Reflecting on “Reflecting” with Pepsy Kettavong

Reflecting on “Reflecting” with Pepsy Kettavong

Pepsy Kettavong’s “Reflecting” [Photo: David Kramer]

In recent months, there has been nationwide debate about Confederate-era statues and whether they should be removed. And this Columbus Day, there were renewed calls to remove the Columbus statue in Manhattan.

The debates offer an opportunity to look at three Rochester statues created by renowned sculptor Pepsy Kettavong:  Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Nathaniel Rochester.

The Douglass and Anthony statues in Anthony Park are beautiful homages to two of Rochester most progressive figures: an abolitionist and women’s right crusader.  Less well known is the statue of Nathaniel Rochester in Nathaniel Rochester Square on South Avenue.  As many Rochestarians know, Colonel Rochester was a Major in a Revolutionary War militia who founded Rochesterville.  He was also a slave owner, and as reported in the City and Rochester History new evidence shows he was also an active slave trader.

I took the opportunity to ask Pepsy what he thinks about the recent debates in relation to the statute.  First, Pepsy explained that when the statue was created in 2007, he met with representatives from then Mayor Johnson’s office to discuss the appropriate way to honor Rochester.

Pepsy was well aware of Rochester’s slave ownership.  At the same time, Pepsy thinks we have to look at the historical context and understand the good and the bad.  Like many in his time, Rochester owned slaves, but he was also an officer in the Revolutionary War and was exceedingly generous with his resources.

Most importantly was Pepsy’s choice of presenting Rochester in “Reflecting.”  Pepsy avoided a heroic pose such as Rochester on horseback or having the statue dominate the Square.  The statue is not a glorification. Instead, we see a pensive Rochester leaning on a cane next to his hat.  Pepsy’s goal is to allow viewers to reflect on their own lives and where they are at this historical moment.  The statue opens up — rather than closes off like the most offensive statues of slave holding Confederate generals — the viewer’s interpretations.  One can imagine Rochester looking out on the world and seeing the progress we have made.

For Pepsy, the statue is a place for quiet meditation in a little urban oasis in a busy neighborhood.

Even before speaking with Pepsy, I was never in favor of changing or removing the statue, although I heard some extreme calls that Rochester change its name due to Colonel Rochester slave owning and trading legacy. Now, I more appreciate Pepsy’s work as a window into the past and present.

UPDATE: see On the defacing of Reflecting in Nathaniel Square and restoring the grave of “America’s first professional racist” in Mt. Hope Cemetery

On the defacing of “Reflecting” in Nathaniel Square and restoring the grave of “America’s first professional racist” in Mt. Hope Cemetery


Passing the torch at the Susan B. Anthony House

When former President John Quincy Adams visited Rochester on July 27th and 28th, 1843 and toured Mt. Hope Cemetery

Cheese, pepperoni and hope in Nathaniel Square.

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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