Chapel Hill artist criticized after others say her work looks too much like theirs

Other artists think this Chapel Hill artist copied their work. What do you think?

A UNC-Chapel Hill graduate in a residency artist program was accused of using the inspiration and style of three other artists’ work and selling it on Etsy. Here is a side-by-side look at three works in question.
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A UNC-Chapel Hill graduate in a residency artist program was accused of using the inspiration and style of three other artists’ work and selling it on Etsy. Here is a side-by-side look at three works in question.

One of the four artists in a Chapel Hill residency program has stepped down after questions were raised about similarities between her prints and those of three other artists from around the world.

Lauren Ralph, a recent UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, was one of four artists chosen by the town for a two-month residency at Studio 109 on East Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.

But on Thursday, Karin Rytter, a Scandinavian artist, El Ronan, a Michigan-based artist, and Maarit Hänninen, who lives in Amsterdam, said they each have works that appear to have been copied by Ralph.

Ralph said some of the accusations are being blown out of proportion.

“I do share fault in this where two prints that I made in the past share a very similar likeness to one of theirs respectively,” Ralph said in an email to The News & Observer. “However, I did not trace or directly copy their works as accused, but I did use the orientation of the imagery and the subject matter to make the basis for the illustrations that I completed on my own.”

fox & hare.jpg
Lauren Ralph’s “The Fox and Hare,” from Ralph’s exhibit, left, and Scandinavian artist Karin Rytter’s “Greenworld,” from her Instagram account. Jacquelyn Melinek / Screenshot from Instagram

Ralph’s and Rytter’s print both have rabbits, squirrels, flowers and birds placed in similar places.

Susan Brown, the executive director for the Community Arts & Culture in Chapel Hill, one of the sponsors of the residency program, confirmed that Ralph is no longer involved in it.

“She is withdrawing herself from the project and will not be receiving the stipend,” Brown said.

Matt Gladdek, executive director of Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, said some of the partners were made aware of the situation Thursday night and others were notified Friday morning.

Brown said the partners are going to get together early next week to discuss future steps, including the possibility of having a new resident artist.

As previously reported by The News & Observer, over 30 local artists applied for the residency, which includes a spot in the studio to create art and a $1,000 stipend from the Town of Chapel Hill’s budget.

Allegations arise

Rytter said that while she was on Etsy, a popular site to sell handmade or vintage items, the site suggested that she should buy a print featured on Ralph’s Etsy page, Octopress Printshop. Rytter said Ralph’s print appeared to be a copy of one of her own works.

“Theft of intellectual property is a serious issue,” Rytter said. “It hurts me to see her promoted for something so (wrong) as this. I work incredibly hard to make a living as an artist, and to support my family and three little sons this way.”

After further looking at Ralph’s Etsy page, Rytter said she also found prints from Ralph that looked extremely similar to the work of Hänninen and Ronan.

“I don’t want to jump into any conclusions,” Hänninen said. “But it does indeed look like one of my prints, ‘Lintukoto,’ was either copied, or used as a direct reference for somebody else’s work.”

Lauren Ralph’s “Crane Mid-flight,” from Ralph’s Etsy site, left, and Amsterdam artist Maarit Hänninen’s “Lintukoto.” Screenshot from Etsy / Maarit Hänninen

Ralph’s and Hänninen’s print both have a crane featured and branches with a form of leaves.

Ronan said she had spoken directly with Ralph and that Ralph made comments that her work was merely “inspired by” the art of others.

“I hope Ralph learns from this situation and moves on to make original art in the future,” Ronan said.

International and American artists

Rytter sent a tip to The News & Observer about the allegations on Thursday night after learning about Ralph’s work through her fan base and the Etsy suggestion.

Rytter has over 60,000 Instagram followers and Hänninen has over 36,000 followers, giving them a fairly large online fan base.

Ralph’s prints were for sale on her Etsy page with prices ranging from $25 to $80.

“There’s some expression about imitation being a form of flattery, but when someone is selling copies of your work, it feels exactly like theft,” Rytter said in an Instagram post. “I would never mind anyone copying my designs for their own practice (and with proper acknowledgment), but to do so in order to sell them for monetary gain and to pass them off as their own ... seriously, it hurts.”

But Ralph said she was not explicitly copying their work. Still, she said it was a mistake to consult their work as a foundation for the orientation and subject matter to her prints.

Lauren Ralph’s “Raven in the Sun,” from Ralph’s Etsy site, left, and Michigan artist El Ronan’s “Two For Mirth,” from her website. Screenshots from Etsy / elronan.com

Ralph’s and Ronan’s prints both feature birds, similar shading, a colored circle, flowers and leaves.

“In reference to the ‘Ravens in the Sun’ print, one of the outside artists illustrated magpies whereas I chose to illustrate ravens,” Ralph said. “While the birds differ in illustration and subject matter, they do share a similar orientation against a sun. The print did hold metaphoric meaning to me since my dad used to reference my sister and (me) as baby birds flying out the nest towards the sun, a metaphor to seize the day, and I was inspired by the imagery in (Ronan’s) work.”

Christopher Bolen, a Raleigh intellectual property partner at Womble Bond Dickinson, has worked with copyright infringement for over 30 years.

“Intellectual property rights find their origins in real property, like real estate,” Bolen said. “In many respects, this concept of infringement finds its roots in association with trespassing. When someone is stepping on my property and using it without my permission, that’s trespassing. The same principle applies to intellectual property.”

Moving forward

Ralph said she will no longer show or print the two prints.

“I have since apologized to the artists privately for referencing portions of their prints,” she added. “It was never my intent to cause harm by creating work similar to that of their own for those prints in question.”

She also told Brown that she has closed her Etsy shop and destroyed all the print blocks and plates that she would make the alleged copied prints from.

Ronan said she hopes other young artists learn from this situation as well.

“Thanks for the support everyone,” Ronan wrote on Instagram. “Let’s all get back to art making.”

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Jacquelyn Melinek covers metro news for the News & Observer, where she works to update readers about the latest in government, crime, schools and other local news stories. She is a Stembler Scholar, graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the School of Media and Journalism and grew up in Westchester, New York.