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NewsDec 17, 2020

Restoring a work of art and a legacy

Community rallies around Rocky Cotard ’18 and effort to erase graffiti that marred his Congressman John Lewis mural

Rocky Cotard mural restored
Above: A close up of Rocky Cotard's mural after it was restored. Image courtesy: Rocky Cotard

Lesley alumnus and staff member Rocky Cotard ’18 has restored his mural of the late Georgia congressman and civil-rights leader John Lewis, which had been vandalized with black spray paint outside a North Cambridge restaurant just before Thanksgiving.

Using studio space at our College of Art and Design and “with the amazing support of Gianfranco Pocobene Studio,” Cotard says the mural is ready to return to its rightful home outside the Urban Hearth restaurant at 2263 Massachusetts Ave.

The mural, which was commissioned in August and completed in October, features a likeness of Lewis framed by ribbons of his renowned quotes, including, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair.

Rocky Cotard sitting in a chair in front of his mural at Urban Hearth
Rocky Cotard sits in front of his mural at Urban Hearth in September. The mural was defaced in November. Image courtesy: Rocky Cotard

“Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime.

“Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

The vandalism hit Cotard hard.

“Initially when I found out the mural was defaced, I found myself existing in a numb emotional space as I imagined that the general populace would know to express a level of respect for the memorial of someone who passed away,” Cotard says.

Rocky Cotard mural close up with spray paint defacing image of John Lewis
Spray paint mars John Lewis's image. Image courtesy: Rocky Cotard

Other members of the Lesley and Cambridge community shared his pain. In an email to Cotard, Lesley President Janet L. Steinmayer said she was “heartbroken and angry.”

“I was inspired by your beautiful and moving artistic tribute to Congressman John Lewis when you completed it earlier this fall, and I was devastated to learn that it was vandalized,” Steinmayer wrote.

The person who commissioned the work and the city’s mayor were similarly angered. 

Restaurant owner Erin Miller vowed on Twitter that the restaurant would be “making some noise” in the wake of the vandalism, which she characterized in a statement as “an ugly, premeditated act of hate.”

“This is an act of hate against all of us!” Miller added. “It is a violation of all that is decent, good and hopeful in our world. It is meant to cause pain.”

In the overnight hours of Nov. 16, vandals left streaks of black spray paint over the image of Lewis’s face and part of his quotes. Cambridge police opened an investigation but declined to say whether the mural was targeted, adding that other businesses in the block had been similarly marred by graffiti.

Woman works on defaced mural
Corrine Long repairs Rocky Cotard's defaced mural. Image courtesy: Rocky Cotard

However, on Nov. 18, the city of Cambridge in a press release issued a statement signed by Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui.

“This vandalism goes deeper than just property damage,” the mayor stated. “I believe it was rooted in hate. We condemn, in the strongest language possible, the racist vandalism of the mural painted at Urban Hearth.”

 As of Dec. 10, police had made no arrests in the incident, but the investigation continues.

Cotard is an assistant director of undergraduate admissions, as well as a prolific artist. He said, despite his initial shock and anger, the experience has provided some benefits, as well, both in the several-hours-long restoration effort, and what he learned about the community.

“In restoring the mural, I was able to connect with Gianfranco Pocobene and Corrine Long and they helped me to understand that because of the protective layering on the piece, it would be possible to restore it to 100 percent,” he says, but adds, “I did not want to completely erase the hateful act, but rather keep portions as a remembrance of the support I received when adversity struck as a symbol of a collective resilience.”

Cotard says he and Miller will discuss plans for the mural’s reinstallation after the holidays.