Do you see a blank canvas? Using student art to engage the College community

Conrad Wahl

Saud Afzal Shafi/The Williams Record

Last Saturday after midnight I was couched just outside ’82 Grill with some friends. Looking up at the circular brick wall extending toward Lee’s, we wondered: What would a student mural look like here? 

Someone mentioned that Middlebury students had just transformed their Student Center with a new mural. (Look it up if you have time.) In the past year, Colby and Hamilton have also initiated significant mural projects. Wesleyan’s OSL page even has a “mural request form.” How cool is that?

A student mural is a statement. It says something about campus culture and reminds us that students are active and talking. I remember visiting Pomona back in high school and walking past their Free Speech Wall. I ran my hand over thick layers of paint: A Pride rainbow was painted over a Black Power fist, which (I was told) had been painted over an inspirational quote painted over some geometrical pattern. It was organic and lively. 

I do not get this same feeling at Williams. The campus is clean and intentional. Everything — each tree and each marble slab — is meticulously planned. The campus atmosphere set by these architectural features has been crafted purposively.

But does this vision for an elite campus, as realized by its architects, reflect the attitudes of the student body? The same architecture that is a most suitable face for an elite and long-standing institution does not foster the most welcoming atmosphere for students looking to make a home within. This is a problem. 

The edifice of Paresky looks more like a photoshopped prototype from Architectural Digest than an actual building . . . one that students eat in, study in, and (sometimes) sleep in. Williams students are passionate and idiosyncratic. Our time here is fleeting, our actions hardly perfect and our image of ourselves incomplete. Our student center does not reflect this on the outside; it stands still — an immutable arrangement of glass, steel and concrete.

Living as a student in such a calculated environment can feel like renting a transitional house. One lives here but does not own the space, and so is careful not to poke any holes in the wall — even to hang one’s favorite painting—for fear of disturbing the landlord’s space. Students at the College should not be living as fretful tenants. We should feel comfortable here, and feel a sense of ownership over a public space that reflects and advances our passions.

Here is a proposal:

Let’s reserve a public space for student art . . . specifically, one of the two jutting concrete walls besides Paresky. Installing a raised platform for a mural would isolate a workable and neat space and assuage damage concerns. This space should hold rotating student murals that are designed and painted over every semester by new students. Nothing permanent — that would defeat the purpose. Empower students to collaborate in the designing and painting of these murals. Even trust students to select among mural proposals, either representatively or directly. 

Student murals here could be both a creative outlet and a social engagement platform. Some might focus our attention on topical issues and spur spirited discussion. Others might explore something more open-ended and call on us to ruminate. The best murals will tell us something about ourselves and invite conversation.

Some murals might be provocative. We cannot be afraid of this. Dialogue is healthy. And students should be trusted to distinguish right from wrong. We will make mistakes. As an academic institution, Williams should promote risk-taking, and welcome what follows: mistakes, necessarily, but also learning and growth.

 I am proud to attend such a beautiful and well-maintained school and to share this place with thousands of alums, including my father. When he visits I want him to still feel at home within the College’s red-brick walls. But I also want him to sense that this place is alive and brimming with the distinct personality of each generation. My classmates are very different from the Class of ’81. Paresky, as our student center, should reflect not only the permanence of the institution but also the dynamism of the student body.

Williams College is afraid of taking risks, and this is reflected in our architecture. Many students feel that sensitive (and, by extension, important) issues are hushed rather than welcomed. When we fear drawing to the surface passions and beliefs that are not visible, they do not expire but fester and erupt with dramatic consequences.

A rotating student mural would be a breathing representation of students at Williams: transient, imperfect and incomplete.

Conrad Wahl ’20 is a philosophy and chemistry major from Los Angeles, Calif.