Seton Hill draws flak for painting of sculpture
Abstract sculpture "Pipe Theme in Red Orange" by Josefa Filkosky is now blue in its site in front of Lynch Hall at Seton Hill University.
Josefa Filkosky, who taught art at Seton Hill in Greensburg, died in 1999.
Share with others:
Does it matter that a sculpture titled "Pipe Theme in Red Orange," and originally rendered in permutations of those colors, would be given a new blue-gray makeover without the artist's consent?
The answer to that question would be a resounding "yes" from artists and art professionals, but that it happened recently to a sculpture by the late Josefa Filkosky on the grounds of Seton Hill University, Greensburg, is yet another example of how art is often misunderstood by the general, even educated, public.
The abstract work stands in front of the campus's Lynch Hall, home to the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM) pre-osteopathic medicine program, which was implemented over the summer at the university. LECOM requested, and received, permission to identify its location with a sign in blue, the school color.
When they did so, "the environment around the sculpture changed," said Seton Hill President JoAnne Boyle, "and the sculpture looked a little diminished." We asked, "What can we do to restore Josefa's work to its former presence?" Boyle said.
One option considered was to move the sculpture to a new site. Another was to change its color.
"When it was proposed that the color be changed, I went along with that," Boyle said. "[Filkosky] was much more interested in shape, form, minimalism, than in color." And it wouldn't be the first time the sculpture had been painted, although certainly it was the most dramatic. During the past 15 years, it has been painted a couple of times, as a part of its preservation, in similar shades of red and orange.
Others would disagree with her arguments, and that choice. Although Boyle emphatically denies that the sculpture was altered to become an extension of the LECOM corporate presence, a particularly odious thought, any alteration of a work of art is problematic at best to the integrity of the work.
Think only of the huge flap that resulted years ago when Allegheny County maintenance workers repainted a black and white mobile by the great Alexander Calder at the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport to county colors orange and green (they also welded parts of it to stabilize its free flow).
"It's right in the title that's what color it is," said Amber Morgan, associate registrar of The Andy Warhol Museum, who has offered to help write a position paper to present to Seton Hill. As to whether or not Filkosky would have approved, "it doesn't matter -- she's not here to ask. The responsibility is to preserve and protect what's there."
"This is a no-brainer. It's very hard to articulate why it's inappropriate because it's so ingrained in people like me [who work in the professional museum world]," Morgan said "It's difficult trying to explain something that's so intangible."
Morgan said that such a change is generally "an ethical decision, but I think it was due to lack of education about what they were doing," and expressed dismay that Seton Hill didn't seem to consult with any of the well-trained conservators in the region or with professionals at nearby Westmoreland Museum of American Art, or at Carnegie Museum of Art or the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, which owns a Filkosky work.
"They're not upholding the integrity of the artwork. They're not a museum. They don't have guidelines that we have, which are very strict. But they are an educational institution. It sounds like the piece was painted to match a sign. We're not talking about a park bench or a landscape object that's unattractive," Morgan added.
Morgan said that perhaps most troubling is how the controversy reflects upon the university's art department and faculty.
Filkosky, who completed a bachelor's degree in art eduction from then Seton Hill College, taught art at the school from 1955 until her death in 1999, initiating the bachelor of fine arts program and helping to establish Harlan Gallery. She joined the Sisters of Charity, the university's founding order, in 1956, leaving the sisterhood in 1974. Filkosky also earned a bachelor of fine arts from Carnegie Mellon University, and a master's in fine arts from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
There are three other major sculptures by Filkosky installed outdoors on the university campus, including "Continuous Form in Red" in front of Reeves Theatre and Harlan Gallery. Filkosky's bright orange "Pipe Dream IV" is installed in the grass median strip on Penn Avenue at Gateway Plaza.
The color change was first brought to public attention by Seton Hill graduate Kathleen Dlugos, associate professor of art at Westmoreland County Community College, writing on Facebook. She'd recently started a Josefa Filkosky transfer scholarship for WCCC students to Seton Hill's art department. "The disregard and disrespect for art is unfathomable to me. Josefa is a world-class artist, in collections across the country, in historical texts on women artists."
Other graduates have joined the conversation, including Jennifer Braughler, class of 1995, who asked: "How can an 'art' school change the legacy of one of its greatest professors and alumni?"
Cathy Whitney-Campbell, class of 1996, wrote "Of all artists for this to happen to! Above all else Josefa respected the vision of the artist. This is a slap in the face to what she taught and practiced. Let's be frank. Anyone who knew Josefa knew how she reacted when a piece was disturbed in any way! Knowing this ..., knowing what an influence she had as a professor, what she brought to the community at Seton Hill, how could this have been approved?"
The good news is that Boyle is open to change, to weighing opinions, some of which she may now be wishing she'd solicited beforehand.
She is pleased with the discussion that the sculpture has generated, she said, and is considering scheduling a panel to talk about such issues as "intentionality in art ... what constitutes the essence of this kind of art, and the integrity of it which can't be violated."
Boyle also wouldn't mind if the enthusiasm generated would translate into the creation of a fund to restore "Pipe Theme in Red Orange," and perhaps other Filkosky works, an expensive undertaking if done correctly by a professional conservator.
Boyle cautions that she doesn't want the controversy to divide the art community, on campus or elsewhere. "Let's keep this at a good high intellectual place or discussion, whatever the outcome."
"Nobody asked us to do it. We were not coerced, and it's not permanent," Boyle said.
The best resolution would be to bring this prominent artwork back to its intended condition, and that as a side benefit the legacy of Josefa Filkosky would achieve its rightful place in art history.
First Published September 9, 2009 12:00 am