Something's happening in historic Ellicott City that has been raising a bit of a flap. The catch is that it's taking place at an art gallery, where even a hint of controversy can be a good thing.
The current show at Sheppard Art Gallery, called "Le Paysage Feminin: A Figurative Show of the Feminine Landscape," has stopped a few people in their tracks as they stroll along Main Street and has drawn a few curious onlookers into the small gallery.
At the center of the talk are the art works: a few chalk drawings and oil paintings of nude female figures as seen by four nationally respected artists. The most arresting images of the nudes are life-sized and can be seen through the gallery's large windows facing Main Street.
This placement has led to all kinds of comments from gallery regulars and passers-by. In the process, the paintings have raised questions about modern American morals.
"Reception to the show has really been kind of mixed," says gallery owner Rebecca Weber. "We started off just being nervous in general about this kind of show, because Howard County is a very conservative place, even though nude paintings are the oldest thing in the book."
Weber says the gallery has become known for presenting quality art on the nonthreatening side. But the new year has prompted a change in direction.
"We decided last year that we were going to try to be more creative and show more daring original work," she says. "There are only a few galleries in Baltimore that show this kind of thing, and I'm really going to push for more shows like this."
It helps that the artists in the show -- Mark Karnes, Duane Keiser, Anthony Panzera and Ephraim Rubenstein -- are respected painters and portraitists, Weber says.
Though the Sheppard show has been open only since Jan. 22, a lot of people have been offended. The negative comments began almost immediately.
Some people were less concerned about the fact that the women in the pictures were naked than they were with the models, Weber says.
"A lot of people, women in particular, will say, 'Why didn't the artist pick a beautiful woman to paint?' " Weber says, incredulously. "We get that a lot. But these women in the pictures are not what you see in the Victoria's Secret catalog. They're fleshy and curvy and not the ideal of the perfect American figure. And that makes a lot of people very uncomfortable."
Rubenstein, a former professor at the University of Richmond who lives with his family in Ellicott City, says the market for nude paintings and drawings is small.
"There are a lot of people who admire this kind of work, and then there are people who admire it but still don't want to hang it in their house," says Rubenstein, 43, who has paintings in the collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
"People have a very corrupted yardstick of what the body is supposed to look like," he adds. "So you run up against a tremendous amount of resistance to looking at these life-sized, naked women."
One of the most arresting portraits in the show is of a pregnant woman, who happens to be Rubenstein's wife, Sara. The portrait has drawn criticism from gallery visitors, Weber says.
"I happen to think my wife was beautiful then, and she loves the painting," Rubenstein says, "but I admit that it takes a lot to hang a life-sized picture of a pregnant, nude woman on your wall at home."
Weber admits she didn't expect the paintings to sell well -- or at all. No sales yet.
"I just wanted to have the opportunity to show them," she says. "Most people that come in the gallery don't realize how respected these painters are. They're represented by some very serious galleries around the country. It's a real privilege to be able to show them."
"Le Paysage Feminin: A Figurative Show of the Feminine Landscape" will be on exhibit through the end of this month. Information about gallery hours: 410-461-1616. The Sheppard Art Gallery is at 8173 Main St. in Ellicott City.