SWANTON — Three communal art walls in Swanton were removed this week following a vote by the village trustees Monday night, leaving just the wall at Missisquoi Valley Union.
The walls had become the focus of heated debate within the community after a Black Lives Matter fist was painted on the wall at the Swanton Village offices in June.
David Hemingway then painted a peace symbol over the fist.
Over the weekend, Chloe Viner Collins painted an image of black and white hand clasping over background of a a flag with multi-colored stripes and stars in the corner. She previously painted a black fist holding flowers, which was painted over.
“I feel like it is an important time to speak up,” Viner Collins previously told the Messenger. “I work with the courts, so I’m able to see the disparities that exist in arrests and in sentencing in our system, and I believe systematic racism is a real issue that needs to be addressed.”
“There are very few things in my life I feel 100 percent in the right on, and I believe anti-racism is one of them,” Viner Collins added.
Hemingway promptly began painting over the image of the hands clasping less than two hours after it was finished and was confronted by a group of people who took photos of him. He told trustees he was called “the lowest thing there is” and told to get out of town.
He was nearly sprayed in the face with paint, Hemingway said.
Hemingway did not say precisely why he painted over the image or others before it, but he did say, “To me, as a combat vet, I respect that flag.”
This was the fourth time Hemingway has painted over an image with which he disagreed.
While anyone may paint on the walls at any time, artists have tended to let others’ work remain for days or weeks before painting over it to allow the work, which takes hours to create, to be seen.
Collins shared an image of Hemingway painting over her painting and his license plate on her Facebook page.
The resulting debate included 721 comments.
It was the Facebook debate trustees cited in their discussion about removing the walls. However, the trustees had previously expressed discomfort with having the BLM fist on the wall outside of the village office.
Adam Paxman, the trustee who made the motion to temporarily remove the walls, said, “We’ve got a lot of keyboard warriors out there that are talking behind Facebook. It’s time to get away from the keyboard, stop hiding behind it.”
The Swanton Enhancement Project is forming a diversity and equality committee. Paxman wants to see the conversation shift from the walls to the committee.
“We’re done painting symbols. It’s time to talk,” he said.
The trustees did not remove the walls forever. It’s intended to be a temporary hiatus with the arts council and the trustees to meet in January about restoring the walls.
“We need to just eliminate the issue right now and steer people toward this committee so they can air their grievances, air their concerns,” Paxman said. “If you’re going to simply do it behind a keyboard and a monitor, it’s not doing anybody any good. It’s just creating hate, which is why I do not do Facebook.
“We want to promote change, but we need to do it in a different way at this point.”
Trustee Eugene Labombard suggested the village also take down the board at MVU and questioned whether those painting the anti-racism images were even American citizens. At least one resident has since called for his resignation.
The walls were the brainchild of the Swanton Arts Council, which itself grew out of the Swanton Enhancement Project. The walls were installed four years ago and were so popular that other communities — including St. Albans Town and St. Albans City — have installed their own. The same night the trustees voted to suspend Swanton’s walls the St. Albans City Council was discussing adding a wall to downtown, modeled on Swanton’s.
Nicole Gadouas, a vice president of the Swanton Arts Council, spoke at the meeting, but was clear her remarks were her own and not representative of the views of the council.
“I was ashamed to see the character slamming on Facebook. It was terrible,” Gadouas said.
“Intentions may have been positive to begin with,” she said, but now “it’s separation and divide and judgement, and I’m disgusted by all of it.”
“Our mission is to support local art,” said Gadouas. “This is more about political statements and agendas.”
“We’re not helping each other out; we’re dividing,” she continued. “This is not positive energy that’s coming from this.”
Gadouas also emphasized that removing the walls isn’t about removing the message. “It’s removing the hatred and the anger and the disrespect,” she said.
The issue wasn’t the message, in her view, but “the way it’s being delivered.”
“It’s going about it the wrong way,” Gadouas said.
Darci Benoit, a member of the Swanton Arts Council board, said the issue has split the council.
“The people that are supporting these actions do not speak for the arts council as a whole,” Benoit said. “Many of us want to see the art walls come down temporarily to let the dust settle.”
Several people at the meeting expressed the view that the anti-racist images were political messages not art.
Judy Paxman, executive director of the Swanton Arts Council offered a different take. “Art isn’t something you look at,” she told the Messenger in June. “It’s something that helps you see.”
The arts council issued a statement on Wednesday which did not directly address the walls, saying:
“The Swanton Arts Council agrees to do our best to be inclusive across race, gender, age, religion, identity, and experience. Critique is uncomfortable but a vital part of the creative process. As we grow as artists and as a community we may often stumble. We welcome all input so we can better hear the voices of all those we serve in our mission of establishing an artistic presence and developing the creative community.”
In addition to the walls, the Swanton Arts Council has been responsible for creating art galleries and shows in town, organizing community events, and amateur film productions, among other projects.
Gadouas did ask that artists be allowed access to the walls to take photos of their projects. The other two walls both currently have works created by children and families.