Sam Kerson........Muralist
The Underground Railroad
Columbus at the Gates of Paradise
Todo Sera Mejor
Vermont and the Fugitive Slave
located at the Centro Deportivo de los Trabajadores Sandinistas Masaya, Nicaragua, February 1990
located in the Skylight Conference room at the state Human Service Agency in Waterbury, Vermont USA, 1992
located at the Chase Community Center at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont USA, May, 1993
Thanks to the Puffin Foundation
Thanks to the Puffin Foundation
Armed Men at the Gates of Paradise
Photos by Phillip Danzig

The right-hand panel shows the wandering gardeners who lived for centuries before the coming of Columbus in what is now the Dominican Republic, considered Columbus’ landing point.  There are aspects of the ancient Aztecs included as well, as representations of the native Americans who inhabited the highlands of Mexico and grew coffee, tomatoes and maize and had an evolved civilization that was essentially destroyed by the coming of the Europeans. 

The terrifying image of the Europeans’ arrival is enhanced by a black sky, a pack of fierce dogs and an African slave who signifies that the Europeans were versed in subjugation long before their voyage to the New World.  The haughty priest represents Las Casas, a missionary who accompanied Columbus and thought Indians where heathens who could only be saved through redemption and death but later came to denounce the activities of the Conquistadors and befriended the Indians. 

Who Decides?

Must Public Art Conform to Popular Taste?

an article by Yvonne Daley, written for Vermont Sunday Magazine/july 19, 1992

During Nicaragua’s national election of 1990, the government gave Middlesex artist Sam Kerson a 14-foot high, 60-foot wide wall to paint.  He chose as his subject, “the Course of Youth”, and proceeded to depict with both humor and seriousness the various stages a young person might pass through to achieve a proper place in society.

There were scenes of happy childhood and the demands of home, examples of the struggles young people might encounter as they discover intimacy and the various temptations that may bedevil them, along with illustrations of the pleasures of hard work and the fruits that can be reaped from one’s labors. 

One day as he painted, Kerson noticed the government had bussed in hundreds, maybe thousands, of peasants from the countryside for the election. They gathered in the public square in Masaya, where he was working, lounged on the lawn, took out bread and other food they had brought for their repast in the city, and proceeded to critique his mural. 

“They lay on the ground and roared with pleasure.   They pointed and gesticulated.  They laughed and talked loudly.  Some moved from one location to another discussing it.  They greatly enjoyed it,” he said.  Kerson said that was often the response of Third World people to murals. 

Because everyone can enjoy a mural regardless of his or her level of literacy, mural art can serve as a catalyst for dialogue, he said.  It is art that is universally accessible to those who view it. 

And because mural artists often chose subjects of a political or social nature, the genre has long stimulated controversy and debate.  In fact, says Kerson, mural art is supposed to arouse strong emotions and elicit some level of dialogue, even argument. 

Kerson knew all this when he spent night after night in spring of 1991, alone except for an occasional comment from a janitor, painting the two-paneled work he entitled “Armed Men at the Gates of Paradise” on a large, once-bland wall of the Skylight meeting room of the State Office Complex in Waterbury.

The kind of debate Kerson got was not what he had expected, however, and in its wake, state officials have had to devise a procedure for deciding what kind of paintings are appropriate for display in public buildings.  Still, questions remain about who gets to decide what is appropriate for public view and what is not, and state officials agree the subject is apt to be a thorny one for some time to come. 

As for the Kerson murals, a year went by after they were completed with little comment or controversy.  But during a Department of Human Services survey of its employees on the subject of sexual harassment in the workplace, long festering anger and resentment about the painting surfaced.  The Skylight room is situated within the Human Services Department’s headquarters and department personnel frequently must attend meetings there.

“How would professional men feel sitting in a professional meeting with women if there was a picture on the wall detailing penises?” one employee asked in response to the agency survey.  “Yet, women are expected to sit in such meetings with men as bared breasts are detailed on the wall with obvious phallic symbols,  I feel uncomfortable in such an environment.” 

Kerson was dumbfounded by the response.

Back when he was working on “Armed Men at the Gates of Paradise”, he envisioned the two panels as a way of juxtaposing the natural world that Columbus and the Conquistadors found when they came to America with the aggressive world of domination that Columbus, his armies and missionaries brought with them. 

Painted in bright acrylic, the left hand panel shows the arrival of Columbus, accompanied by a cross-toting, scornful-faced missionary and ax-wielding military men.

