This story by John P. Gregg was published by the Valley News on July 25.
SOUTH ROYALTON — The Vermont Law School Board of Trustees has given an artist 90 days to remove a controversial mural depicting slavery before the school itself will remove it.
The decision, announced Friday evening after the board met that day, varied slightly from an earlier statement this month from VLS President and Dean Thomas McHenry that it would “paint over” the mural by artist Sam Kerson. McHenry had previously noted that many in the VLS community now find the mural “offensive” because of its depictions of African Americans.
Painted and installed in the VLS Chase Community Center in 1993, “The Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave” “celebrates the efforts of black and white Americans in Vermont and throughout the United States to achieve freedom and justice,” Kerson’s website says.
But students at the law school in 2013 had told a diversity committee that the mural — which comprises two 8-by-24-foot panels, with four scenes in each panel and includes half-naked Africans being forced into slavery and sold at auction — was “unsettling” and depicted African Americans as savages.
And this summer, some current students said the mural “perpetuates white supremacy, superiority, and the white savior complex,” and that the “the over-exaggerated depiction of Africans, … is eerily similar to Sambos, and other anti-black coon caricatures.”
VLS on Friday said the Board of Trustees agreed with their concerns and with McHenry’s recommendation, but also would allow Kerson a chance to remove the mural to comply with the Visual Artists Rights Act.
Enacted in 1990, the federal law known as VARA is intended to prevent the unauthorized destruction of works of “recognized stature,” even if the artist no longer owns it.
“Consistent with VARA, VLS will be reaching out to the artist to determine if he would like to remove the mural within 90 days. If the artist chooses not to remove the mural, the mural will be painted over or otherwise removed,” VLS spokeswoman Nicole Ravlin said in an emailed statement Friday night. “In the meantime, the mural is being temporarily covered.”
Kerson, who turns 74 on Tuesday and now lives in Quebec, said on Saturday that he had not been officially notified yet by VLS of its decision, and said he was uncertain of how he would proceed.
“We have to consider our options. We are not at the moment prepared to make a decision nor do we see clearly what our options are,” Kerson said via email. “But we will investigate.”
Another factor Kerson noted is that the mural is “quite large.”
Kerson also provided a letter he had written on Friday defending his VLS mural, noting that artist Kenny Hughes, who is Black, worked on it with him and also signed his name to it, and that Florynce Kennedy, a prominent civil rights and women’s rights activists, had spoken at the mural’s dedication.
Kerson wrote that the “four scenes of enslavement and the four scenes of liberation (are) an original and authentic work of art. A piece that anyone can recognize as cultural heritage. A piece that should be protected and preserved. We call on our friends to remind the law school that art is culture and art is history and that those who have the privilege of having art also have an obligation to preserve those works for another generation.”
In their earlier letter raising concerns about the mural, VLS students Jameson Davis and April Urbanowski said that Kerson might have meant well when he created the work more than 25 years ago, but that “the story of Black experiences should be told by Black people.”
“We do not dispute that Sam Kerson sincerely attempted to create a piece of art that would ‘celebrate the efforts of Black and white Americans in Vermont and throughout the United States to achieve freedom and justice,’ ” they wrote. “Unfortunately, not all intentions align with interpretation, with this mural serving as a current example.”