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Norwalk WPA mural rides off into history, to be showcased elsewhere

Updated, 3 p.m., comment from Norwalk NAACP President Darnell Crosland.

NORWALK, Conn. — The controversial WPA mural is now out of sight, ending this chapter in Norwalk history.

Perhaps on the way: an exhibit featuring the mural, but in a different context, in another venue.

Steamboat Days on the Mississippi, a mural completed in 1937 by Justin Gruelle under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), was lowered down the City Hall atrium Tuesday morning by Robert E. Trimper III, owner of Professional Hang Ups in Fairfield, and his assistant, Scott Lee,  and taken next door to the Health Department Building. The process took about 45 minutes.

This, just one week after a Human Relations Commission public hearing on whether the mural should be in City Hall. The Commission did not write an advisory opinion as expected, as Norwalk Historical Commission Chairman David Westmoreland exercised his authority and decided to take it out, with the agreement of Mayor Harry Rilling and Human Relations & Fair Rent Department Director Adam Bovilsky.

“I think I’ve worked out a location do an exhibit in the new museum with the Historical Society that will include the mural.  It will take about a year to develop and will follow behind a new exhibit we are just currently installing that we planned to have up for six to nine months,” Westmoreland said in an email last week, referring to the new Norwalk Museum.

Most speakers at the public hearing said they were offended by the mural, stressing that it was not something people should be exposed to when they go to do their business in City Hall.

WPA murals on display in Norwalk City Hall.

WPA murals on display in Norwalk City Hall.

Historical Commissioer Lisa Wilson Grant said she was unable to attend the public hearing due to a bad case of food poisoning.

“I was very surprised to read later that there was an independent decision to just take it down by our Historic Commission chairman without a meeting with the rest of us commissioners to discuss,” Grant said in a Thursday email. “So I feel that any letters that were sent to that Public Hearing appear to be moot and not part of the decision. I then read next day that the Mayor chimed in and supported its relocation. It’s Public Art owned by the Federal Government to be displayed in public buildings, it’s not just some painting in the Historical Society’s collection. The latest as I understand it is that it will be taken down for a year in storage until a new location is found. It will be interesting to see what creative solutions can be found for the display of this painting.”

“I understand Commissioner Grant’s concerns, though she has never spoken to me about them at all and I have seen her a couple of times in the past few days,” Westmoreland said in an early Friday email. “She is misinformed regarding both the ownership of and the management of the murals. The WPA murals are the property of the City of Norwalk and are part of the city’s museum collection that is managed by the Norwalk Historical Society through a management contract. We have been working diligently with the Historical Society and have come up with an exhibit plan for the mural and the controversy surrounding it to open in the new museum in about a year.  We hope that this exhibit can in some small way bring greater understanding, tolerance, and unity to our community when it is done.”

Reactions to the removal of the mural are mixed.

“I am proud of Mayor Rilling for finally addressing this issue, by defining an effective process to hear how the residents of the City of Norwalk felt about the mural hanging in our City Hall, then acting promptly to remove the mural,” wrote Haroldo Williams, who spoke last week against exhibiting the mural in City Hall. “I am also very proud of Sherelle Harris for being persistent in leading this initiative, to ensure that the mural would be removed.

“The response from the Mayor and the residents (from various ethnic groups) of Norwalk further legitimizes Norwalk’s pride in its diversity, and its commitment to our diverse community. I am proud that our City of Norwalk has been able to act promptly,” Williams continued.

“This is a start of (Putting The Unity Back Into Community). Thank You,” wrote Larry Johnson, who Harris identified as one of several Norwalkers who had been asking for the mural to be removed, going back several years.

“Slavery is an unfortunate part of our history,” Republican Town Committee Vice Chairman Victor Cavallo wrote in an email. “The mural is art from a different era that depicted literature from an even earlier era that portrayed African Americans offensively. I thank Carol Frank, Chair of the Human Relations Commission and its members, for addressing the issue in a restrained and rational manner, as well as Adam Bovilsky, Human Relations Director, for involving the community in a productive debate.”

“If the mural doesn’t serve any purpose and if it doesn’t advance the mission or spirit of Norwalk, and it conversely has caused offense and pain to the people of Norwalk then perhaps we can replace it with something that uplifts its people,” Norwalk Branch NAACP President Darnell Crosland said in an email, before the hearing. “The purpose of art is that it has no purpose, and it’s the artist him or herself that has an aim when creating the art. If the people feel the artist may have taken aim at a people or a time in history that has caused pain to a segment of the population, then perhaps it’s our responsibility to respond appropriately.”

On Friday, Crosland said, “I am glad that the mural was removed and we as a community can move forward in harmony.  The people spoke and their desires were achieved, I am only hoping that Norwalk isn’t becoming a crisis oriented community, where things only get done after a public protest.  My understanding is that proper request were made long before public outcry.  In the future we should listen keenly and respond without the need for demonstration in order for the people get results.”

Grant, in her email, said slavery is not necessarily the topic of the mural, although one Norwalk media source has consistently referred to Steamboat Days on the Mississippi as a painting about slavery, and a “slavery mural.”