The terrifying image of the Europeans’ arrival is enhanced by a black sky, a pack of fierce dogs – symbols of terror form Kerson’s childhood nightmares – and an African slave who signifies that the Europeans were versed in subjugation long before their voyage to the New World.  The haughty priest represents Las Casas, a missionary who accompanied Columbus and thought Indians where heathens who could only be saved through redemption and death but later came to denounce the activities of the Conquistadors and befriended the Indians. 

The right-hand panel shows the wandering gardeners who lived for centuries before the coming of Columbus in what is now the Dominican Republic, considered Columbus’ landing point.  There are aspects of the ancient Aztecs included as well, as representations of the native Americans who inhabited the highlands of Mexico and grew coffee, tomatoes and maize and had an evolved civilization that was essentially destroyed by the coming of the Europeans. 

The paintings are large, bright and full of contrasts.  While the left-side panel is dark and foreboding, the right is full of light and color.  The left panel is loud with horses’ hoofs, the fangs of dogs, the might of Columbus, the righteousness of religion; the right is lush with flowers and leaves, naked bodies communing with nature and reaping its freely given harvest.

The bodies on the left-hand panel are armored and hard; those on the right are bare and supple. 

Kerson thought Italian Americans or others who viewed Columbus as a kind of hero might be offended by the murals, but he felt he had to say something about the indigenous people living on the North and South American continent whom he believed have suffered continuously since the time of Columbus’ arrival.

As someone who considers himself sensitive to feminist issues, he was surprised with the charge that the painting was sexist. 

The (right-hand-panel) tries to represent innocence.  There’s no actual sexual activities depicted”  he notes, pointing out that nudity is subtle yet unavoidable to present the image he was seeking.

He said he researched his work carefully, including both historically and botanically correct details as he strove to present a theme of a people living in serenity with nature, unaware of the cruel future that Columbus was bringing with him.  He felt this image was politically correct.

 

Human services secretary, Cornelius Hogan, said it wasn’t just one person who complained, but several.  Once the subject was out, some people said they weren’t offended by the painting per se, but felt it was to bright – some even said, lurid.  In an informal survey, several employees of the department said the mural was to distracting and, therefore, ruined the only large, open room available for meetings in the state office complex.

“I can’t concentrate in there.  We had a meeting with the state economist.  He was talking doom and gloom.  It was impossible to think, however, with that thing in there.” One employee said. 

Others interviewed said they enjoyed the paintings tremendously, but questioned the appropriateness of placing the murals in the Waterbury complex where they would be viewed by state employees and people coming to state meetings, but where they were not generally accessible to the public.

Still others asked, “Why here? Why Columbus? What does this have to do with state government? Who gets to decide what goes where?”

Hogan took the complaints seriously, especially after one employee wrote, “I am filing this complaint under the sexual harassment procedures.  If it is art, then it should be in a museum.”  He wanted to avoid a sexual harassment suit.

The department was already trying to respond to a sentiment that there was some level of sexual harassment in the working environment.  Hogan had initiated a program to train management personnel to be attuned to the problem, open to hearing complaints and to respond appropriately and confidentially.

The paintings, however, presented a problem.

Buildings Commissioner John Zampieri, who had given Kerson approval for the murals, said he had been given a rough draft of the murals’ content and didn’t view them as objectionable.  He, too, was surprised with the response.

Zampieri, also anxious to avoid a suit, suggested one solution might be to move the murals somewhere else where people didn’t have to look at them as part of their job.  He had granted approval to Kerson after receiving a recommendation from Sen. Mary Just Skinner, D-Washington, in whose district Kerson resides.

Kerson won a Puffin Foundation grant, state support and praise from the late Gov. Richard A. Snelling and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy for the mural, which marked the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in America. 

Kerson subsequently said he wasn’t adverse to the idea of moving the murals.  However, he had constructed them on wallboard panels brought into the building in sections and put together on-site.  The frames had been nailed to the supporting wall and Kerson felt the paintings couldn’t be removed without damaging them.  Most importantly, he didn’t want his work destroyed. 

After much discussion, Zampieri and Hogan came up with a plan by which employees who would be offended by the murals when attending a meeting could notify a supervisor in a confidential manner and the paintings could be covered with a drape.  Bed sheets bearing the stamp of the neighboring Vermont State Hospital were stored in the conference room for covering the murals.  But a snag quickly arose when an employee formally objected to having the art work covered during a meeting.  That employee said he enjoyed the murals so much he would be offended to have good art covered up.

