PAW PAW — A modesty movement is coming to the Van Buren County Courthouse, where two murals depicting topless women will soon be covered up.
On Tuesday the Van Buren County Board of Commissioners agreed to the request of four judges to cover two murals in the historic courthouse. In a memo, Chief Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Brickley requested that the paintings be covered with paint or a tapestry or moved elsewhere, such as a museum.
The paintings, one in the courthouse stairwell which may be the Greek Goddess Athena, and the other directly above the judge’s bench in the main circuit court courtroom, don’t support the court’s dignity, solemnity or professionalism, according to Brickley. “To the contrary,” Brickley wrote, “they depict justice being metered out with swords and spears through beheading and through a humiliation marked by naked begging on bended knee.”
“To have paintings of bare-breasted women in a courthouse display a lack of respect for women and for men who respect women,” Brickley wrote.
The murals were painted by Paw Paw-born artist Frank Lewis Van Ness (1865-1944). The Village of Paw Paw accepted the paintings in 1908. They are believed to be 111 years old.
A Van Ness painting was also featured in the 1956 movie “Giant,” starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. It now hangs in the Wenger Hotel in San Antonio, Texas.
Brickley wrote that she recognizes that many people view the courthouse paintings as historically significant. “To that end,” Brickley wrote, “I would suggest exploring the feasibility of moving the pieces to a museum. While there was a time when depictions such as these might have seemed suitable in a historic courthouse, sensibilities have changed. This is reflected in other significant events in recent history where statues, flags, or other potentially offensive items have been removed.”
Brickley added that there are people who aren’t offended by the images. “The judiciary, however, is a place to dispense justice, not controversy or provocation. If the images are offensive to even a few, they should be removed from the courthouse,” Brickley wrote.
The paintings will be covered. The stairwell mural will be hidden by a banner of the Van Buren County seal, costing $360, and the courtroom mural will be covered by fabric matching the ceiling, cost is $1,233.
In this manner the paintings will be preserved but not visible. County Administrator John Faul said it’s not possible to move them elsewhere, such as to a museum. “One’s painted on the wall and one is glued to the wall,” Faul said.
In addition to Brickley, the request was signed by Circuit Court Judge David DiStefano and District Court judges Michael McKay and Arthur Clarke III.