Rebecca Elrod, Contributing Writer
A VCU graduate’s painting of the graffitied statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue is giving new meaning to an old, towering symbol of oppression.
Painted by S. Ross Browne, “The Surrender Of Lee (Reverse Mandala)” lends a bird’s-eye view of the Confederate memorial surrounded by spray-painted messages and signs at its base.
Commissioned by two of his friends, Browne utilized multiple drone photographs of the statue as a base for the painting. While analyzing the different layers of graffiti, he said he felt a connection to the artists.
“As a painter, I had to look at every single one and come to grips with what emotional rage or, or passion or compassion or apathy or vitriol, you know, each individual person,” Browne said.
In his work, Browne creates portraits of Black people in mythology and history. “The Surrender of Lee” displays how the Lee monument has become a recontextualized symbol for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The 1990 graduate said the oil and acrylic canvas painting became a medium that allowed him to process the history of brutality against Black people into a more positive portrayal.
“My pieces are about horrible things,” the communication art and design major said. “But I try to paint them in a way that you can aesthetically digest them and say ‘wow.’”
The overhead view of the statue reminded the artist of a mandala, a geometric symbol often used during spiritual traditions. He described it as a reverse catharsis — as he painted, he learned the emotions behind each layer of paint.
“I was forced to look at, you know, everybody’s angst and anxiety and pain one by one, layer by layer,” Browne said.
A rainbow array of words decorate the painting. In black, red and blue the phrases “I was here,” “Black rage” and “Trump is a racist” are spread around the statue.
The artist shared a picture of the painting on Instagram and said he received messages from people who said they used it to process police brutality. At least 2,000 people have interacted with the post, Browne said.
Browne said he received a message from an art teacher who told him about conversations she had with her students about social justice protests. She said she was inspired by Browne’s work and asked to use his art as a teaching tool in her classroom.
Even with the attention the painting received, Browne said he will continue to paint and show who he is as an artist. Whatever iteration the artwork takes, Browne said he believes it will find an audience.
The depth of his pieces comes from a desire to give a positive light to horrible things, Browne said. He described his artistic style as an “in-your-face painter of the human condition coming from a Black perspective.”
Overall, Browne said he paints for fans of art and fans of “the trials and tribulations of humanity.”
Ross Browne is selling prints of “The Surrender of Lee” on his website.
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