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Petts, John - VM - David Pott

John Petts: The Wales Window for Alabama

Pushing out Hatred

by David Pott

John Petts (1914-1991) was born in London, England but is considered a Welsh artist as he moved there when he was 21 and remained there for the rest of his life. He is especially known for his engravings and stained-glass works. In 1957 Petts took up a post as lecturer in design and crafts at Carmarthen School of Art (based in southwestern Wales) and it was at this point in his life that he increasingly focused on working in stained glass.

In September 1963 Petts was listening to the radio when he heard about a horrific event that had occurred at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama. A splinter group of the Klu Klax Klan had planted fifteen sticks of dynamite in the church and the explosion caused the death of four young African American girls aged 11 to 14 and severely injured twenty others. Amongst the other damage to the church itself a stained glass window of Jesus was blown out. Petts described his reaction in this way: “Naturally as a father I was horrified by the death of the children. As a craftsman... I was horrified at the smashing of all those windows, and I thought to myself: my word, what can we do about this?”

The idea began to form in his mind of fashioning a new window to express both sorrow and hope for the future. At the instigation of his wife Kusha, Petts contacted David Cole, the editor of Cardiff’s Western Mail and a campaign to raise £500 was launched. The idea was that the window should be a gift from the people of Wales. Donors were asked to give just half a crown (12p in today’s money) towards the project. The target of £500 was quickly exceeded and soon after Petts crossed the Atlantic to take measurements and discuss the project with leaders of the church.

Petts discovered that although the church was a black one, the window that had been destroyed was of a white Jesus. In her recent book, God is not a White Man, Chine McDonald writes about this and comments: “I am not sure what lesson to draw from this tragic story: the injustice of white supremacy existing in the faith in which these four children grew, or the justice that the face of white supremacy in the image of Christ was destroyed.”1

As Petts considered his mission, he conceived of a highly original design featuring a black Christ in a crucified position against an abstract cross shape. The body slants to the right in a pose that some have suggested hints at bodies bent from the blast of the water cannons that were used against demonstrators in the Civil Rights marches earlier in 1963. The huge hands which are both larger than Christ’s head are a most powerful element in the design. Petts own explanation was that the right hand presses against the frame, pushing out hatred and injustice, while the open left hand reaches out with the offer of forgiveness.

While the image of the crucified Christ is a graphic one, the brilliance of the dominant blue and purple colouring conveys a sense of peace and hope and the rainbow above Christ’s head reminds us of God’s promises and is a symbol too of racial reconciliation. The text that Petts chose for the window was from Matthew 25:40, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me,” but it is just the words “you did it to me” that feature in the window. Perhaps this conveys a double meaning. Firstly Jesus identifies and says “You did it to me” to the white racists who murdered those girls and secondly he says the same words to the people of Wales for their act of compassion and reconciliation.

The window was completed in 1964 and then installed and dedicated in 1965. It soon became an iconic image in connection with the Civil Rights Movement. It is still today a timely reminder in a time of continuing racial tension of the power of the “art of reconciliation” to bring healing.

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John Petts: The Wales Window for Alabama, 1964, stained-glass window, 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama.

Note 1: Chine McDonald, God is not a White Man. Hodder & Stoughton, 2021, page 43.

John Petts (1914-1991) was a British artist. Petts was born in London, England but is considered a Welsh artist and is known for his engravings and stained glass works. A British Institution scholarship allowed Petts to study at the Royal Academy Schools for two years from 1933, during which time he also took evening classes in printing at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. In 1935 Petts married the artist Brenda Chamberlain in London and the couple set up home near Llanllechid in north Wales, where they held two joint exhibitions of their art and supported themselves by creating and selling greeting cards and doing some part-time teaching in Bangor. With Chamberlain, Petts bought a hand operated printing press and set up the Caseg Press in 1937 to produce bookplates, greeting cards and prints of local scenes. Petts collaborated with the poet Alun Lewis on illustrations for a number of Welsh-language magazines before the latter died in the Second World War. At the start of the war Petts had registered as a conscientious objector and was required to undertake farm work away from Wales. Petts and Chamberlain separated in 1943 after which Petts volunteered to join a Royal Army Medical Corps Parachute Field Ambulance unit. Returning to Wales Petts and his second wife Kusha Petts sought to restart the Caseg Press and also undertook work for the Golden Cockerel Press. He helped to design the Lloyd George Museum at Llanystumdwy which for a time housed the Caseg Press's printing press. In 1951 Petts took a series of posts with the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council. Petts was elected to the Society of Wood Engravers in 1953 and became an Associate of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers & Engravers in 1957. Taking a post as a lecturer in design and crafts at the Carmarthen School of Art in 1957 allowed him to concentrate on working in stained-glass. In later life Petts lived and worked in Abergavenny in the southeast of Wales.

David Pott lives near Bishop Auckland in County Durham. He has had a long interest in the history of monastic communities and the development of new monastic communities. David and his wife Pam are companions of the Northumbria Community, see www.northumbriacommunity.org

ArtWay Visual Meditation August 1, 2021