A mural commemorating the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case was almost complete when one of its artists painted in a last-minute addition: an immigrant child clinging to her mother.
It was a silent protest against the Trump administration's policy of separating parents and children arrested at the U.S. border. It was soon removed.
The image of the child was added Friday to the 130-foot-wide, 30-foot-tall mural on the side of Topeka's Hill & Co. building, across the street from the old Monroe Elementary School, now the Brown v Board of Education National Historic Site.
On Monday, Michael Toombs, the artistic director overseeing the project, painted over the newly added image.
"I could see the way things were starting to germinate in the media that the story was becoming more about the addition than about all the good creative community labor that it took to create the mural," said Toombs, a prolific Kansas City muralist whose works can also be seen at the American Jazz Museum, Bartle Hall and the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
The Topeka mural was three years in the making, a collage of images drawn by Topeka school children who had entered a Living the Dream art contest celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The artist who painted in the child, bj McBride of Kansas City, said on Monday that she understands the decision to paint over her addition.
"It was done intuitively and spontaneously," McBride said. "I'm a pretty outspoken artist. It was something I feel very strongly about. I just couldn't help it. But I think it was distracting.
"In a collaborative effort, any time the spotlight is put on one artist it is not good. I don't have any issue in celebrating all the artists and keeping the focus on what we came there to do."
The image of the clinging child did not fit with the mission of the mural, said Sarah Fizell, executive director of the Topeka nonprofit ArtsConnect, which worked with Living the Dream Inc. and raised $100,000 for the project.
Fizell said the mural was designed to pay homage to the Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court decision that led to the desegregation of schools in the United States.
Initially Toombs was going to leave the image of the clinging child in the mural, which he has titled "The Children Shall Lead." Its official name is the "Brown v Board Legacy Mural."
"I understand her premise," Toombs said. "I think we all have been touched by what is happening to our children. Just because they happen to be a different nationality doesn't make us feel any less responsible. But this was not the place."
"This mural is all about celebrating community and unity and children," Toombs added. He said he realizes the connection of that theme with the more than 1,000 immigrant children who have yet to be reunited with their parents. "But the reality is you have to fight your battles where you can."
He said the child was not in the original design approved by the community, and he did not want to jeopardize the community spirit that came from the mural's creation.
"I have always used art as a tool to provide access for artists in the community, and my intentions have always been to find ways to bring the community together," Toombs said.
Toombs said about 30 professional artists worked with children to paint the mural, and members of the public were invited to paint a portion as well. In all, about 2,000 people participated, including visitors from all over the world.
The mural is expected to be completed by the end of the week and celebrated by a community event that will feature a time lapse video of its creation, including a shot showing the mural with the clinging child followed by one with the child painted over.
The mural is the second one painted this year to celebrate the Brown v Board decision in Topeka. An earlier mural painted by Kansas City, Kan., muralist Michael Young hangs at the state capitol.