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'West Virginia Moon' sparked controversy statewide in '63

Sep. 05, 2013 @ 07:03 AM

West Virginia-born artist Joe Moss returned to his native state recently for a dedication ceremony for one of his works, a steel sculpture located on the front plaza of the Clay Center in Charleston. His return recalls the controversy 50 years ago that surrounded his painting called “West Virginia Moon.”

Eighty-year-old Moss, who lives in Delaware, was in Charleston Aug. 17 for the dedication of “Wind Torn,” a gift to the Clay Center by former Gov. Gaston Caperton in honor of his late sister, Cary Caperton Owen, who passed away earlier this year.

Moss was an art instructor at West Virginia University when he created his “West Virginia Moon” for the 1963 West Virginia Centennial Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture. The piece – fashioned from six weathered boards, a piece of old screen door and some leftover paint – won first prize for a painting by a West Virginia artist and earned Moss a check for $1,963.

Art critics warmly praised the piece, but many West Virginians were outraged. They flooded the Centennial Commission and the state’s newspapers with irate letters, calling the piece worthless junk. Charleston Mayor John Shanklin labeled the piece “atrocious” and “sickening.” He said he feared the painting would damage the state’s image. Other political figures offered similar complaints, arguing that the painting would make West Virginia a laughingstock in the eyes of people elsewhere in the country.

The controversy raged for weeks, with the public’s verdict overwhelmingly negative. Not surprisingly, some letter writers suggested their young children could do a better job of portraying West Virginia. The word “ugly” was repeated in many letters. At least one letter writer labeled the painting “communist inspired.”

Still, the painting had its defenders. A Huntington student away at school in Ohio penned a letter to the Huntington Herald-Advertiser praising the painting and concluding: “If the objectors wanted a poster contest, they should have said so. If they want an art contest, they should learn what art is.”

Whether they hated it or loved it, people were definitely curious about the painting and eager to see it firsthand. When it went on display at the Huntington Galleries (now the Huntington Museum of Art), it attracted an enormous crowd – 3,000 people the first day it was on exhibit and thousands more in the days following.

“No accurate figure could possibly be given” for the number of people who visited the museum to see the painting, Galleries Director Jerold T. Talbot told the Huntington Advertiser. “People were coming in so fast that it was impossible for our small staff to give more than an approximate estimate. We do know that the number was bound to be close to 20,000.”

Moss himself weighed in on the controversy in a column he wrote for the Herald-Advertiser. He opened his piece by saying that if he were to do it over again, he “would not change one splinter” of his painting. But he went on to suggest the controversy had a positive side:

“The people of our state should be commended for having the courage to speak out about the Centennial Exhibition of painting and sculpture. It matters little whether they are qualified as art critics. What does matter is that the whole state, state officials, civic leaders, businessmen, housewives, laborers and people from all positions and walks of life are talking about art.”

Born in Harrison County in 1933, Moss earned his BA and MA degrees at West Virginia University and taught at WVU for the next 10 years. In 1970, he began a 28-year career at the University of Delaware, where he coordinated the school’s sculpture program. His work has been exhibited at a number of museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Moss is internationally known for his modernistic sculptures that combine visual displays with auditory sensations. But in his native state, he will always be best known as the creator of “West Virginia Moon,” which hangs in the State Museum at the Culture Center in Charleston.

James E. Casto is the retired associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch and the author of a number of books on local and regional history. His latest book is “Legendary Locals of Huntington West Virginia” (Arcadia, $21.99).