Greenwich Time

Iconic inspiration: Artist draws from the sacred to honor spirit of civil rights movement

When artist Pamela Chatterton-Purdy thinks about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, her thoughts often turn to the everyday people who managed to do extraordinary things, despite the bigotry, violence and threat of death they faced for their actions.

“The whole sacredness of the movement inspired me,” she said. “It still gives me goose bumps when I think of them going out on marches, staring into that hatred.”

She believed then, as she does now, that there was a “holy spirit” guiding these activists. “These people chose the power of transformative love, even as they were facing bombings and lynchings and killings and assassinations,” she said. “They stuck steadfast to the power of nonviolence.”

For eight years, Purdy, who grew up in New Canaan and now lives in Massachusetts, has been driven by a sacred inspiration of her own, which has translated into a series of mixed-media icons of the events and figures of the civil rights movement. She has made more than 30 such icons, the majority of which are on display at Round Hill Community Church in Greenwich.

They are teamed with a one-page history of each subject or event, written by her husband, the Rev. David Purdy. They honor such familiar figures as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, and commemorate events, such as the sit-ins of the late 1950s and the early 1960s. “The message should be that every one of us has no excuse not to do something in the interest of justice,” Chatterton-Purdy said.

For gallery curator Mirella Hajjar, that social message was as arresting as the unique look of the art, which follows in the Eastern Christian tradition. Icons are religious paintings on wood panels that feature such divinities as Mary, Jesus, saints and other holy people. They are filled with symbols and layers of meaning created to provide inspiration and a spiritual connection with the viewer.

Found objects for each work are transformed into symbols that point to the courage, the conviction and, at times, great loss, that marked the struggles to overturn segregation.

Yardsticks, for instance, cut to 14 inches frame Emmett Till‘s portrait. In 1955, Till, a black teen from Chicago, was visiting family in Money, Miss., when he was tortured and killed by two white men because he whistled at a white woman. The men were acquitted by an all-white jury only to reveal months later that they had, in fact, killed Till, who was only 14.

The exhibit has been to about three dozen churches, universities and galleries around the country, and continues to be in demand through at least the end of next year.

The Rev. Anita Keire, a church member and retired clergywoman, has worked to get the icons to the Greenwich gallery ever since she saw them at Yale Divinity School in 2013. “It is a fabulous show,” the longtime Greenwich resident said. She was drawn not only to its aesthetics, but to its ability to prompt discussion on issues such as discrimination and persecution for one’s beliefs.

Chatterton-Purdy said she was recently asked how long it took her to do an icon. “I said two weeks … but it really took 50 years.”

Les Beaux Arts Gallery at Round Hill Community Church, 395 Round Hill Road, Greenwich. Through March 31. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Free. Groups welcome. 203-869-1091,

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Alma Rutgers: Stories that still need telling

Published 7:13 pm, Saturday, January 31, 2015

February is Black History Month. And today an inspiring black history exhibit opens in “Les Beaux Arts Gallery” at Round Hill Community Church.

“Icons of the Civil Rights Movement” depicts this history in visual and narrative form, honoring those who gave so much, including their lives, in this struggle.

“The icons are extraordinary,” said the Rev. Anita Keire, a church member and retired clergyperson. “I’d never seen anything like it.”

Keire encountered the exhibit in 2013 when it was on display during Yale Divinity School‘s annual Convocation and graduate reunion. She wanted to bring it to Greenwich.

Beaux Arts Gallery curator Mirella Hajjar embraced Keire’s idea and booked the exhibit, which is on display through March 31 and open to the public weekdays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Also enthusiastic were the Rev. Ed Horstmann, church minister, and Michael Sandifer who chairs a committee on adult faith education and exploration.

“As a church, we were very excited to have the exhibit as a way to reach out to the greater Greenwich community,” Sandifer said.

The icons, numbering more than 30, are artist Pamela Chatterton-Purdy‘s creations. The first 16 were unveiled on Martin Luther King Day in 2008 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination. Chatterton-Purdy created a 17th icon after Barack Obama‘s election. These 17 icons were on display in Washington, D.C., for Obama’s 2009 inauguration.

Last fall, in preparation for the exhibit, Horstmann preached a series of sermons introducing Biblical prophetic heritage. Laying claim to this heritage is an ongoing task, he says.

“That rich prophetic heritage fueled the civil rights movement. It’s an ongoing quest for liberty from all forms of oppression.”

Since 2008, Chatterton-Purdy’s icons have been displayed at colleges, universities, churches, art galleries, and libraries. In summer, they’re in Hyannis, Massachusetts, at the Zion Union Heritage Museum that’s dedicated to the history and culture of African-Americans, Native Americans and Cape Verdean-Americans.

These exhibitions generate interaction that gives Chatterton-Purdy opportunities to develop valued relationships with still-living civil rights activists and relatives of the movement’s martyrs. Suggestions for additional icons are plentiful. The number of icons continues to grow with stories that still need telling.

There could be at least a hundred more, Chatterton-Purdy says, but wonders how much more she can do, noting that she’s almost 75. Yet she appears nowhere near slowing down in this passionate mission she likens to a song without an end, or a rolling snowball that continually gathers momentum.

Chatterton-Purdy completed two new works last November. These icons honoring civil rights activists James Meredith and Robert (Bob) Parris Moses are shown for the first time in this Greenwich exhibit.

Meredith was the first African-American to attend the segregated University of Mississippi. Moses, a Harlem native and civil rights worker, is an educator who developed the Algebra Project to improve math education in minority communities.

These new icons join 30 others that include towering figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, as well as lesser-known people who made significant contributions in this struggle. The icons also include groups of people and important events: the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Bloody Sunday, the Little Rock Nine, Freedom Riders, and Sit-Ins.

Chatterton-Purdy seeks to capture the uniqueness of each person or event. Her husband, the Rev. Dr. David Purdy, a retired Methodist minister, writes historical narratives to accompany each icon.

“The text is our story,” he says. “We weave the stories of others into our involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.”

The Purdys, married in 1963, became involved with civil rights that year. Chatterton-Purdy was then art editor at Chicago-based Ebony Magazine. Her husband interned at Chicago’s Ecumenical Institute.

In addition to two white biological daughters, they have two adopted sons: an African-American and a son born to a Vietnamese mother and an African-American soldier.

In 1987, Chatterton-Purdy wrote a book about the racism they experienced as a bi-racial family living in Massachusetts.

In 2004, the Purdys took a trip to the South, visiting historic civil rights sites and meeting people who played a role in this history. The trip, a seminal moment for Chatterton-Purdy, inspired these icons that preserve the memory of courageous people.

“I experienced the power of transformative love over such evil,” she said.

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