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Artist keeps fighting request to remove unwanted murals

February 25, 2021 GMT

RUTLAND, Vt. (AP) — The artist who painted two now-unwanted murals about the Underground Railroad at Vermont Law School nearly 30 years ago asked a court to stop the school from moving forward with painting over them, but agreed to allow the murals to be covered for the moment.

Sam Kerson, the artist, told a U.S. District Court in Rutland on Wednesday that he would allow the paintings to continue to be covered with a cloth while his lawsuit against the school continues, the Valley News reported.

In July, the law school gave Kerson 90 days to remove the murals, which are titled “The Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave.” In the meantime, the school said it would cover them. Students and others have condemned the artwork for its exaggerated and dated depictions of slaves and enslavers.

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Kerson claims that the federal Visual Artists Rights Act bars the school from removing the murals, and his lawyers argued Wednesday that the law also bars the school from covering the artwork, the newspaper reported. The law empowers artists to protect their work from “any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation.”

According to a court filing, the school also wants to install a wall in front of the artwork in addition to the cloth covering to further shield it from view.

Documents filed this month included a statement from Shirley Jefferson, the law school’s associate dean for student affairs and diversity, who said that students have complained to her about the murals over her 20 years as dean.

In the statement, she said the removal of the murals was first discussed by a diversity committee in 2013, however, “consensus was that the number of students pressing the issue was not sufficient to present a resolution to the Student Bar Association, or to persuade the Administration to remove the mural.”

She said that sentiment changed after the 2020 death of George Floyd, whose killing by police officers in Minneapolis last summer sparked nationwide outrage and protest.

“When I looked at the mural again, I concluded that the mural, with its depiction of enslaved Africans as cartoonish caricatures, was part of the problem and inconsistent with the Law School’s mission no matter if the intentions that led to its creation were good,” she said.