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Verdict is in on mural in courthouse

May 25, 2003|Christopher Reynolds

After three decades of painting murals in and around Los Angeles on themes of social justice, race relations and urban poverty, Elliott Pinkney is making authorities nervous -- in Milwaukee.

Pinkney, 69, still lives in Compton, and two dozen of his works, from a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to an illustration of the dangers of smoking, remain on walls from Long Beach to Pacoima. But in January of this year, he was one of several local artists and writers commissioned to contribute to "Watts: Art and Social Change in Los Angeles, 1965-2003," an exhibition in Milwaukee at Marquette University's Haggerty Museum of Art.

As part of the show, Pinkney went to Milwaukee as an artist in residence, talking to school groups while he covered an 8-by-16-foot panel with acrylic-paint images from Watts history, some harsh, some hopeful.

In early May, after the show had ended, the museum lent the mural, titled "Watts Happeneding," to local government leaders, who planned to hang it temporarily in the rotunda of the Milwaukee County Courthouse.

But then some law enforcement officers, attorneys and judges glimpsed the mural -- including its image of LAPD beating victim Rodney King -- and complained that it could prejudice a jury. County executive Scott Walker agreed, and demoted Pinkney's mural to a less prominent wall on the third floor.

"I'm not concerned about the controversy," Pinkney says. "That's what it's supposed to do: get people's attention." Still, he added, "this is reality. You can't hide from it.... We are a violent society."

The mural is expected to hang for three months before returning to the museum's collection.

-- Christopher Reynolds

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