by Kelsey Chase ’24 (she/ her)
We Are Wildcats is a human-interest column which aims to share the extraordinary within the ordinary at Davidson College and to showcase the inspiring things that make each and every Wildcat unique. If you wish to be featured or feel someone’s story needs to be heard, please feel free to contact firstname.lastname@example.org! Stay tuned for future stories! This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What’s your name, graduation year, and hometown?
TJ: I’m TJ Elliot, class of 2021, I’m about to head out very soon. I’m a senior sociology major.
Adelle: My name is Adelle Patten, and I’m also in the class of 2021. My hometown is Concord, North Carolina, and I’m a studio art major and digital studies minor.
Q: Tell me a quick background about yourselves.
TJ: Yeah, so I’m from Charlotte, North Carolina. I came to Davidson to play football; well, to go to school but also to be a Division I athlete. I am a part of multiple organizations, like Bonner. I was also a part of SGA. I think my time is over now so that’s done.
Adelle: Like I said, I’m from Concord, and I chose to come to Davidson to study art, but also get a strong liberal arts education and mesh the two; I’ve found interdisciplinary opportunities. On campus, I’m involved with Davidson Arts and Creative Engagement, I’m a fellow. I’m a media consultant, so I tutor students and faculty on anything web related. I’m part of Bonner Scholars, too.
Q: What was your inspiration behind the mural, both from an ideological and artistic perspective?
TJ: I’ll take over the ideological part, and Adelle will take over the concept because that was all her idea. After seeing all of the protests over the summer with George Floyd, and others, the summer was a really good push for racial justice for everyone. So, when I got onto campus I wanted to have something that Davison can show for themselves that this is what they stand for. Initially, I was thinking about a Black Lives Matter mural on a street. After the Commission on Race and Slavery report, I wanted to respond to that and hold them accountable [so that Davidson] continue[s] to think about how we move forward for a more just campus in a more just world.
Adelle: TJ reached out to me, and he wanted me to pitch some ideas to them, and we wanted the ideas to be participatory [for the student body]. The first one was cutting out wooden letters that would be freestanding and different organizations on campus would paint them. The other one was what’s there now, with all the ceramic tiles that students around campus painted. In that way, it was participatory. I thought of the tiles because I was thinking about reflecting on the summer and advocating behind the screen [of technology] during the Black Lives Matter protests and advocating for racial justice behind the screen so, to me, the tiles are the pixels of the screen. But now that it’s been up, I guess it represents all the lives that have been touched by racial injustice or impacted by it.
Q: How did the process of the mural work?
TJ: That was a very tedious process; it was a lot longer than I anticipated. For the idea to come into fruition, we had to go through different people in order to get money. So we had to talk to Lia Newman, who’s in charge of the gallery on campus. I talked to her about it first, and we had to think about different ideas. That’s why she put me in contact with Adelle. After talking to Lia we had to talk to Physical Plant because it’s going to be something we want to put on campus so we had talked to David Holthouser. After meeting with David for weeks and weeks, we solidified a plan. The first week was just conceptualizing the different locations on campus that we could potentially use. After that, he gave us different quotes on the different ceramic tiles because he knows how ceramic tiles work. He gave us different quotes on this one of the tiles and the different colors that we could’ve used but black and white were the easiest colors to do. Then, we had to write a grant. SGA helped that as well because of the SGA grant program at the time, because I was part of it as well as Brandon Harris [‘22], the current president.
Adelle: So, the Spike! Grant is one sponsored by the Center for Arts and Creative Engagement in which students make an extra curricular project so it should involve everyone on campus. Then, for the process of painting, we actually did it during the exam week, but it actually happened a lot faster than I expected it to. David printed out this long 40 foot sheet of paper, which had Black Lives Matter printed on it, so we followed that template. We knocked out where the white and black tiles should go. From there, we stacked all the letters and transported them into Union for students to paint. In total we probably had 100 students pitch into this. To finish it off, we just sprayed it to make sure that it’s weatherproof and clear.
Q: How has the college’s approach to the Black Lives Matter movement and antiracism affected your lives?
Adelle: The first thing I thought about when you asked that question is when the Neo-Nazis, who were outed on campus two years ago, the college responded with just vague comforting words but didn’t really do anything immediately. I think the same thing happened with a lot of white people on campus where white people denounced the Neo-Nazis and their actions, but then did nothing in their daily lives to make our campus better. From that point on, I was really inspired to make social justice a part of my daily life and part of my art practice.
