That Lawrenceville mural of Stephen Foster is gone

“It’s our building, and we made a decision to change the mural — a deliberate decision.”

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline
Rossilynne Culgan

Updated: 5:05 p.m. 

Shaking cans of blue spray paint Thursday morning, Pittsburgh artist Jeremy M. Raymer painted doves where composer Stephen Foster once looked out over Lawrenceville.

When he painted the Foster mural on a home there three years ago, he had no idea the piece would one day draw ire. But since deadly clashes in Charlottesville lead to discussions about the fate of the Stephen Foster statue in Oakland, which VSB called “The Most Racist Statue in America,” Raymer learned about Foster’s history and decided the mural had to go — a conclusion the building’s owner had reached, too.

The mural was located along 42nd Street, just a few blocks from Butler Street on a private home that houses apartments. It was a stencil-like portrait of Foster, with a distant image of the Doughboy Square statue in the upper left. When they decided to commission the artwork, building co-owner Kim Patterson said, they thought it would celebrate Lawrenceville history and offer something to the community.

“To be honest, I’m not sure that we completely thought it through, and when we did, we had a lot of conversations about it,” she said.

Now is the right time for a change, Patterson said.

“It’s our building, and we made a decision to change the mural — a deliberate decision,” she said. “We’ve been talking about it for about a year. I think that given the recent situation with our country at this time, we felt like we really didn’t have any time to waste.”

“Given the time right now, it’s very relevant to us to put this message forth and be a part of the right side of history today, which is taking this down,” Patterson said.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

Foster, a composer born in Lawrenceville in 1826, is known for his songs “Oh, Susanna” and “Camptown Races” — as well as musical numbers for a slew of blackface minstrels.

“I think it’s an excuse to say he was a product of his time. It’s like, well, yeah he was, but there were all these other people who wouldn’t have done what he did, so it’s, you know, you make choices,” Patterson said. “He’s going to be a part of history, but there’s another part of our history that has to be recorded as well.”

When Raymer painted the mural, he said he did a cursory search but didn’t learn everything about Foster’s music. That changed recently after reading articles about the statue.

“When I saw the statue and I started to read it, I was like ‘Oh shit, that’s not good.’ I had no idea about any of this,” he said.

It was Raymer’s first commissioned mural, and he painted it with a brush, a departure from his current spray paint style. He’s now done nearly 50 murals across the city, including portraits and images of animals.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

Raymer didn’t defend the mural.

“Even if it’s controversial at best, that isn’t who I am. I don’t want to be associated with that. My main overarching goal is to create beauty. … I had no interest to engage in a public debate about Stephen Foster’s past. I would have rather changed it and did something good for the community,” he said.

Though Raymer said he’s open to criticism, as his work is in the public eye, he felt that comments on Facebook called him out, more than the mural itself.

“I don’t try to be a controversial artist for the most part, and that isn’t my intent or that wasn’t the intent of this mural,” Raymer said.

(The Incline reached out for comment from this post’s author, and we’ll update this story if we hear back.)

To Raymer, the new “Flight of Doves” mural is symbolic of peace and love. The birds seem to fly out over the neighborhood — and on blue-sky days, they’ll take flight. He expects the new mural to be complete by Friday or Saturday.

“With everything going on with the Trump administration, we wanted something that was beautiful, something that was symbolic of peace,” he said.

Patterson appreciates the symbolism.

“It may seem trite, but the dove is the universal symbol for peace,” she said. “I think we could’ve stuck a dove up there, but I think the doves in flight represents movement and change and freedom.”