By Anna Allen, ’16
On a beautiful fall day, University of Richmond students paint a wall on Cary Street, creating murals for the public. Some are in the early stages and some are close to being finished. Pedestrians stop and ask about the murals, and the students pause their work to explain. Week by week the images of the students’ imaginations began to cover the wall: a purple flower, a Viking ship, a horse, a city landscape — all become public art.
The idea for a mural painting class was presented to Heide Trepanier, an instructor in the Department of Art and Art History, over the summer of 2013. “We allied ourselves with the RVA Street Art Festival by sponsoring one of the walls near the old GRTC bus depot,” Trepanier says. The wall runs along the sidewalk on Cary Street. The mural is a shared project with the Valentine Richmond History Center, the students’ work taking shape in the spaces between the museum’s photos.
The class revolves around teaching the students about the environment that they are in, the technical skills to make murals, and the history of murals and contemporary street art. “From there, the students develop their own ideas,” says Trepanier.
The process of deciding what to paint for the murals was democratic, taking into account students’ previous knowledge of painting as well as their interests or desires. Some chose themes of transportation and cities, while others just painted what they liked. “I wanted it to be the most accurate representation of myself as an artist,” says Amy Reader, '15, a student in Trepanier’s class. Her mural of a large purple flower now decorates the wall.
With 11 spaces to fill, the students spent three weeks painting, traveling downtown two days a week for at least two hours throughout October. “This project is huge,” says Reader. “It can be overwhelming, but in a good way where I’m just absorbed into it.”
Trepanier says a partnership with the University’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement also adds a layer of external focus to the class. “The students have been realizing how much the public is actually involved in this process,” says Trepanier. “Most people that walk by will stop and talk to the students while we are working. It is a real exchange between the students and the people that live and work in the area."
Trepanier says that in the future she would like to take that engagement with people even further. “When you are making public art, it does not exist as a piece of art until someone sees it, and I feel like there is a responsibility that goes along with that.” Trepanier feels most students did not fully realize the impact of their work until they actually started painting their murals. “Anyone that walks past it is going to have a conversation with it, maybe every day,” she says.
While art has always been an important means of communication and engagement in a community, nobody said it was easy. “Art is hard. But it is a viable means of spending your time,” says Trepanier. “I think that art is essential to critical thinking. Being able to think critically about yourself and the world around you is the one thing that is going to help you be successful.”
The class will be offered for two years, as long as there is interest in the mural. “To be able to share something with a neighborhood that is positive is a really great experience for everyone involved,” she says.
Photo: Amy Reader, '15, sketches her mural design. Photo credit: Kim Lee Photography