Student Murals Illuminate the Community
By Andrew B. Jones, intern, Office of University Communications
The artistic brilliance of students and faculty in Howard’s Division of Fine Arts is shared with the surrounding community through the productions of the Public Arts class. This course, offered each semester, trains students in the process of creating murals for public enjoyment.
Public arts, in general, draws originally from a social painting phase that transformed urban communities, following the civil rights movement.
“Public arts grew out of the Black Arts Movement in the ‘70s,” says James Phillips, professor in the Division of Fine Arts and facilitator of the class. “Artists would go into a community, commandeer a wall and create some artwork.”
Phillips, who can passionately recall each mural that the class has developed, has taught students the process behind the art form for nearly a decade. The class itself is designed to emulate the actual process that public artists go through to attain a commission and produce a mural.
“Often the work is conceptual,” he admits. “Students develop a budget, come up with a concept and make an oral presentation to a selection committee.”
These are all steps that an artist would take if he or she is interested in painting a mural. In several cases, students in the class have been commissioned to paint murals throughout the community. In the past few years, students have painted three murals in Children’s Hospital, as well as murals in the Howard University Bookstore and Howard University Hospital.
During semesters when the class is working on a project, the entire class is devoted to producing the work. Most recently, student Mekbib Gebertsadik was commissioned to paint a mural outside the Gospel Rescue Ministries building near the Chinatown section of Washington, D.C. Gospel Rescue Ministries is a faith-based homeless and addiction recovery program that has served the D.C. community for 103 years.
The mural portrays the colorful history of the civil rights movement and its leaders. In a statement prepared for the unveiling of the mural, Michael Cortese, president of Gospel Rescue Ministries, expressed hope that the mural would demonstrate that the building is a place for change, transformation and hope.
“It’s natural to see a client pause in front of the mural,” said Cortese, “[sharing] a hope that in their personal struggle, victory is in the determination to continue on.”
According to Phillips, the purpose of this mural, like any other public art, is to promote pride and inspiration in the surrounding community. In order to achieve this, students must research the building and its location before coming up with a concept.
“An artist has to do research on the area, take into consideration what the area is like and the people living in that area,” he says.
Phillips is optimistic about the future of public art, noting that most developers allocate a percentage of a construction budget for the production of art for a building. And students in the class will continue to share their talents with the community, using the murals that have already been completed as inspiration for future designs.
“In the end, the art always ends up coming full circle,” Phillips says.