Art has the potential to enact real social and political change, giving a voice to the voiceless and providing a medium to express the hopes and struggles of a community. Murals—public and democratic by their very nature—can embody the spirit of a community perhaps better than any other art form. They can be as richly colored and complex as anything in a gallery, while also having a distinct and active presence in the daily lives of individuals.
The mural can complicate our definition of art. “Art does not and should not only exist in a museum ‘fine art’ setting and, in fact, it can be so much more influential to see art in more casual, everyday settings,” wrote Angela Brown ’16 in an emailed statement.
Murals have the power to disrupt those walking by, whose minds may be elsewhere, bringing them back to reality. In their urgency and accessibility, they can fuel hope. From May 7 to 9, Vassar students can participate in a mural project of their own in the College Center; they can write, attach photographs or paint anything that they see fit on the monumentally sized canvas that will be placed in the College Center, to which anyone can add. “The Vassar Community Mural gives students the opportunity to visually represent the issues that matter most to them in a public space,” wrote the organizer of the event, Charmaine Branch ’14, in an emailed statement.
The project was conceived as the swan song, the culminating event of Branch’s student seminar, “Muralism in the Americas: Resistance and Empowerment.” After writing her thesis on murals the Wall of Respect in Chicago and the Del Rey in California, Branch decided to teach a class on muralism as a way of illustrating their ability to empower and strengthen a community. “Murals have the ability to celebrate cultural pride, speak out against oppression and visually represent the strength of a community. In times of political and social revolution, activists have painted murals as a form of visual protest,” wrote Branch in the course’s description.
The project will give students the opportunity to publicly express what most matters to them, making them active participants in the Vassar’s collective discourse. “I hope it will build solidarity among those involved and the college as a whole. Student activists are constantly working to bring awareness to issues here on campus and globally including institutional racism on a macro and micro level such as racial profiling, environmental concerns, the active governmental oppression of peoples around the world and more,” wrote Branch.
Branch seeks to help people redefine and examine the Vassar experience through a project where those involved are not necessarily history or art history majors. Rather, Branch and others hope all members of the Vassar community will become involved with the mural and take part in intellectual discourse. “I hope that participants will come to realize the huge potential that images and collaboration have. And for the community, I hope that seeing public art in this way will encourage others to find and pursue creative ways to express the very nature of our world at Vassar, and as a whole, from different perspectives,” wrote Brown.
The event serves as an opportunity for Vassar students to define themselves, allowing them to publicly differentiate the student experience from any expectations visitors or media presence may seek to impose upon the student body. “I do hope the images speak for themselves but we’ve really been thinking about the difference between the way Vassar is presented to the outside world and the way that we, as individuals and as students, actually experience it,” wrote Brown.
Perhaps the mural will become a catalyst that furthers student activism and addresses campus-wide concerns. “I think it’s fairly easy to become complacent here because we are students. But it’s also a living space and we are supposed to feel comfortable here and I know that a lot of students do not. It’s difficult to realize that so many students on campus feel disrespected and not given a voice,” wrote Danielle Bukowski ’14 .
“[This past year] has been interesting in the number of protests that students have done and how they have spoken out, which I haven’t seen in my other three years. It’s coming at a good time in which people are actually vocalizing,” wrote Bukowski.
The mural will be what the students make of it; each individual has the opportunity to contribute their voice and to engage in the collective Vassar dialogue. In time, it may be filled with an anthology of individual truths that may pose some important questions relating to the community.
“[The mural] will be seen by people that we interact with daily. This, for me, reinforces, or at least reminds us to really think critically about what community is here. And part of that is confronting the looming presence of oppression even on a campus that so many consider to be so ‘liberal.’ There are a lot of hypocrisies to be found in this community, [and] this mural is just another reminder to keep being actively critical,” wrote Brown.
She added, “I hope that [participating in the mural project] will be an empowering experience for everyone involved.”
To find out more about Branch’s project, including how to contribute or where the group meets to work on the project, Branch asks those interested in participating to check the project’s Facebook group, which will be updated daily with information about the project as well as photos of the mural’s progress.