KINGSTON, R.I. — Officials say while no final decision has been made, there are numerous obstacles for preserving a pair of murals at the University of Rhode Island that were painted almost 70 years ago by a World War II veteran with strong ties to the university.
Arthur “Art” Sherman’s murals in the Memorial Union, depicting South County life in the 1950s, are slated to be removed as part of a renovation project at the union.
School officials say they have received complaints that the scenes – depicting servicemen returning to Kingston, a class reunion, URI commencement, a South County beach scene, and students piled into a jalopy wearing letter sweaters – don’t represent the community URI is today.
In 1954, around the time Sherman painted them, total enrollment was 1,956, with 1,412 men and 544 women. Most of the students were from Rhode Island – 1,687.
Today, the university enrolls more than 17,000 students, 57 percent of them women. Twenty-one percent are non-white. Students come from 48 U.S. states, districts and territories and 76 nations.
Over the summer, news of the historic artwork’s impending removal reached not only veterans’ groups but also Sherman, 95, and his family, who were informed by URI that the mural might be destroyed.
Michele Nota, vice president of alumni engagement, spoke with Sherman and his wife, Jeanne, in July to discuss the university’s action.
“Art Sherman is a kind-hearted educator, artist, and athlete, and it is no surprise to me and others who know him well that he took the news with grace and dignity,” Nota said. “When I notified Art that we might not be able to preserve the murals, he said, in good spirits, that his gift might have served its time.”
Sherman was a decorated returning veteran, and he was originally asked to draw cartoon-like murals in a Quonset Hut that served as an earlier site for the student union. In 1953, as the current Memorial Union was being completed, the building’s manager, Chester Berry, asked Sherman to paint more murals in the new building’s ground floor.
Sherman was a four-time All-American pole vaulter on URI’s track and field team coached by the legendary Fred Tootell. A professor emeritus, he taught physical education at URI for 30 years.
He is a recipient of the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Victory Medal, Combat Medic Badge and two Battle Stars. He was known as the athletic historian during his 30 years on campus. He collected vintage Rhode Island State College athletic equipment and donated it to the university’s library archives.
Jeanne Sherman, who earned her master’s degree in nursing education with a certificate as a nurse practitioner from URI, said it would be nice if some portion of the mural could be preserved. “Maybe it could be part of a section called then and now,” she said.
The university on Sept. 4 issued a statement about the murals, addressing concerns that they would either be destroyed or hidden away from view.
“We understand the affinity that many of our alumni and community members have to the murals displayed in the URI Memorial Union. We appreciate the emotional connection many have to the past as depicted in the murals showing campus life in the 1950s,” URI said.
“We have also been listening, as we should, to the voices of our students today, in particular our students of color and other minorities for whom these murals show what many experience all too frequently – being left out of the picture or conversation. These murals are a snapshot in time and no longer represent our diverse community. We appreciate the artist, Dr. Arthur Sherman, his love of URI and his ability to capture that time period. We honor his talents, service and dedication to URI and our nation.”
URI said it would work to find a way to acknowledge the past and point toward the future.
“We are a community that values equity and diversity, and we will work to ensure that our students, alumni and community members of all backgrounds feel welcome and included,” the university said.
The school also said the move to change the images was not intended as disregard for veterans.
“Our Office of Veterans Affairs and Military Programs and our Student Veteran Organization see this artwork as a depiction of a specific period of time and not reflective of campus and military culture today,” URI said.
Where does that leave the fate of the murals painted by Sherman, a member of the URI class of 1950?
URI will announce its plans to review, gather, and reflect on what has been raised by the end of September. It has enlisted the help of professor and Chair of the Department of Art and Art History, Ronald Onorato, to share his expertise in mural preservation, with the goal of incorporating Sherman’s work.
“Most importantly, we should strive, as an educational institution not toward removing history but moving toward contextualizing the mural to use the original mural as a way to open discussions about our university culture in the 1950s and how it differs from who we are now,” Onorato said.
The university has explored options for preservation of the murals, including removal of the plaster walls on which the murals are directly painted. That, too, is problematic, as the construction method of the wall – plaster and lathe – doesn’t permit removal without damage to the murals and to the walls. Two entire walls in the building would need to be removed, according to URI.
High-resolution photography was completed to preserve the images for both historical purposes and a point of reference of the history of the Memorial Union.
Vice President for Student Affairs Kathy Collins said the university appreciates Sherman’s love of URI and his ability to capture that time period.
“We honor his military service, his athletic accomplishments and his dedicated teaching at URI. When we complete the renovations, we will invite the Sherman family to the ceremonies to thank them for their contributions to the university,” Collins said. “We’d want to reflect on many of our community members’ accomplishments, including Dr. Sherman’s, and the broader history of URI.”
Collins said the renovated space might feature multi-media and still images of URI’s development, which would reflect the decades since its founding in 1892. Sherman’s work, preserved in photographs, could be part of that, with a plaque or some type of explanation about the murals and how important Sherman was to the university as it transitioned from a state college to a university.
“It is essential that students see in our buildings, publications and graphics a devotion to equity, community and diversity,” Collins said. “For students of color and other minorities, campus administrators, faculty, alumni and other community members these murals show what many in the URI community experience all too frequently – being left out of the picture or conversation.”