“In 1936 the Norwalk Board of Education commissioned Justin Gruelle, through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), to paint a series of six easel paintings to hang in the library at Center Junior High School,” Grant wrote. “Popular Mark Twain works were selected as the theme, among which included the topic of a recent public hearing, Steamboat Days on the Mississippi, that has been spun by the local newspaper … as ‘depicting slavery,’ as if that was the intention of this work of art.”

Grant, a Norwalk historian, has been a WPA mural docent for several years in a program organized by the Norwalk Arts Commission. She wrote:

“When we first had our training sessions about the WPA murals, we walked around Norwalk City Hall and viewed all of the paintings as a mass. To be honest, at first glance, I didn’t really notice there were ‘black people working’ and ‘white people travelling.’ Probably because I attended Norwalk schools, where there were and are many ethnicities and people of color, and white people, I don’t see things right off the bat as black and white that way. As I knew this was part of a series of six Mark Twain canvases, I first thought about how Samuel Clemens got his name, Mark Twain, and his fascination with steamboats. As the docent group-in-training stared longer at this one, I of course, started to notice more and more, and we discussed the painting and the topic was brought up about the painting’s emotional impact on some members of the community, and how the African-Americans depicted in this painting ‘may’ have been slaves. I think that it’s sad to have this painting be oversimplified to be ‘about slavery’ – it didn’t strike me to be what the painting is even about and I think that’s a one-dimensional view, if it in fact it’s true. I don’t even think we know for sure if they are paid porters or not – you certainly don’t know that from looking at the painting – but in fairness to those who have made that presumption – let’s guess that they ‘may’ be slaves.

Detail of a WPA mural in Norwalk City Hall.

Detail of a WPA mural in Norwalk City Hall.

“I think, then, that it is even more important to display this painting, not only to keep the Mark Twain series of six-collection intact – but to also educate the public about that over the course of time we have become more enlightened. That life was different in different times. When I was a kid in school I remember thinking that it was crazy that slavery once existed and that it didn’t relate to anything in our world today as we seemed so far removed from that notion as kids; race riots were a thing of the past, and we all seemed to be beyond those issues growing up here in Norwalk.

“… I am the Administrator on a few Facebook groups, one ‘I Grew up in Norwalk’ has over 9,200 members and the majority (97%) of responses about this topic are people who want all of our murals displayed. I had shared there that I don’t believe we should cover up or censor any of the paintings. And I do not believe it to be a racist thing, I’ve spoken to black people who agree with me, and white people who disagree. If anything, it seems to be people who grew up here want it to stay, and people who have moved here from elsewhere want it removed.

“If you stare long enough at any painting you can read more into it than what is really there as you bring your personal experiences and perceptions with you – the tours we provide tap into just that – we ask the group questions, ‘what do you think is going on here?’ and people then freely share what they think.

“There are American Indians in many of the paintings, there are sports scenes reflective of the student population of the ’30s that had a white majority.  Are we going to start removing each painting one by one? I believe that the complete collection of WPA murals should remain intact and visible to the public just as they were intended.”

A WPA mural in Norwalk City Hall.

A WPA mural in Norwalk City Hall.

3 comments

Rod Lopez-Fabrega May 6, 2016 at 11:29 am

As suggested in an earlier posting regarding the removal of this controversial painting, it could appropriately be donated to the new African American History Museum scheduled to open on the Mall in Washington, DC in September of this year. The painting is an historic indicator of how far attitudes have changed since 1937 when no one raised any objections about how non-whites were depicted.

Here’s the announcement about the opening date of said museum:

“The 11 inaugural exhibitions will feature some of the 34,000 artifacts, including a railroad passenger car that dates to the Jim Crow era, a shawl worn by Harriet Tubman, a traveling trunk that belonged to the family of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, an airplane used to train Tuskegee airmen, Nat Turner’s Bible and hundreds of other rare and rarely seen objects that curators have been steadily collecting since the museum was established. In addition, the museum will open with a formidable collection of art and photography, works by Charles Alston, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden and Henry O. Tanner.”

How about adding the name, Justin Gruelle (under the Works Progress Administration) to that list?

Martin Lawlor May 6, 2016 at 6:38 pm

“The purpose of art is that it has no purpose, and it’s the artist him or herself that has an aim when creating the art.” Clearly some art history lessons are needed here. It is a shame that an historic collection of works has been broken up with the removal of one of these WPA paintings from the building for which it was originally created. Among many things, the purpose of art is sometimes to document a particular time and place (pleasant or not). Good art will always provoke thought and sometimes provide insight (again, pleasant or not). This benefit, provided by this painting, is now being placed in “storage”, away from the other works that make up this historic collection. Norwalk’s loss.

The Norwalker May 7, 2016 at 6:49 am

This Mural is not good art. Of the 8 figures in the foreground the 6 white subjects were painted in great detail while the 2 black subjects were painted more coarsely in a style more fitted for a comic book.

We will never know why the Author chose to do this, but it is what it is.

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