Courthouse murals will remain in view

By: 
Paul Garrod - news4garrod@vineyardpress.biz

    PAW PAW - Tuesday afternoon, before a large audience, the Van Buren County Board of Commissioners voted 6-1 in favor of keeping two murals in public view in the historic county courthouse.
    Commissioner Gail Patterson-Gladney cast the lone “no” vote.
        On Aug. 13,  Van Buren County Commissioners, meeting in the Committee of the Whole, sent a motion to the Board of Commissioners recommending covering the murals, which depict unclothed women and a man. One mural is located in Circuit Courtroom 1; the other is at the top of the stairs in the building’s rotunda.
    During the board’s public comment, the majority of those who spoke asked the board to consider leaving the two murals as they are in the courthouse.
    Ryan Gilbert, of the  Van Buren County Republican  Party Executive Committee, told commissioners, “This artwork has been a part of our courthouse for over one century and the artist still has family ties to local communities.”
    He continued, “Though you are not destroying this artwork, covering them is still a form of censorship and ignores the history of our community and our courthouse. These works of art were created in a different time and, though standards were also different, were not created with the intent to offend. If we attempt to censor history then we can never learn from it. At what point do we stop censorship and cease to be offended by seemingly trivial details from the past? Covering these murals is a step toward a slippery slope with no objective end to what may offend someone further.”
    Van Buren County Domestic Violence Coalition Executive Director Melanie Hooker offered a different look at the issue. Hooker read a letter from one of her clients who saw the murals and was reminded of the crimes committed against her.
    Hooker read a portion of the letter: “I came to the courthouse with a need to feel respected and safe. But I saw the murals on the walls depicting the types of scenes that are being discussed today, it was difficult.”  
    Judy Jackson Janssen told commissioners that her mother, former County Clerk Shirley K. Jackson, served many years, both as a Van Buren County commissioner and county clerk.
    “She walked the halls of the courthouse many years and was always proud of its beauty; so much so, that she was a key member of the Van Buren County Courthouse Restoration Committee. Janssen said her mother  was proud of the work done in the 1990s to restore the courthouse, as well as the two murals in question. “If they are covered, the integrity of the actual painting may be destroyed because they won’t be sealed properly.”
    Former County Clerk Tina Leary  told commissioners, “Throughout my years at the county, not a week would pass without someone from the public
commenting on the beauty of our courthouse. They spoke with awe and respect for this architectural gem, noting that many more  “modern courthouses are sterile cold environments. Not one in my many years at the county was there a complaint or concern expressed to me about the inappropriateness of the murals.”    
    Van Buren County Chief Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Brickley, who originally brought the item before commissioners, with the support of the other county judges - Circuit Court Judge David DiStefano, District Judge Michael McKay, District Judge Art Clarke - told commissioners, “On behalf of the judiciary, I want to express our utmost appreciation for the community’s interest and involvement in issues related to the judiciary. While we obviously won’t always agree on particular issues, the judiciary wholeheartedly welcomes and appreciates community engagement.”
    Judge Brickley told commissioners, “This is not about censorship; in fact, we have proposed at various points that, if feasible, the images be moved to either a museum or any other government building, including here in the Board of Commissioners arena.  This is not about whether particular judges appreciate art.  This is not about politics. This is not about judicial sensibilities,” Judge Brickley stated. “It is about ensuring, without exception, that the Van Buren County Courthouse is open, inviting, and welcome to all,  including some of our most vulnerable court users – victims of domestic and sexual violence, including child victims.”
    Judge Brickley said, “In this regard, you may want to ask yourselves why, when this story was played out in the media on television, the media blurred out certain portions of the imagery.  I don’t suspect it was because the media doesn’t appreciate art or for any other nefarious reason. Instead, I suspect it was because the imagery may offend some, perhaps parents of young children who don’t want their children exposed to the violent imagery.
    “Similarly, in the court,” Brickley continued, “where we frequently conduct school tours of second grade children – children who still believe in ghosts in their closets and under their bed – some parents and teachers are dismayed that the children are being exposed to images of beheadings and unclothed persons seemingly begging for their life on bended knee.”   
    Judge Brickley said, “Yes, these images are art, and yes, they are history.  But when placed in a courthouse often frequented by victims of trauma, they create an image of a threatening place – one that appears to support violence. Victims of violent crimes, including victims of domestic violence and children who have been sexually abused, have been traumatized enough. They deserve a better welcome than this.”
  

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