Since the release of the grand jury presentment against Jerry Sandusky in November, aspects of my Hiester Street mural have received a great deal of attention, and the motives for some of the changes I’ve made have been misunderstood.
The removal of Jerry Sandusky from the mural was an emotional response, and I did it because I received emails from survivors of child sexual violence begging me to and because of my feelings related to abuse my courageous daughter endured as a child.
Because I feel strongly about the issue of child sexual abuse, my partner Yuri Karabash and I constructed a mural in the alley around the corner from the Hiester mural to commemorate honor victims and survivors.
I also placed a painting of a leading child-abuse awareness educator and activist, Dora McQuaid, in the chair Sandusky had occupied.
And, to bring attention to this important issue, I placed a blue ribbon — the symbol of the abuse-awareness movement — in various places.
Perhaps most controversial and misunderstood was the addition and later removal of the halo over Joe Paterno. It had been my practice to paint halos over the heads of persons throughout the mural who had died after the time they had been painted there.
Unfortunately, it became increasingly apparent that many people, including those in the media, interpreted the halo as a sanctification symbol, which was not my intention.
As the Paterno family has said, Joe wasn’t a saint, but he wasn’t a demon either.
To better express my sentiments, I have removed halos from all people on the mural, commemorating them instead by the simple addition of the dates of their life spans.
My focus is not on Paterno, but on the survivors of child abuse and on more awareness of an issue that goes far beyond the tragic events in Happy Valley.
On Tuesday, a Centre Daily Times editorial called for the removal of the blue ribbon I had very recently placed on Paterno’s image, claiming Paterno did not show awareness of child abuse and support for the victims and survivors. I have been
incredibly emotional in wrestling with what to do with portions of the mural since the release of the Freeh report.
In my heart, I felt the addition of the blue ribbon to Paterno was necessary and appropriate, particularly because I had spoken to him shortly before his death, and in that conversation he expressed great concern for the children. He talked about the importance of educating people about abuse so that such events would not happen again, and he reiterated his statement that with hindsight he would have done more.
Some may feel these sentiments came too late, and I understand that. But Paterno is no longer here to defend himself, and the Freeh report’s conclusions about him are inferential. We still don’t know the whole story.
I believe that if he had lived he would have been fully supportive — in a very active way — of more education and awareness of the terrible issue of child sexual violence. It should be understood that I did not paint the ribbon on Paterno to exonerate him from any possible wrongdoing. The ribbon was placed there to bring more awareness to this issue, an intention that I truly believe he would have supported.
I therefore respectfully disagree with the CDT’s opinion. Unless powerful evidence to the contrary arises, the ribbon will remain.
I did not take this decision lightly. I talked it over with many community members, including a representative of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, who supported the addition by saying Paterno is a small part of a much bigger problem.
There are still ongoing investigations and criminal trials that may provide more answers and more clarity as we attempt to understand this tragedy. As more facts come to light, I will continue to analyze the information we know and to update the mural accordingly.
The title of the Hiester Street mural is “Inspiration,” and I will continue to add inspiring members of our community and to highlight their amazing work.
Since November, students have organized a massive candlelight vigil and launched courageous campaigns, such as “Voices for Victims.” I have also begun collaborating with organizations such as the Aung San Suu Kyi World Freedom Fund, Educare, the Centre County Women’s Resource Center and the 367 Project on various initiatives focused on promoting conversations about this cause.
I also am working with remarkable individuals such as McQuaid and Stella Rotaru, who are courageous, inspirational figures working for this cause nationally and internationally.
I hope good comes from this tragedy and that I can be a part of promoting healing and amplifying the incredible work of others. I welcome the discussion that is now happening, and I have shared incredibly powerful, emotional moments with many survivors since November, thanks to this community’s ongoing conversation. I am totally dedicated and committed to this cause and will continue to embark upon work that can be helpful for victims of sexual violence.
Michael Pilato is an artist and the executive director of the Public Art Academy.