This Black History Month, a painting inside the Vermont State House has been turning heads and drawing some complaints—until it was removed once necn and NBC10 Boston started asking questions of top decision makers.
“There isn’t anyone who is thrilled with having the picture in the health and welfare room,” Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden County, said Thursday inside the room for the Vermont Senate Health and Welfare Committee, which she chairs. “There isn’t a lot of love for this painting.”
Lyons was discussing a historic painting that hung in the committee room, showing slaves—some shoeless—laboring in a hot southern cornfield.
Lyons said guests to her committee room and people giving testimony have often wondered why a state that aims to be welcoming and inclusive put slavery on prominent display, with no description or story behind the art.
“It’s the ‘People’s House,’” Rep. Kevin Christie, D-Hartford, said Thursday. “And if people are coming to the House and feeling uncomfortable, that’s not cool.”
Fast forward to Friday, and the painting has now been taken down and replaced, temporarily, by a landscape scene.
Vermont State Curator David Schutz said after necn and NBC 10 Boston started looking into concerns about the painting and brought them to the attention of top decision-makers, his office chose to remove the art, for now.
“It needs explanation, sure,” Schutz acknowledged in an interview Friday.
The curator explained the painting dates to 1861, the year the Civil War broke out.
Montpelier native T.W. Wood was in Tennessee documenting scenes of everyday life, including people and topics often overlooked by most artists.
Schutz pointed to a young man in the temporarily-removed painting as the central element. He is holding a drinking gourd.
Schutz said slaves referred to the constellation the Big Dipper as “the drinking gourd,” with many following its stars north—often to New England—to find freedom through the Underground Railroad.
The painting may have offered meaningful hope at the time, Schutz said, but absent all that context, he said he understands why the art rubbed some the wrong way.
“A placard next to it, explaining a little clearer, is something I had planned to do,” Schutz told necn and NBC 10 Boston. “But now we’ll have to wait and see where it ends up.”
Schutz noted that T.W. Wood was one of Vermont’s most important artists and said his painting “A Southern Cornfield” has been featured in major exhibitions around the country.
The curator added that Wood portrayed African-Americans throughout his career—accurately and respectfully—unlike many other artists of the time.
“This is actually a Vermont artist that we ought to celebrate,” Schutz said.
Christie said Friday that he agrees that Wood is a fascinating figure in Vermont history who is worthy of celebration.
Christie wants to see the painting reinstalled, with a full description of how it connects to Vermont’s early opposition to slavery.
“We need to take this as a teachable moment,” Christie said. “And sharing that piece of our history with fellow Vermonters and guests from all around the country and all around the world is important.”
The curator said he’s right now working on a new exhibition project that’ll showcase contributions to the state by underrepresented groups, including Native Americans, African Americans, and women.