With her wispy gray hair and soft, peach-colored attire, Virginia Bates seems like the last person who could ever offend anyone.
Indeed, the artist and grandmother of two is the first to admit that she naturally shies away from attention and controversy. That's why no one was more surprised than Bates when the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Ellicott City removed some of her paintings from an exhibit this month, deeming them unsuitable for its customers.
"They said that some people -- they didn't say whether it was two or 10 -- objected to the fact that I had blood and skulls in my paintings," said Bates as she relaxed in her western Howard County home yesterday. "I am not a prude, and at my age there is very little that shocks me, except for this. When they called to tell me they were taking down some of my paintings, it was shocking, and for a minute I couldn't speak."
Stripped from the Barnes & Noble walls were seven works that are a part of what Bates calls her "social awareness" series. The acrylics -- which in addition to featuring skulls and blood have several images that include a weeping Statue of Liberty and children clutching balloons and guns -- are Bates' commentaries on violence, disease, smoking, alcoholism and war.
But officials at Barnes & Noble said the paintings were not what they expected Bates to display, and they removed them out of concern for younger customers.
"She submitted a few snapshots of her work to us," said Lori Sellers, community relations manager at the store. "The artwork that she showed up with was drastically different from what she had presented, and once it was put up on the walls we decided it was inappropriate."
It was a bewildering position for Bates -- a self-avowed fan and frequent customer of Barnes & Noble -- who immediately replaced the paintings with others. Fifteen are on display at the store through the end of the month. An award-winning poet and artist, Bates said she has never had complaints about her work before.
A mostly self-taught artist, Bates is a soft-spoken woman who has been painting for nearly 15 years. Many of her paintings, including some of the ones removed, have been featured around the county at fairs, libraries, senior centers and showings at Columbia's Slayton House.
Her home, with its splashes of peach here and there, is crammed with family photos, as well as collages, poems and paintings she has created over the years.
Some show sedate scenes such as a sunny day at Rehoboth Beach, Del., and bunches of purple flowers. But when it came time to express her feelings about issues such as family violence and AIDS, Bates said she used the images she felt best emphasized the dangers.
"It's all coming so close together, the alcoholism, the violence, the racism," Bates said. "We have to be aware of these things. We can't stick our heads in the sand."
With titles such as "War" and "Coffins Are Getting Smaller," the paintings were an outgrowth of her writing, Bates said. One, titled "Family Violence," shows a woman wearing an eye patch, cradling a baby as a dark shadow lurks in the background.
"I have always been concerned with trying to make the world a better place," Bates said. "My awareness started very early on, and so in my work I deal with some of that."
Sellers said Barnes & Noble features artwork by local artists as part of its community outreach and reserves the right to hang only the pieces it wants.
"We had one or two customers who were concerned about children viewing the paintings, but it was less about that and more about what Barnes & Noble wants displayed," Sellers said. "Since we are a family-oriented store, we feature artwork as a community service. But it's not like we are selling the artwork, so it's not a matter of censorship."
Sellers said that since the paintings were taken down, store officials have been re-evaluating their policy on artwork submissions.
Bates said she does not plan to let the removal discourage her.
"Painting for me is a release," she said, smiling softly. "You have to be true to yourself."