A teacher secretly sold his students’ artwork on mugs and T-shirts, the lawsuit says

In January, students at a middle school outside Montreal were tasked with drawing a classmate or self-portrait in the style of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“The challenge is to create an original work of art in the style of Basquiat; not to copy one of his images,” wrote teacher Mario Perron to his students at the junior campus of Westwood High School in St.-Lazare, Quebec. “I know Basquiat’s work very well and I will return the copied work, because it is considered plagiarism.”

The assignment was titled “Disturbing Portrait.”

Basquiat was a notable subject: he was the influential Brooklyn-born artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, known for a brief career in which he innovated with graffiti and other types of improvised pieces. He died at age 27 in 1988.

But parents of some students who completed the task were shocked to discover that Mr. Perron had copied the portraits and was offering mugs, pillows, bags, clothing and other items for sale online bearing reproductions of the artwork, according to a class action lawsuit. filed last week in the Quebec Superior Court.

Joel DeBellefeuille, who learned what was happening from his 13-year-old son, Jax, accused Mr. Perron in an interview of perpetrating a “premeditated” plan. A portrait of Jax by one of his classmates was among the student artwork offered for sale, he said.

I freaked out,” Mr. DeBellefeuille said. “I was full of emotions. Even now it’s truly incredible.”

Mr. Perron, who did not respond to a request for comment, is not listed as a current employee on the school website. Darren Becker, spokesman for the Lester B. Pearson School Board, which is a named defendant in the lawsuit, said the school board “does not comment on internal investigations.”

It was not immediately clear whether Mr Perron had sold any of the items listed or how much money, if any, he had made.

Mr. DeBellefeuille first discovered that the artwork had been repurposed on February 11, 2018, when his son, who had done a Google search, showed him that Mr. Perron had created a profile on American fine arts, an online art marketplace. The profile contained thousands of items for sale showing work originally submitted by students, ranging in price from $9.50 to $113 in U.S. currency, all apparently unauthorized.

Each item was labeled with the student’s name followed by “Disturbing Portrait.” The drawings themselves mimic Basquiat’s frenetic style: multicolored portraits that wink at the unconventional and imaginative, including lots of oddly shaped heads and contorted bodies. Mr. Perron was listed as the artist of all the works, according to screenshots provided by Mr. DeBellefeuille.

In total, according to a request letter sent to the school district on Feb. 11, 2019. 13, there were 2,976 items for sale using the work of the 96 students who were assigned the assignment. According to the letter, student artwork was reproduced in 31 categories, including pillows, tank tops, bags and beach towels.

The works appear to have been removed from the Fine Art America website.

“It is obvious that the confidence of the public, students, parents and especially our customers in the school board and its representatives has been severely shaken,” the letter reads.

Mr. DeBellefeuille’s brother, Martin, a lawyer, initially sent the letter on behalf of Mr. DeBellefeuille and Edith Liard, the parent of another child in the art class. Parents of 10 other children have joined the suit, Mr. DeBellefeuille said, including two who added their names after the suit was filed on Friday.

The plaintiffs are seeking C$2.16 million, or approximately $1.59 million, a figure that includes C$5,000 for each work reproduced in the 31 categories, plus punitive damages and attorney’s fees. They are also demanding that Mr Perron remove the works from all platforms, be suspended and receive a written apology.

Under the Canadian Copyright Act, a copyright owner may be entitled to between 500 and 20,000 Canadian dollars for each work used illegally. Under Canadian law, you do not need to apply for a copyright considered the owner of the copyright.

The lawsuit cites Quebec’s civil code as the reason why the school board is named as a accused. It is said that “the principal is required to compensate for the damage caused by the fault of his subordinates in the exercise of their duties”.

Mr. DeBellefeuille said he expected the school district to settle rather than go to court.

“To me, it takes a special kind of person to go that deep to do what he did to underage children,” Mr. DeBellefeuille said of Mr. Perron. “That’s what makes me angry.”