Watson Walls

Owen Keefer ‘20 at work on a mural in the Watson Life Science Building. Photo courtesy of the artist

Owen Keefer ‘20

Art Correspondent

Next time you are in your room, look at the color on your wall. If you’re lucky, you might be greeted with a light blue, but chances are a dull beige stares right back at you. Though color neutrality allows for more decoration and personalization, it can get tiring when the entire campus is built from red brick and gray paint. The Watson Walls project set out to break this monotony by collaborating with student artists and visionaries to create murals that not only shined with color, but exemplified the values of the space they occupied.

The second floor of the Watson Life Science Building houses both the Computer Science and the Health and Human Values departments, two disciplines that encompass separate principles. The challenge of the Watson Walls project was to reconcile these differences into a single, comprehensive design. I was fortunate enough to be on the team of muralists  and I found that the brainstorming phase was perhaps the most difficult for me. Davidson, as a liberal arts institution, is a place of multiple disciplines and a variety of interests, and synthesizing all these interests into a singular image is complex. Luckily, visual art is a powerful, adaptable medium that allows for interpretation.

For inspiration, I turned to perhaps one of the most recognized art pieces in the Western canon: Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. While it could be labeled as a lack of creativity to adapt a pre-existing work, one of the most important aspects of art for me is accessibility. When people look at a lot of contemporary art today, they dismiss it as pure nonsense because they don’t recognize any form, structure, or symbolism in the abstraction. I hoped to create a piece that people could instantly react to, whether through the bright colors or by recognizing the referenced work. 

Public art isn’t meant to be hung in a museum—it’s meant to connect to people who walk by it. I hoped for my mural to be a piece that anyone could look at and admire, as well as generally brighten up the walls of the building. Even if the mural isn’t examined closely, it nevertheless adds a splash of color to separate Watson from any other hallway on campus.

On the left side, Adam’s hand takes a low-polygonal structure, representing the Computer Science department through the concept of digital design and computer modeling. The hand on the right begins with a normal bodily structure, but slowly breaks down into anatomical parts as a nod to the the Health and Human Values field. The disciplines collide in the center, with the sphere split into two parts: the continuation of the polygonal, computer method on the left, and a form reminiscent of a cell on the right. Overall, the mural shows how differing fields of study—computer science, health and human values, and the humanities—can all come together and create something beyond what they could do on their own. 

Painting the mural was an arduous process—the wall is nearly twenty-five feet in length— and it took me well over thirty hours to finish. But with the support of Davidson Arts and Creative Engagement, it was an utterly enjoyable undertaking.

One of the most frequent questions I got about the mural was not about the painting itself, but rather, “Wait, you’re not getting paid to do this?” Well, no, and while there are a lot of problems with the art industry and payment only given in exposure, it never bothered me (after all, I accepted the commission knowing that would be the case). 

Watson Walls was a way for me to pursue my passion for art in a place where opportunities for such large-scale expression are often limited. It was also a way for me to leave a longstanding mark on Davidson’s campus, and to hopefully make it a little bit more beautiful. It’s really exciting, especially in a traditionally academic space, to be able to transform sterile, white walls into colorful, almost playful, surfaces.

If you walk past my mural, one thing you won’t see is a signature. While that is partially due to my shoddy handwriting and the fact that the mural would look worse with the inclusion of my scrawled-on name, there is another reason why I choose to leave the mural unsigned. 

Along the same lines as to why I didn’t mind not being paid, I don’t really consider myself the owner of the mural. I received so much support from everyone else—in terms of the space, paying for supplies, the wonderful snacks I ate late at night—that it seems wrong for me to claim the piece for myself. The very purpose of the project was for the community, not for the individual artist, and I think the mural should reflect that. The painting is no more valuable than the dry-erase marks that splatter the Richardson hallways; they are both expressions of student creativity, community, and innovation. Murals, street art, graffiti—really any form of public art—belong to the people who look at it, because without them, it wouldn’t exist.

When we start to forget the notion of beauty, we allow our spaces—and ourselves—to be controlled by cold, calculated budgets. Whatever is the cheapest option, for them, is the best option. But if we start to think about why we enjoy certain spaces, or why we take pleasure in looking at certain things, we can make more conscious decisions about what we want to do with the place where we live. 

Painting and color infuence our perception of a space, even if it is unconscious. The trim of the ceiling or the hue of the floor tiles have a profound impact on our mood, whether we realize it or not. The only way we reclaim the beauty of our spaces is by understanding precisely what makes them beautiful and opposing any development that disregards this beauty. The Watson Walls project pursues the noble goal of enlivening our spaces regardless of cost, and I hope that Davidson continues to undertake similar initiatives in the future.

And while I could only speak for myself, I’d like to acknowledge my fellow artists: Judson Womack ‘18, Chloe Pitkoff ‘21, Mariana Crespo ‘20, and Yasemin Tekgurler ‘19 also worked tirelessly on this project, and without the help of Rebecca Pempek ‘20 and Sherry Nelson, who were the impetus behind the entire project, the creation of the murals would not have been possible either.

Owen Keefer ‘20 is an Art History major from Spartanburg, SC. He can be reached for comment at owkeefer@davidson.edu.

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