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Pilato Paints Back Halos to Inspiration Mural

by and on January 05, 2016 1:00 PM
State College, PA

Local muralist Michael Pilato is doing what he says is “righting a personal wrong” by painting halos back above Joe Paterno and all other deceased members of his downtown Inspiration Mural.

Pilato announced the change in a video published on his Youtube channel as part of an upcoming movie called “The Paint On My Pants.”

The muralist caught both flak and praise, depending on who you asked, for the litany of changes he made to the mural back in 2011 and 2012 when the Sandusky situation was unfolding. The story of his mural went national, first when he painted over Jerry Sandusky, then when he painted a halo on Paterno and others, and then again when he painted those halos out. It was, for Pilato and all Penn Staters, an intensely confusing time — except the different for Pilato was that all his mural decisions inevitably made national news. At the time, Pilato called the halo removal decision “one of the hardest things he’s had to do.”

But, times have changed.

Pilato, with the help of former All American defensive end Bruce Clark, painted back Paterno’s halo — along with all halos for all other deceased members of his Heister Street mural, which Pilato selects based on community members that inspire him.

“He’s the only dad I ever knew,” Clark said after adding back the halo. “I use him as an example I use of what a man should be like.”

Schreyer Honors College Dean Christan Brady and his wife Elizabeth were also on hand to paint a halo over their soccer-loving son Mack, who died three years ago and was added to the mural soon after.

“It was an incredible honor to join (Pilato) as he also painted a halo on his precious Skye,” Brady wrote on Facebook. “The halos were a point of contention in the past and Michael had removed them…Michael is one of the most gracious and sensitive men I know. It beggars belief that he should receive a single piece of hate mail and yet he does. Often. That is ridiculous. I ask that we offer the grace we hope to receive.”

You can find the letter Pilato released explaining the changes below:

Today I am righting a personal wrong, because today I am repainting the halos I removed from my “Inspiration” mural in State College. I am not doing this because I believe all who had them were “saints.” I am doing this because it is the right thing to do. For 16 years on every mural tour I have explained the symbolism behind the halos saying this, “It is my hope that as you visit the mural and notice the halos over the people who have died, you will be reminded of how short a time we have to do great things as did the people on the wall.” The Bible does not directly speak of halos as observed in religious art. The closest expressions are found in examples of Jesus with the words “glorious light” (Revelation 1) and (Matthew 17). Moses had a face that shone with light. after being in the presence of God (Exodus 34:29-35). However, in none of these cases is the light involved described as a circle of glowing light above the head. It was the artist who interpreted the “light” into what we know today as a halo.

The murals Yuriy Karabash, our apprentices, and I paint have been explained as “Living Murals.” Each mural grows with the stories of the people in the community it depicts. This, too, is the case with the meaning behind the halos. So many families and friends of those honored see the halos as a reminder of the appreciation the community has for their loved ones who have passed on. Some of them have told me that the halo symbol has been soothing and has acted as a reminder of the good nature in all of us, so that a simple gesture becomes a memorial tribute. On my Williamsport Inspiration mural people have come and painted the halos on those they lost – so many amazing stories, so much love. Never once on all my tours or in all the articles before the Sandusky scandal were the halos interpreted as the person being a saint, no one ever took offense to it and if they did they were smart enough to know it is art, it is meant to start a conversation. like Pablo Picasso said “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” I guess you can say I am doing that, defining a halo in a way that is way love in public art.

On that sad day in January, when I painted Joe Paterno’s halo I told the press about all the halos and their purpose, but they only chose to report the one, giving the impression that I did it because I believed he was a saint, adding to the narrative they were pushing, that we all believed Joe was a god and we were a insensitive cult who believed he could do no wrong. This image and definition went around the world. The local paper even published and editorial asking me to remove the halo. The day before I removed it, Sue Paterno was reported in the Centre Daily Times as saying that Joe was neither a saint nor a villain, he was a man. Joe and Sue also expressed this on my last visit with him before his death. I used Sue’s words as a excuse to remove all of the halos, telling myself it was a mistake to paint them from the beginning. The press had already painted a picture of the halo. Their version was read by many survivors of sexual violence; the mural was the top Google story for days. The day I painted Sandusky out, a slew of reporters were at the wall, a large percent of them were asking “When should we come back? When are you painting Paterno out?” It was as if Sandusky did not exist. They knew the version of the story that would sell would be the one that was more interesting, even if it was not true.

Last year in September was the worst day of my life, my daughter Skye died. The Penn State and State College community were amazing They have helped me greatly, as have my family and friends in my new journey through this devastating loss When I paint a halo over her head in the mural, I am not saying she was a saint, I am saying that she and all the others with halos are to be remembered in the “light” that the halo’s represent.

Because of so many often contradictory comments, both positive and negative (including hate mail), have been addressed to me, I have come to realize that public art gets strong reactions. When l said at the beginning of this letter, that today I am writing a personal wrong, I meant that I intend to no longer be so sensitive to criticism that I will change in a direction I feel, within my heart, is not true to myself I fully expect that today’s changes to the mural will again provoke pros and cons. That’s OK. That’s what public art is all about!

Your Friend with paint on his pants,

Michael Pilato

This post was originally published by the staff at Onward State. Follow Onward State on Twitter @OnwardState.

Kevin Horne is the Managing Editor of Onward State and frequent contributor to He is also a Penn State senior, majoring in journalism and political science.
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