In the AHF-organized exhibition, “TKAM 2010: To Kill a Mockingbird—Awakening America’s Conscience,” are two arresting portraits: “Slavery” by Nall, and “Charles” by Caleb O’Connor. Neither work was executed specifically for the show, though Nall created “Slavery” in 2006 as an icon for the “Violata Pax” exhibition in Monaco using references to the book. Nevertheless, both images belong in the AHF show because they cut right to the heart of one of Mockingbird’s fundamental questions: What is the relationship between compassion and justice?
In “Slavery,” Nall depicts an African-American man, with his hands bound and framed by images from Nall’s native Alabama, such as azalea and camellia blossoms. A board with protruding nails rests astride his shoulders, symbolizing both a crucifix and the scales of justice. Mockingbird readers will recognize that the slave is actually the fictional Tom Robinson, whose fate was nearly as doomed in 1930s Maycomb as it would have been in the 1830s. Nall drives the point home by weighing the scales down in the direction of the approaching rabid dog behind Tom, and away from the innocent mockingbird in front of him.
Yet Nall’s painting directs us to read the book, not just gaze upon an anonymous victim of slavery or Jim Crow injustice. If we do so—and not linger too long in from of his tragic painting—we will find both justice and compassion bound up in the characters of Atticus and Scout.
Caleb O’Connor, who recently moved to Tuscaloosa to paint 16 murals for the new federal courthouse under construction there, addresses the question from the other direction. “Charles” isn’t a character from Mockingbird; in fact, he’s not even from Alabama. He’s a homeless man that O’Connor met on the island of Maui in his native Hawaii. O’Connor, who has maintained a friendship with Charles ever since, shows him enjoying a cup of coffee and pausing as he shares his life story. Eyes closed, fingertips to his lips, Charles appears to savor the coffee as if it’s the first cup he’s had in weeks. We know instinctively that O’Connor is a man of compassion toward his subject, not just an artist with an agenda about justice for the homeless.
The British politician Neil Kinnock told Parliament in 1970, “Compassion is not a sloppy, sentimental feeling for people who are underprivileged or sick…it is an absolutely practical belief that, regardless of a person’s background, ability or ability to pay, he should be provided with the best that society has to offer.” I don’t know if Kinnock meant that compassion required society to provide the best in material goods. But those who take to heart Mockingbird’s message—whether we are artists, lawyers, ethicists or just ordinary readers—understand that compassion surely means society at least owes justice to all its citizens.
Written by: Bob S.