Photographs by Dorothy Hong
For Adrienne Nel ’16, the Barnard campus, although steeped in the arts and located in New York City, seemed to be missing something. An art history major, she believed that something was a permanent student-art installation. As the Student Government Association’s representative for arts and culture (a position created last year), Nel and her newly recruited committee implemented her idea for a mural designed and painted exclusively by students. The mural would be in The Diana Center, and the group created an application to find student artists to bring the idea to fruition. This application not only asked about candidates’ experience, but also invited them to think about art on the Barnard campus in a 250-word essay.
From a field of 15 applicants, the SGA committee selected four artists: Sasha Brenman ’16, Asia Cunningham ’17, Rachael Dottle ’16, and Joanne Raptis ’16. One of the unusual features of the project was that the artists worked collaboratively on the mural, rather than dividing the wall into four distinct quadrants, as is often the practice when several artists create a mural. “The whole point of having a mural on campus is to be inclusive of many styles, to get as many artistic styles…as possible that could mesh together,” says Nel.
The student artists quickly figured out how to work together. They uploaded sketches to a computer and made joint decisions about what subjects to include in the work and where to place them. During the final few weeks of last semester, when the artists did the actual painting, each would essentially hand off sections to another artist in overlapping shifts. One student would draw a figure, another might draw a building, and then a third would paint in the forms. “There were many different styles, [all] with a similar vision,” says psychology major Raptis. “The final vision is very different from what each of us imagined. That’s a good thing. The mural benefited from many insights. The multiple minds at work contributed to the mural’s creative energy.” Adds Brenman, who created her own major in computer science and visual arts, “We all put work into every single part of it. Most art is done solo, where you have control over a piece of canvas or a piece of the wall. Here, we could feed off each other.” The mural took about a year to complete, starting with the planning during the fall of 2013 and the application process in winter. The designing itself took most of spring semester. Transferring the drawings to the wall and the actual painting took the latter part of the term. By the last few weeks of the semester, the student artists often worked around the clock.
The mural adorns the wall outside the student-life office on the third floor of The Diana Center. The SGA, through Associate Dean of Student Life Alina Wong, obtained permission for the wall painting from Dean of the College Avis Hinkson ’84 and Vice President of Campus Services Gail Beltrone. The brightly colored mural features images of students reading, painting, dancing, knitting, and otherwise engaged in arts, against iconic images of the campus (like the gates and several hidden figures of Millie the Bear), musical notes representing the Barnard song, “College on the Hilltop,” as well as significant New York landmarks, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center, the 1 subway line, and others that are perhaps more obscure to the casual observer.
The organizers and artists were especially sensitive to how students were represented in the mural. “We wanted to include portraits, but not represent specific people,” says Wong, who serves as adviser to the SGA.
The students enjoyed the process of painting, especially with a daily audience; a key aspect was “the excitement of people walking by,” says Dottle, an environmental science and urban studies major who has “been really involved in art” and had worked on murals in Boston as part of her gap year with AmeriCorps. “It was so public. It was exciting to see people’s reactions.”
That sort of engagement also mattered to Cunningham. “It wasn’t just something I did for myself,” she says. “This is for all the campus and everyone who is a part of the Barnard community.” As Raptis sees it, this is one way to “leave a footprint at Barnard, a mark at Barnard.” And at least for now, “this is definitely meant to be permanent,” says Emily Shoyer ’17, incoming chair for the SGA’s committee on arts.
Having a student mural on campus, in the student center, is significant, says Wong. “Barnard, as a campus community, belongs to the students. This is about claiming space for students and seeing themselves in their space. It’s about capturing the sorts of moments and images that are symbolic of Barnard and New York.”