Now the agency kind of plays it by ear.  If someone is offended by the paintings and makes it clear they want them covered, they are covered.  Otherwise, they remain uncovered and are available for public viewing.

David Carris, public arts director for the Vermont Council of the Arts and a member of the committee on the Art in State Buildings Program, says the issue here is recognizing the difference between public art and art in a public place. "People get confused because they speak at the same time of public art and art in a public place.  Art implies something individual and experienced very personally, whereas public art has a different notion of being shared, something that expresses public values that we all hold in common. It was easier to create public art when there was someone or some religion that everyone owed allegiance to or when there were simple civil values everyone agreed on.  What public values do we hold in common? It’s very tough to do in the 1990s’ ", he laments. 

He says the state could have avoided the problems caused the Kerson murals by asking employees what kind of art, if any, they wanted on the Skylight walls. 

Zampieri  said in an interview at the height of the controversy, “I wish I’d thought of that then, but I didn’t.  Now we’ll include opinions from the people who actually have to look at the art”. 

That’s what the state will do in the future when it commissions artwork for state buildings.  Under a program that‘s been in effect nationally for about 20 years, a small percentage of the funds set aside for construction of state buildings is used to purchase art for public display. 

  Says Carris, “Normally it’s up to 50,000$ a year.  A quasi-legislative committee decides which construction projects will take part – usually a larger project, say budgeted at over $250,000.”

"A panel comes up with the idea of what kind of art would be appropriate for a specific building.  The panel, Carris says, usually consists of two people from the community who are artists or art historians, a community person not necessarily from the art world, the project architect and a representative from the agency who owns the building. Surveys are taken and the community is asked to get involved in choosing the artwork, he says.  Being sensitive to these things represents a completely new approach to the use of art in a public place, says Carris.  There’s an awareness now that different people are offended by different things and officials who make choices about public art try to take that into account.  The problem that can arise is coming up with something that won’t offend anyone while still having value as art – not the artistic equivalent to Muzak. "

“We weren’t always so sensitive about these things,” says Carris, laughing as the points out that, “If you walk in the Vermont State House, some of the bases of the lamps are half naked Greek slaves or that Ceres, the Goddess of Agriculture who adorns the top of the building, is partially unclothed".

But faced with the new consciousness, he says, “the charge (of the committee selecting public art) is to try to represent the interest and needs of the people who live and work with the art work.”

"It’s a hard job, but not impossible.  For example, the panel is currently working to select art for the Bennington State Office building – Which houses the Department of Social Welfare, Family Court and the like.

“Most of the people who come into the building are in incredible stress.  The panel wanted to do something to puncture that stress,  something to make the experience of coming to the building less threatening.  That’s public art, if they can find an artist who can do that successfully we’ll have created public art – not simply put art in a public place,” he says. 

He says the demands of finding appropriate public art are even greater when the art will be in a place where people work.  “You’re dealing with a workplace and workplaces have varying degrees of publicness and privateness the difference between your private cubicle, say and a meeting.”

That makes for tough judgment calls.  But the more you involve the people who are actually going to be using the spaces, the better you’ll do,” he said. 

That’s what the people at the Burlington City Arts office did when they turned the corridor of the second floor of City Hall into an art gallery.  Susan Green, director of Burlington City Arts, said the city first developed an arts policy when the Church Street Marketplace was being designed. 

At that time, an area artist offered to donate two sculptures to the front of City Hall, which abuts the downtown mall.  The sculptures would have included nude figures and the City Board of Alderman objected.  They passed a ban on nudity in art in and around the City Hall and the two sculptures chosen were of a deer and two bears frolicking.  Green laughs when she notes the animals are naked.

Later, when the city offered the corridors for its Metropolitan Art Gallery, the policy remained in effect.  At one pint, Max Schumann, son of the Glover inventors of the Bread and Puppet Theater, put on an exhibit of huge canvases in the gallery.  One included a lot of action and figures, including one figure who was not clothed but had no anatomical details.  Someone, however, complained that the figure was bare.

Shumann responded by placing a “Post-it” note over the offending part of the painting so those who weren’t offended could lift it up and look and those who were offended were protected. 

