminated, and neither option was acceptable to me,” he says. “I expressed my position in a letter from my lawyer, but they fired me anyway. I went home to my wife, Vella, and said, ‘This is surreal. Where do we live? This is art that has been studied and admired for years —it’s not about sex.’ I couldn’t believe the reaction. It was ridiculous.”
Several children are upset about losing their favorite teacher, including Bella Jensen, 10, who was inspired weekly by Rueda’s art lessons, says her mother, Kamee Jensen.
“Bella was heartbroken when she’d learned he’d been terminated,” she tells PEOPLE, “and after talking to her, I learned she wasn’t uncomfortable at all with the images she had seen. ‘It’s art, Mom,’ she told me, and she’s exactly right.”
“I’m so sad for Mr. Mateo,” adds Jensen, “but also for the students at Lincoln Elementary who have suffered a great loss. Thanks to Mr. Mateo, Bella has a real passion and a love for art. But now that he’s gone, we will probably have a crafts class instead of genuine art instruction. It’s just terribly unfair and unfortunate, all around.”
Besides an apology, Mateo is hoping that the school district will offer him a new job, since he enjoys living in Utah, despite the friction brought on by religious ideals.
“There are a lot of skeletons in the closet of the repressed culture here,” he says, “and there is very little freedom of expression. So even though I’m not happy about what happened to me, I am happy with the conversation that’s now taking place. By talking about it, perhaps more people will understand that the images in that postcard box were icons of art history and human patrimony. If that comes about, then I will have done my job as a teacher.”