Public Art and Social Change

March 25, 2015
Beyond the walls of the classroom to a wall on Cary Street

Fourteen University of Richmond students, with support from faculty and community members, are leading an effort that will ultimately result in a block-long mural of the James River on Cary Street.

The project will be installed along the exterior wall of 2600 W. Cary St., which is outside of the old GRTC headquarters building. The students are part of an American Studies community-based learning class, Public Art and Social Change in the River City.

Community-based learning fully integrates classroom and community elements,” says Sylvia Gale, associate director of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, who is co-teaching the class. “In this case, we are literally going beyond the walls of the classroom to a wall in the city.”

The class comprises students ranging from first-years to seniors with majors in art, leadership studies, and business. The eclectic group considers itself the curatorial team of this project. Key stakeholders — like James River Association representatives and James River Park System superintendent Nathan Burrell, who led the group on a field trip earlier this year — are teaching group members about the pressing issues impacting the river. The class will also work with local artist and UR adjunct art instructor Heide Trepanier to install the mural the second week in April.

“The students are learning to see and listen as artists, designers, and curators,” says Alexandra Byrum, UR Downtown educational programming coordinator and class instructor. “They are working alongside individuals on campus and in the Richmond community to decide what messages are most important to convey about the James River on a nearly 300-foot wall.”

The interdisciplinary course appealed to Jayson Vivas, ’18. The first-year student is planning to major in accounting and minor in environmental studies. He aspires to become a CPA and work with an environmental nonprofit organization.

Vivas says this project is allowing him to learn more about the city of Richmond, while having a positive impact on the environment and community.

“In order to make the mural we have to use stories to find an identity for Richmond and for the river,” Vivas says. “I knew we would get the chance to ask people about their stories and relationship with the river, which sounded really exciting.”

“The Cary Street mural project has already brought up more conversation about our environmental impact on the river, which can help educate people on how to best take care of the world we live in. The education process involved in the river project is the most essential impact we could hope to have on the community,” Vivas adds.

Miriam McBride, ’17, is a business management major with a minor in healthcare and society. McBride says for her this class combines two of her favorite activities: art and visiting the river.

“As a class, we’ve realized that to do this project, we need to let the river tell us its story,” McBride says. “We have to listen to all parts of the river — the animals, the plants, the surroundings, and the calming ripples in the water.”

“Through our mural, we hope people will think about their connection with the river, possibly sparking more efforts to keep the river alive and healthy,” McBride adds.

The class was born out of research conducted by another campus collaboration. In the fall, a group of landscape ecology students partnered with a business statistics class to collect, compile, and analyze data relating to the relationship between developments in Richmond and flooding, over time. A number of environmental studies students also contributed to the project, researching specific environmental aspects of the James, from bald eagle conservation to the city’s current riverfront-development plans.

“We are excited to be building upon the work of the fall classes,” says Gale. “Those students gathered some really important information, and it deserves to be shared in a thoughtful manner. As we design the mural, our challenge is to stay true to the interdisciplinary nature of this project and to find a way to integrate data into our visual display.”

The curatorial team got a jumpstart on its mural design from the MOBILE STUDIO, an interdisciplinary traveling public art and design studio that collaborates directly with community groups to interpret and transform landscapes and infrastructure and enhance civic health. The group, which is based in Auburn, Alabama, completed a weeklong residency at the University of Richmond in February, which included on-site design sessions around the city, helping the students learn to see the river and its city in new ways.