POETS’ WALL: Mural Project Delivers Harmony of Color

Vistas abound at Whittier College. There are views of urban downtown Los Angeles from Turner Hall, sweeping green lawns stretch from Deihl Hall to Painter Ave.; and from the third floor of Wardman Library you can get a bird’s-eye view of Hoover Hall’s elegant dome.

And now, there is another—this one praising neither nature nor man-made monoliths. Rather, this one is an energetic, multi-hued mural with a story to tell.

Whittier College’s story, that is.

Thanks to key funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the College was granted the opportunity to move forward with the creation and installation of a unique art piece--a mural outside A.J. Villalobos Hall intended to visually connect the upper and lower areas of campus.

The project, as proposed and executed, would be created for students by students, specifically by a core group of 26 young Poets enrolled in a paired course on art and politics, which examined historical, social, and cultural aspects of why people paint on walls.

One question remained: who would help this team synchronize their ideas into a single mural?

A number of nationally and internationally distinguished artists jumped to the challenge, but it was the tag team of Wayne Healy and David Botello, otherwise known as East Los Streetscapers, appointed to lead the charge, working in tandem with course faculty Deborah Norden, political science, and Jose Orozco, history.

For more than 40 years, Healy and Botello have collaborated on murals throughout the Los Angeles area, creating iconic symbols of cultural pride and identity for countless Angelenos, as well as sources of inspiration for the thousands of visitors who see their murals all across Southern California and the West. Their works have been recognized internationally and have been included in exhibits at landmark Los Angeles museums, including the Getty, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and, most recently, in an exhibit at UCLA’s Fowler Museum entitled, “Mapping Another L.A.: The Chicano Art Movement.”

In March, Healy and Botello began to hold weekly meetings with their student team to dialogue, research, and design a mural that reflected the community of Whittier College and its history.

“It was intimidating at first,” admits student Jose Gutierrez ’14. “Here were Healy and Botello – known artists – explaining that murals are didactic pieces of art, meant to teach a lesson. However, they got through to us, saying over and over again that the mural was ours and that they were simply intermediaries. The mural became a collective expression of not just the Whittier College community, but of all of Los Angeles—and it reflected things that were familiar to all of us.”

In the weeks that followed, a number of students, faculty, and staff picked up paintbrushes to bring the mural to life. What resulted was a colorful collage of Whittier lore, appropriately titled Poets’ Wall.

Images depicted in the mural include the College’s namesake, John Greenleaf Whittier, alumnus Martin Ortiz ‘48, retired mascot Friday the Squirrel, famed football coach Wallace “Chief” Newman, campus landmarks, the view of Downtown Los Angeles from Turner Hall, a scene of the Uptown Whittier Farmer’s Market, a Richard Nixon campaign pin, the Whittier College seal, two students participating in the Light of Learning ceremony, a directional sign pointing to countries around the world, and a Dia de los Muertos altar.

Healy and Botello continued to refine and finalize the piece throughout the summer months. At their weekly painting sessions, it was not uncommon to hear a paint-stained radio pouring oldies music into the air or to see their brushes moving in sync.

“I’ve been on many college campuses, but Whittier was definitely a charming place to be,” said Healy. “I was so amazed throughout my visit here. Students were very enthusiastic about the project and worked diligently.”

“I was amazed, too,” seconded Botello. “We were able to park right in the middle of campus.”

All joking aside, Healy and Botello walked students through a meaningful experience. The young Poets saw, firsthand, how art could beautify and enrich the campus environment at Whittier.

On an even larger scale, Poets’ Wall presented students with a second opportunity: to have a hand in situating Whittier College among those cultural institutions, both in Los Angeles and around the globe, furthering the history of a unique art form.

“Poets’ Wall isn’t about David or me,” said Healy. “We presented ideas and held the brush, but it was the students who initiated this project. I want students to look at Poets’ Wall as though it’s their very own looking glass. I want them to lay claim to it.”

Though it was completed in time to greet new students during Orientation, a formal dedication ceremony for Poets’ Wall was purposely delayed until Whittier Weekend, when the maximum number of alumni, families, and friends could join in the celebration of this new campus landmark. As a result, the event was appropriately tied into the 41st Annual Tardeada.

“The story told on this wall—and the way it was composed—aligns with Whittier’s rich heritage and present day,” said President Herzberger at the dedication. “Our community actively lived this project—contributing from design through execution—and as a result, it is more than just a pleasing work of art. It is a visual embodiment of many voices, blended in complex harmony.

“In essence and in action, it is a vibrant portrait of our institutional history, and a keen reflection of our mission.”

(First published 5-13-2013)