Questions raised over mural’s ethnic inclusiveness

A recently-completed mural at Hightstown High School has drawn the attention of resident David Abalos, an advocate for the school district’s English as a second language program.

By: Chris Karmiol
   The halls of Hightstown High School are more colorful thanks to a new mural completed this week by art teacher Bill Plank. But not colorful enough for East Windsor resident David Abalos, a Princeton professor of sociology.
   The mural, "A Walk Through Time," which depicts a cultural and art historical timeline from prehistoric cave drawings through Michelangelo and The Beatles, has sparked a mini-controversy over its European-dominated imagery.
   "The mural attempts to look at the sweep of human history," Dr. Abalos said, reviewing a key to the work of art. "Ironically the majority here represents a fairly European perspective. Aztec and Egyptian cultures are somewhat on the fringes … the only person of color is Martin Luther King Jr."
   The mural depicts artists Leonardo Da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet. It also features the Greek mythological figure Icarus, an interior view of the Pantheon and the philosopher Aristotle.
   "When we walk into a classroom we walk in with our limited perspective," Dr. Abalos, author of several books, including "Strategies of Transformation Toward a Multicultural Society," said. "The wider the perspective the more we take into the classroom. When an artist sits down and gives his perspective of the world he’s making a statement. The mural represents his limited perspective of a walk through time."
   Dr. Abalos, an advocate for English as a second language students in the district, added that a mural, ideally, should mirror a school. Hightstown High School is currently undergoing what is commonly called a "change in demographics." More Latino, Indian and African American students are entering the school district. The mural should show diversity and the richness of humanity, he said, adding that 75 percent of the world’s population are people of color.
   "This mural is, unfortunately, very European-oriented," Dr. Abalos said.
   Artist Bill Plank was surprised and disappointed by the accusation of exclusion.
   "I’ve been called eccentric," he said, on his way to add finishing touches to the work of art. "I’ve been called egocentric, I’ve been called grandiose — but I’ve never been called Eurocentric."
   Mr. Plank, who volunteered more than 150 of his own hours to help beautify the school, defended his mural as a celebration of life from an art history and cultural standpoint. The 40-foot-long mural features details of many of Mr. Plank’s paintings and continues a theme he began in a drawing he made while he was in high school.
   "This is my time period as a kid growing up in the suburbs," he said. "This is what I was exposed to."
   Aside from backdrops for stage productions, the high school mural is the largest scale painting he has completed. He enlisted the help of more than a dozen Hightstown High art students. Students who have approached Mr. Plank on the artwork, he said, have had nothing but praise.
   "It improves the look of the school," he said, "and also supports an understanding that everything in the world is interrelated."
   The mural begins with a "prehistoric handprint," images of the Sphinx, Stonehenge and Mayan pyramids. In the center of the mural are the Earth, physicist Albert Einstein and a hippie girl blowing bubbles. Toward the end it features President John F. Kennedy, the space shuttle Challenger and a DNA molecule.
   Principal William Roesch defended the merit of the mural.
   "There is no doubt in my mind this is a masterpiece," he said. "I do not see this mural as an issue. What Bill (Plank) is trying to do is show that everyone is connected. He’s trying to celebrate life, discovery, challenges."
   Mr. Roesch assured that Mr. Plank did not overtly or covertly omit any culture.
   "As citizens of the 21st century," he said, "we owe much to the people who are represented in that mural."
   Dr. Abalos does not disagree with value of classical European culture. He does, however, believe that the mural marginalizes other cultures and under-represented women.
   Men of achievement represented in the mural include: seven artists, the musical group The Beatles, two scientists, two astronauts, a president (JFK), a civil rights activist (Martin Luther King Jr.), and two philosophers.
   Women of achievement include Mother Theresa, a generic mother and child and a hippie girl blowing bubbles.
   Education, according to Dr. Abalos, should be like shining light into darkness. This mural, he said, is a very narrow beam and is — by its nature — exclusionary. Mr. Roesch said that, though the mural is heavily European, it is still an excellent educational statement and mirrors many of the school’s classroom subjects.
   Judith K. Brodsky, a distinguished professor in the visual arts department at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, said the mural is ambitious and sophisticated. Her granddaughter, a Hightstown High art student, assisted in painting it.
   "What they’re trying to do is show the panoply of civilization they’re studying in school," she said, "by relating art history and 20th century events. It all had to do with the development of culture. If you’re dealing with trying to get science in there and recent events like civil rights and landing on the moon, I would say it’s pretty hard to be as complete as (Dr. Abalos) would like."
   Mr. Plank, both proud of his creation and disappointed at criticism of it, said that he received many suggestions for what to add to the mural, but ultimately kept his artistic vision intact.
   "I had some people who were upset that The Beatles were in it, but Mick Jaggar wasn’t," he half-joked. Getting to the heart of it, he said: "When someone criticizes this they really are criticizing me."
   The ultimate good of the artwork’s criticisms, according to Dr. Abalos, is that it will raise questions and open debate. He said that he hoped people would rethink basic assumptions and preconceived notions about history, but added: "It still is unfortunate that this is semi-permanent."