Courthouse murals artist dies at 84
Hepburn also theater artist, freelancer for GE, area businesses
Updated 5:23 a.m.
SCHENECTADY As a 32-year-old artist in 1960, Charles J. Hepburn readied for a showing of his artwork.
Hepburn, who passed away Saturday at the age of 84, told The Gazette then that he had not exhibited very much, “even though I’ve been painting up a storm for years. Most of my paintings have been painted away or given away to Aunt Helen because I didn’t feel ready.”
Three years later, in 1963, Hepburn was ready. Selected from a field of seven artists, Hepburn painted two large murals placed on display at the Schenectady County Courthouse, one of which still oversees some of the county’s biggest trials and other court proceedings today, nearly 50 years after he painted it.
In the years that followed, Hepburn’s artistic talents were also put on display through his work in local theater companies, performing in and directing various productions. They were also on display through his work over the years as a freelance artist for General Electric and many other clients.
“When I think of Charlie, I think of a guy who was very interested in life,” longtime friend Bill Hickman recalled Tuesday, noting his friend also loved athletics and scuba diving. “Just high-energy, enthusiastic, a very pleasant guy, always wonderful to be around.”
Hepburn died Saturday, according to his obituary, from complications of Parkinson’s disease. Surviving him are his wife of more than 50 years Grace, as well as their two children.
Hickman knew Hepburn for more than 50 years, working with him at General Electric as Hepburn served as a freelance artist. Hickman also worked with him in local productions with the Schenectady Civic Players.
Hepburn served various roles over the years with the Schenectady Civic Players, as well as the Schenectady Light Opera Company. He served as a past president with the Civic Players, as well as on its board of directors.
In 1987, Hepburn directed the Schenectady Light Opera production of “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” He also appeared with his wife Gracie in a Civic Players production of “The Fantasticks.”
Hepburn grew up and went to school in Pennsylvania, graduating from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His first experience with the Capital Region came in the late 1950s, as he took summer break in Lake George to help out the new Lake George Opera workshop.
It was in Lake George that he met his future wife, Grace. Once here, Hepburn built a list of clients for his artwork to include General Electric, Albany Medical Center, St. Peter’s Hospital and the Connecticut Audubon Society, as well as many advertising agencies.
Among his most lasting works were his murals at the Schenectady County Courthouse, each painted in 1963 to coincide with building renovations.
Hepburn painted two murals, each in excess of 40 feet long, taking up nearly an entire wall of both Courtroom 2 on the fourth floor and Courtroom 4 on the second floor. The Courtroom 4 mural remains today, consisting of a collection of legal quotes arranged in a way fitting of the time. “Justice,” one of the quotes reads, “is truth in action.”
“I made the word ‘justice’ overpowering because that’s what courtrooms are for,” Hepburn told The Gazette in 1963. “The style of lettering for the main word was chosen because the strong white verticals might have recalled in the viewer Greek columns and the long tradition of democratic law.”
It was actually the concept for the Courtroom 2 mural that got Hepburn the job, the Gazette reported at the time. That mural included a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion.” In the background was a “multitude of Americans of various national backgrounds.”
The murals were controversial early on, with some questioning whether they would be too distracting for the formal proceedings of a courthouse, or looked like billboards. But the murals also had their supporters, who ultimately won.
As the controversy brewed in 1963, Hepburn said he saw the two panels as the “spirit of the law” and the “letter of the law.”
It was in 1995, in another round of remodeling, that the Jefferson mural was placed in storage.
When the Jefferson mural was removed, a dismayed Hepburn recalled how much he was paid for the works, $2,600. But, he said then, the “big reward was the opportunity to have my work on permanent display.”
And the “letter of the law” remains on display, just where it was nearly 50 years ago, looking out over pretty much every major Schenectady County criminal trial since.
It was Hepburn’s artistry and his dedication to the theater that his old friend Hickman recalled Tuesday, as well as his personality.
“He was just a nice guy all the way around,” Hickman said.
Calling hours are Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Catricala Funeral Home, 1597 Route 9, Clifton Park. No services are scheduled.
The family asks that no flowers be sent. Instead contributions may be made to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, 1359 Broadway, Suite 1509, New York, N.Y. or by going to www.pdf.org; or to the Schenectady Civic Players, 12 S. Church St., Schenectady, NY 12305.