Courthouse paintings on Commissioners’ Aug. 27 agenda

Paul Garrod -

    PAW PAW - The Van Buren County Board of Commissioners is expected to take on the issue next Tuesday, Aug. 27, at 4 p.m. of two Van Buren County Courthouse murals that  appear destined to be covered up due to the nature of the murals.
    Last Tuesday, Aug. 13, Van Buren County Commissioners, meeting in the Committee of the Whole, moved ahead with a motion to send to the Board of Commissioners next week the recommendation to cover  the murals, which depict unclothed women, with fabric coverings. Chief Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Brickley, with the support of Circuit Court Judge David DiStefano, District Judge Michael McKay, District Judge Art Clarke, presented the request to commissioners.
    One mural is located in Circuit Courtroom 1, directly over the judge’s bench. “The mural depicts a figure which appears to be a woman holding a sword as two individuals below her are on their knees, seemingly  pleading for mercy. The individuals, a man and a woman, are unclothed. The male genitalia are not exposed, but the woman’s bare breasts are fully exposed,” noted Brickley.
    “Everyone sitting in the courtroom or standing before the judge faces this mural.”
    The second mural is located in the building’s rotunda, directly above the courthouse  stairwell leading to the circuit  and probate courtrooms.  It features a woman holding a spear and a decapitated head. Her gown drapes around her breasts rather than covering them.
    When the public heard of the commissioners’ approval, social media conversations resulted in a petition urging the preservation of the murals for their historic value.
    The painter of the two murals, Frank L. Van Ness, was born in Paw Paw in 1864, and grew up in Paw Paw. He moved with his family to Chicago, where he became well-known for his portrait painting, and even took part of a Paris exposition in 1900.
    The Dec. 11, 1908 issue of The True Northerner (a predecessor of The Courier-Leader) reported that “Artist Frank Van Ness of Chicago has placed a beautiful oil painting on the walls of the courthouse this week. The subject of the study, is “Tragedy”  and it is hung on the west wall at the head of the main stairway.  It is a fine  piece of work  from the brush of Mr. Van Ness, and a gift from  him to the village of Paw Paw.”
    Van Ness also painted the  Paw Paw School building, known as the “Old Red Brick,” in 1924. The painting was given to the school and displayed on the second floor of that building, but has been moved to the new community room of what is now Freshwater Community Church.
    Van Ness returned to Paw Paw around 1930 when he would have been around 66 years old. He died in 1944 at the age of 80. He is buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery.
    Van Ness’ obituary stated he was “highly recognized” for his commercial and portrait painting.
    The county’s judges presented estimated costs of $1,800 to cover both murals.

The Courier-Leader & Paw Paw Flashes

The Courier-Leader & Paw Paw Flashes
32280 E. Red Arrow Hwy. • P.O. Box 129
Paw Paw, MI 49079
(269) 657-5080

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