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Writing is on the wall for VLS murals after judge’s ruling

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/12/2021 9:29:34 PM
Modified: 3/12/2021 9:29:34 PM

RUTLAND — A federal judge has ruled that Vermont Law School can put up a wall to obscure a pair of murals, so long as the murals are unharmed.

The ruling, issued Wednesday by U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford, deals a blow to artist Sam Kerson, who painted the murals, which depict scenes of slavery and the Underground Railroad, in 1993 and 1994. Crawford rejected Kerson’s request for a preliminary injunction preventing the law school from destroying or modifying the works.

Kerson had argued that the federal Visual Artists Rights Act, or VARA, protects the murals from even being covered. Law school officials, who last summer announced plans to paint over the murals, have covered them with dropcloths, but they intend to cover it with acoustic tiles placed 2 inches in front of the murals, each of which measures 8-by-24 feet.

“In the limited law available concerning the VARA, an owner’s decision to conceal a work does not constitute modification or mutilation,” Crawford wrote in his order. Covering the murals without damaging them has the same effect as an art museum removing a painting and putting it into storage, Crawford noted.

He concluded by writing that Kerson is “unlikely to succeed on the merits in this case,” and that he was “unlikely to obtain a final judgment from this court enjoining the construction of the wall of acoustic panels.”

While Wednesday’s ruling doesn’t decide the case in its entirety, it does make clear Crawford’s views on the central issue. In a subsequent order, Crawford converted the law school’s motion to dismiss the case into a motion for summary judgment, which is likely to lead to a swift resolution.

“We are disappointed in the court’s decision to let the law school erect a wall to block the murals commemorating Vermont’s historic involvement in the underground railroad,” Steve Hyman, one of the lawyers representing Kerson, said Friday. “We believe the court’s holding is contrary to the very spirit and intent of the statute enacted to protect artists and their works, and we are exploring how best to continue Sam’s efforts to keep these recognized and acclaimed murals visible.”

Kerson and several assistants painted the murals directly on the drywall of the law school’s Chase Community Center. The murals depict African American slaves and their escape via the Underground Railroad to Vermont.

Over the years, students have complained to law school administrators about how the murals depict African Americans, and the school took action last summer, after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

Kerson filed suit last fall, claiming that the murals, and his reputation as their creator, were protected by VARA.

Both Kerson and the law school agree that the murals can’t be removed without destroying them, and the law school backed off its plan to paint over them. The murals can be covered, so long as they are not harmed, the law school argued, and the well-being of the murals behind their wall is one of the remaining issues before the court.

“It is not Vermont Law School’s plan to make it available for viewing again,” Justin Barnard, a lawyer for VLS said Friday. An artist’s rights under VARA do not extend past the artist’s lifetime.

“I do expect they’ll appeal” to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, Barnard said.

A recent painting of Kerson’s in a series titled “The Muralist Imagines the Destruction of His Work,” appears to represent Jameson Davis, one of the students who took issue with the murals and circulated a petition about them with another student, April Urbanowski. The image, which depicts a videoconference between a man and a woman on one end, and a Black man on the screen, bears the legend, “Mr. Kerson me and my friend April do not like your Underground Railroad.”

Barnard said he was “disappointed” that Kerson appeared to have singled out students of color who have raised questions about his work.

In an emailed response, Kerson said, “This is an imagined series of events and it is said to be like a picture novel,” adding, “none of the characters represented are anyone else. They are pictures, they are not people. The characters are imagined. The series is how the artist imagined his mural might be destroyed and clearly the things in the drawings did not happen.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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