The Painting of the Underground Railroad

ON a steamy Saturday afternoon this summer, I decided to visit the Vermont Law School in South Royalton. The school's small cluster of clapboard buildings, most of them painted traditional New England white, overlooks a river, and there's a nice swimming hole a short walk down the bluff. That was at least part of the reason for a drive to South Royalton that day.

But more important, I had heard of a mural being painted at the school by artist Sam Kerson. A talk with a persuasive colleague of Mr. Kerson's, Fredd Lee, convinced me this 8-foot-high, 48-foot-long piece of art - inspired by the works of Mexican muralists Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera - was worth seeing.

I climbed the stairs to the upper level of the law school's Jonathon B. Chase Community Center and came face to face with a panorama of brilliant reds, searing yellows, luminous blues, and lime greens - and with its creator, a large man with frizzy hair and beard who conveys a quiet passion for his work and its subject matter. This mural is Kerson's second in Vermont. He also has one at the Center for Popular Culture in Masaya, Nicaragua. The theme in South Royalton is the Underground Railroad, which transported fugitive Southern slaves toward the Canadian border and freedom in the decades leading up to the Civil War.

Like the Mexican masters, Kerson sees this type of monumental art as a means of social and political commentary. Wiping perspiration from his brow - the windows in the balcony room were open, but the humidity was relentless - he said he was drawn to his subject by the role of freed slaves and abolitionists in molding a truer democracy in America. In the bravery and radical commitment of both the blacks fleeing bondage and the whites who sheltered them, he saw enduring relevance - something each generation of Americans should reflect on.

Dozens of Vermont towns were stops on the railroad, including Royalton. While records are sketchy, thousands of slaves probably found refuge in local barns, basements, and hidden closets as they were secreted northward. Up here, said Mr. Lee, ``you can't really talk about the Underground Railroad without hearing about `my great aunt or uncle' who was involved in it.''

VERMONT was a hotbed of abolitionist fervor, with even small towns having sizable antislavery societies. The state's prewar legislatures never tired of sending directives to the congressional delegations, calling on them to oppose statehood for slaveholding territories like Texas. Vermonters in Congress led the charge against the legal structures that upheld slavery, such as the fugitive slave laws. The state's courts did everything they could to foil slavers coming in search of their property.

One Vermont judge, Theophilus Harrington of Middlebury, refused to return a slave to his reputed owner unless the man could produce a document from the ``original propietor.'' When asked what that meant, Judge Harrington was said to have proclaimed, ``a bill of sale from God Almighty!''

In transferring this dramatic chapter of state and national history to a blank wall, Kerson faced the difficult task of condensing a large amount of historical material, as well as technical challenges of scale and proportion. He essentially had to come up with a script (the artist's other hat is cofounder of the Dragon Dance Theatre in Worcester, Vt.), carefully choosing the few scenes he felt could best portray Africans' journey from enslavement on their home continent to escape into Canada. Eventually, the composition fit into two panels on adjoining stretches of wall. The first panel depicts the experience of slavery - capture, the slave market, forced labor, and the persistence of African culture - and the second, abolition and escape. In the second series of scenes, seminal figures like author Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Tubman - a former slave who led others to freedom - are depicted.

The images took shape first in a series of linoleum black prints executed by Kerson; he later produced larger drawings that had a grid imposed on them. When it came time to transfer the art to the wall, a similar grid was laid out on the walls using plumb lines, and the content of the drawings was reproduced on the larger surface.

Kerson's style is heavily symbolic, with exaggerated human figures that burst with energy. The colors are piercingly bright, the result of specially blended acrylics. While the artist guided the project, he had a crew of helpers during the hundreds of hours of applying paint, including Lee and Kenny Hughes, who were perched on a scaffolding working on the green background to one of the slavery scenes that sultry July afternoon. Kerson also had local schoolchildren come in to view the mural, say what they thought about it, and take part in some of the painting.

The Underground Railroad, in mural form, had a little trouble finding a ``station'' in present-day Vermont. Kerson had hoped to place it in a state office building. But an earlier mural titled ``Armed Men at the Gates of Paradise,'' depicting the moment when native Americans realized that Columbus had ``murderous intentions,'' had generated controversy because it included some nudity. That work can be seen on the wall of the Skylight Conference Room of the state Human Service Agency headquarters in Waterbury. Whether that flap was the reason or not, state-owned walls weren't available this time.

But the law school, a private, liberal-minded institution in a small town that had actually been a setting for some of the scenes Kerson paints, welcomed the mural and its theme of injustice thwarted. The artist's political aims - to provoke questions and discussion through his painting - were right at home there.

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