When Pepsy Kettavong was commissioned to create a sculpture of the city’s founder and namesake, Nathaniel Rochester, in the South Wedge, he didn’t want to design a statue that was hero-like. In fact, he wanted to symbolize contemplation and frailty.
The bronze sculpture depicts Rochester seated, hunched with his hands clasped under his chin. Kettavong says he was purposeful in creating a statue on a human scale, one that visitors could relate to.
“In other words, can you see yourself in that position?” he says.
Last month, Kettavong’s creation was defaced, a cry to bring light to Rochester’s roots as a slave owner and trader. Statues of historical figures and Confederate monuments have been toppled or defaced nationwide, an offshoot of protests for racial equality following the killing of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis police custody.
For example, Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ statue in Virginia was knocked over, while figures of Christopher Columbus in Boston and Miami were vandalized by protestors. In the U.K., the statue of Edward Colston, who traded West African slaves, was thrown into Bristol Harbor.
When Kettavong first learned that his work was vandalized, he says he felt bad for the community. Years ago, a group of volunteers had come together for the project to beautify a neighborhood.
“I mean, these are the people who have full-time jobs and just volunteered, raising money,” Kettavong says. “That corner used to be a hotbed for drug transactions. That’s the part that I really felt bad for, for the community.”
He adds: “The other thing that I felt, whoever did it is really shortsighted. In other words, that a little knowledge could be dangerous.”
A local sculptor, Kettavong was born in Laos. His family fled that country in 1980, coming to Rochester, where Kettavong eventually nurtured his interest in the arts by attending Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of American Crafts. He created the “Let’s Have Tea” sculpture of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass by the Susan B. Anthony House, and he has done work at the Mushroom House near Powder Mills Park.
“I strongly believe in equality, perhaps it’s because where I came from, my background,” Kettavong says. “Coming from Laos and escaping that communist country, (that) plays equally in my upbringing.”
He joined the effort to revitalize the area near South Avenue and Alexander Street. The statue was made possible though grants from the state Urban Development Corp. and a Culture Builds Communities Grant from the Arts and Cultural Council for Greater Rochester. It wasn’t simply about acknowledging history or aesthetic experience, Kettavong says, but an economic development initiative to create a sense of community.
“When I got involved in it and we started thinking about history and things, how far do we go back? And where does this start?” he says. “I don’t know who brought up Nathaniel Rochester, because there’s nothing (locally). I believe there’s maybe one little tiny bust.”
After input from the community, the team decided on a figure of Rochester.
“It’s about how do you see yourself at that stage in your life? What are the actions you take?” Kettavong says of his creation.
He reminds people to take artistic expressions in context. The Black Lives Matter protests have shown more than ever that art is necessary, Kettavong says, a reflection of social and political situations. Artists tend to create with a pure intent.
“The thing that you need to understand the most is that when we make a decision, we have to put it in the context of what it’s about at that time,” Kettavong says. “I mean, it’s so much easier to go back and answer, and superimpose on that, but that’s not right.”
Not a fan of putting historic figures on pedestals, he takes on projects that appeal to him. He has turned down a handful of such projects, but keeps an open mind to sculpting Louis Armstrong.
“That’s the only person that I would want to do,” Kettavong says.
Meanwhile, Rochester’s statue has been cleaned up. And in Maplewood Park, the Frederick Douglass statue that was removed from its base on July 5 and tossed over a fence toward the Genesee River Gorge has been replaced. Last week, artist Olivia Kim, who created the Douglass statues around the city, helped replace another statute for the one that was not salvageable.
The role and meaning of public monuments have increasingly become the cause of many a heated debate. Some argue that these structures offer a selective lens, sharing a dominant narrative, while shaping the present. Others say symbols can correct that dominance and the previous understanding of history.
Americans for the Arts, an organization that leads the network of groups and individuals who cultivate, support and advance the arts, notes that communities use public monuments as artistic tributes of what is deemed important. It maintains that “the illegal removal of these monuments or the quashing of dialogue by government edict, or by violence, disempowers the community and dampens the innate power of public art to spark dialogue, change and community healing.”
It addressed the intersection of arts, history and community dialogue in a 2017 statement when a Robert E. Lee monument became the target of a clash in Charlottesville, Va. At that time, with an eye to the future, the organization also said, “as more communities enter dialogue about what these divisive public artworks say about their residents and their beliefs, these art pieces can help facilitate positive community transformation.”
Or, as Kettavong says: Art teaches us who we are.
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. Alex Zapesochny is publisher.