Three years after local officials judged his paintings offensive and removed them from county walls, Ventura artist Richard Peterson has won statewide recognition for works that confront such issues as abortion, obesity and drug abuse.
He is one of two California visual artists to win the first Young Artist's Recognition Awards. The contest, sponsored by Dewar's Scotch, honors artists between the ages of 25 and 45 in the categories of visual arts, dance, literature, music and theater.
"After the troubles I've had with the county getting my works shown, it was an honor to be nominated," Peterson said. "It was just a total thrill."
In 1986, 15 of Peterson's paintings were hung in the Hall of Administration at the County Government Center as a reward for placing third in a competition sponsored by the Ventura County Historical Museum, now known as the Ventura County Museum of History and Art.
They were scheduled to hang for eight weeks.
But county officials took the paintings down about two weeks into the show after employees and residents complained that the artwork was in poor taste.
"The works that Mr. Peterson exhibited were not ones that would be enriching to anyone's lives, but rather were social commentaries," said Sandra Sanders, administrative assistant to the county Arts Commission.
"What may be appropriate or unobjectionable for a museum is not necessarily appropriate for a facility of this kind," Sanders said. "Many people felt it was actually an abuse of the right to hang."
Removal of the paintings, however, sparked a protest by area artists, who decried the action as censorship. About two weeks later, the five members of the County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to put the paintings back up.
But that was hardly the end of the issue. The county formed a special committee under the Ventura County Arts Commission to oversee what would subsequently hang in the government center.
And Peterson, who started doubting the artistic merit of his pieces, found it difficult to work.
"I questioned from my very soul if what I was doing counted," Peterson said. "It kind of constipated me."
He finally concluded that he was doing the right things, just reaching the wrong audience.
"It's not me that's controversial," Peterson said. "It's life that's controversial. Maybe life should be censored."
Peterson's portraits are examples of social realism, a style that focuses on current events and issues.
Social realism has been around for a long time, but its popularity has ebbed in recent years. It is just beginning to gain strength again, said Robert Berman, owner of the B-1 Gallery in Los Angeles.
"Social realism will be noticed in the big art picture," Berman said. "Still, it probably won't usurp subtle, nondescript art that is so easy to live with."
Peterson presents the issue of euthanasia in "Sister of Mercy," in which an elderly patient looks up from her hospital bed at two arms holding an electric cord with a plug. Abortion is the central focus of "A Girl in Trouble (Is a Temporary Thing)," in which a man grasps his head in anguish outside an abortion clinic while a distressed woman looks out the building's glass doors.
"I just bring up an issue and try to get the viewer to confront his psyche," Peterson said. "Hopefully, he'll come to some kind of rational decision."
Peterson said he doesn't intend to push his ideas on others. He says he is steadfastly neutral, refusing to comment publicly on his political beliefs or opinions on issues such as abortion.
"I consider myself a journalist with paint," Peterson said.
He is working on paintings that address AIDS, abortion and intravenous drug abuse. He also is doing a series of portraits of people with tattoos. Peterson will unveil his latest works in March at an exhibit at Ventura College, where he works as an instructor and is curator of two campus galleries.
He also is active in community services. He develops brochures to benefit AIDS Care, a nonprofit, Ventura organization offering assistance to AIDS patients. And he started a campaign to keep speculators and developers out of a 200-home area along Ventura Avenue, a low-income area that is also home to many Ventura artists.
Peterson's friends describe him as eccentric, volatile and hip. Others use the word controversial.
Indeed, the Camarillo native said he always has strayed a bit from the norm.
In high school, Peterson said, his friends were different. At one point, he said, he became intrigued with the way that the elderly were hidden from society and began filming rest-home residents.
Amy Madsen, public relations officer for Ventura College, said she remembers meeting Peterson five years ago when he sported a purple mohawk, black silk pants and slippers that curled up at the toes.
"I couldn't believe Ventura College had hired such a cool guy," Madsen said.
Now the 37-year-old has toned down his look, although one earring still graces his right ear while seven others extend up the cartilage of the left.