The city continued with the ban into the early 1990s when another artist cut one of his paintings in half in protest of the ban.  Essentially, he eliminated the top half of the painting in which a figure had been nude, and put up a sign instead, “You cannot se the top of this painting per order of the City Council.”

He then made a formal protest and the issue was brought to the council, which decided not to rule on this issue and told Green to come up with a new policy. 

“We decided we wanted public input, so we formed a committee of citizens who created a survey”, said Green.  They took a series of paintings and artwork from Michelangelo to the controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and set up booths so people could view the selections in privacy. 

Hundreds did so.  The survey was designed so that people could rate the art in order of acceptability and show where they would draw the line on what was acceptable and what wasn’t.  One local person who thought she was adverse to censorship told Green that when she took the survey she found herself thinking her daughter might view some of the paintings and found herself drawing the line at a point she might not if she was making the choice for herself alone.

Nevertheless, said Green, “the survey came out showing that Burlington residents – or those who took part anyhow – are more liberal than we thought.”  Based on the survey, a new policy was devised that allowed nudity but not overt sexual content or acts of violence of any kind.

“ We’ve lived with that policy ever since.  The only problem we had was when an employee who defined herself as a fundamental Christian kept turning over a particular painting (which included nudity) every time she could.  I turned it back.  We try to be democratic and enlightened at the same time.  It's sometimes a hard thing to do,” said Green. 

 

On a recent day, as Human Services Department workers popped into the Skylight room to look at his murals, Kerson reflected on his feelings regarding the controversy.  He had thought there was a little serendipity at work as the piece progressed, given what he saw as its relevance to the work that the staff of Vermont’s Human Services Department do every day. 

He thought of the left-side panel as representing men and the violence that men often impose on others in their need to dominate.  He thought of the right-hand panel, with its inclusion of men, women and children, as representing the order of the family and the harmony that can come about when people work together for the common good. 

“It occurred here by chance, but it seemed to me that these are all the issues that they deal with here – the issues of male and female, of abuse and neglect, of domination and subservience,” he said. 

He said he had hoped that by casting light on the terrific rape and murder by these men who came and exploited this country in their chauvinistic way,” the murals might act as a catalyst for healing – not just in Vermont, but in the wider world where, he believes, domination continues to be a major negative force. 

Thus, Kerson said, in a strange way he welcome the controversy surrounding his work because it provided an avenue for discussion and debate on these issues.

“People don’t realize what a mural is,” said Kerson.  “They’ve always been controversial.”

Kerson, a native of North Adams, Mass., who graduated from Goddard College in 1971, said he has been influenced by the work of South and Central American muralists, where murals are a popular form of expression.

Jose Clemente Orozco, whose wall-to-ceiling frescoes, entitled “An Epic of American Civilization,” dominate the reading rooms in the basement of the Baker Library at Dartmouth College, was one of Kerson’s earliest influences.  As a young boy, he had viewed the murals and they remained vivid in his mind. 

Orozco’s 20-panel murals – perhaps the most well-known and important works of their kind in northern New England – were controversial at the time and continue to spur debate.  Volunteer guides from the Hood Museum are sensitive to the fact that some may be offended or frightened by the dramatic renditions.

Orozco’s influence on Kerson is evident.  Orozco divided his theme into two parts:  American civilization before Columbus and since.  The pre-Colombian panels decorate the west wing of the library; the post-Colombian decorate the east wing. 

The pre-Colombian murals are a tribute to physical power and a statement about the dangers of worship of force for its own sake,  These themes are repeated in the east wing where Orozco honors the power of education and technology, but also warns that both can be abused and used for personal gain.

Eloise Prescott, one of those who had conducted tours of the murals, said that the works continue to be both praised and denounced.  Some find them too disturbing; others don’t understand the symbolism.  Young children are often frightened by the murals, says Prescott, so she prepares them ahead of time. 

“Artists depict history in a different manner from historians.  They are supposed to make you think,” says Prescott.

She says that although she was raised with strict moral values, she is alarmed by the growing amount of negative reaction to depictions of the human body.  If today’s censors would have their ways, much of the work that is considered great art might never be placed on public display.

“Facts are facts.  Humans have bodies.  The embarrassment can be healthy as an inner exercise for any individual to learn about yourself and the world around you.  I would no more go out in the world nude, but we all started out with this shell of skin.  I’m intrigued about this fundamental reaction to art and wonder where it will go,” she said.  

article written by Yvonne Daley
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