TJ: Those are two really good points. Yeah, so I think what the school has done a lot of times before, they would offer support and offer resources for people to be better but not really change the system to that created the space for people to express the Neo-Nazi point of view. I think that was the problem, a lot of times, is how the college responded. Because last time they sent out an email denouncing it and then white peers will come out denouncing the Neo-Nazis. After that, what was done afterwards, you know? That’s something that the institution has been trying to work on and it’s a slow process. That’s why change can’t really happen overnight, but it’s a slow process, changing the system is the only way that allows for these things [like the mural] to happen. The bigger thing is trying to make the lives of POCs a little bit easier on campus and especially the faculty and the people who work on campus as well. I was talking to my advisor about this, about how much the people who work for Davidson, like the janitors and the cleaning people, they don’t make as much as they really should. They’re the people who are really essential to the campus and keeping us healthy and keeping us clean and are risking their lives to help us. The majority of people that we see [on the cleaning staff] are people of color. A lot of people like Mr. Robin, who always has a smile on his face. This guy deserves a lot more than what the college is providing for him. Those are the people that we are completely overlooking. In regards to student life, I think the college is having more training on diversity and inclusion, which is really important. Like I said, we have to work on fixing the system that created these spaces [for racism]. This is why we want the college to work on social justice, and we’ll continue to point out the things that Davidson keeps missing. Because if we don’t point it out, they’re just going to keep going, let it keep happening. On that note, I do think Davidson is making some progress right now. The first step is awareness, I guess. But I think, specifically, the Commission on Race and Slavery has been at the root of this progress and also the Stories Yet To Be Told grant, which is fairly new. It’s run by Maurice Norman, who graduated last year, and it’s basically meant to amplify POC voices on campus, and to confront racial injustice. So I think that’s really profound, and I’m excited to see what’s to come with that.
Q: How can art be used to effect change?
TJ: We filmed a video that created a sense of healing as a result of bringing that awareness. I understand that you can try to make change in different formats, rather than just having to protest everything. This was a different form of protest. We could easily have done a sit in, or something like that, and that is just as powerful. I think having something lasting and long term for this campus to hold on to is the first step for me to show that protest. I wanted to show that myself and the people who contribute to this stand against any racial injustice and that Black lives will continue to matter, no matter what.
Adelle: Yeah, I think art, especially public art, that focuses on social justice is a way to confront collective trauma in a graceful way. I think it also has the potential to inspire people in so many different ways. The artist has her or his or their intent but everyone can perceive it differently, which I think is the beautiful thing about it.
Q: Have you felt that Davidson has been supportive of your efforts?
TJ: Yeah, Davidson has been really supportive. During the process we were able to talk to Dean McCrae and President Quillen, who got wind of what we were doing. They were willing to help out. President Quillen was part of the video, and she was supportive of what we were doing. Dean McCrae was a major advocate for us as well. The administration, once they got with what was going on, they were really excited about it and they were really supportive of what we’re doing. I’m glad we didn’t get any pushback because that will be a problem if we actually got pushback for this project. But I think, in regards to the project itself, we got great support for it. It is a temporary structure that may have to be taken down towards the ends of the year, so hopefully we can get enough support around it from the administration and from the higher ups to allow this to stay for years to come.
Adelle: Oh, yes, absolutely. Definitely. Good accolades from the administration, Sherry Nelson is a huge supporter and enabler of projects like this. She’s with Davidson Arts and Creative Engagement. I think the most help that we received was from the grant, so grant funding is super important for projects confronting issues like this on campus.
Q: How has the community responded to your efforts?
TJ: I think they appreciate it. The timing was a little off for us because we got it done just as people were leaving for the semester. I think the very last day, we had we had just completed it, and I wanted to have a big reveal. But with how it worked out, not everyone got to see it when it was first put up, but the video came out and then people were very supportive of the video and of the artwork. From the people I’ve talked to, they were just happy that someone put this up, and someone was like willing to go out of their way to do this and show that we stand in a state of solidarity towards the issue.
Adelle: Yeah, I think it’s interesting to think about how students have supported us because obviously they’ve contributed to the mural and so someone reached out to me and made comments expressing how cool it is that their work is up there as well. So I think they’re grateful to have contributed. But also, since COVID is happening, I think more communication is happening over social media so all the feedback that we’ve gotten is basically through social media, but it’s been all good and supportive. I actually posted about this on Facebook and some family friends from Concord made a whole trip over to Davidson’s campus to see it so thinking about how it’s affecting surrounding areas is also very significant.
Q: What do you feel that Davidson should do in the future to better support people of color / antiracism on campus?
Adelle: Hire more faculty of color. That’s the first thing that comes to my mind, and have more people of color visit and do lectures here.
TJ: Yeah, hire more faculty of color. I appreciate that they’re having diversity and inclusion training for professors, so I’d make that mandatory for all professors. I’m not sure if it’s mandatory or not, but it should be. Also, having more POC come to campus to speak, especially [once] COVID stuff goes back to normal, we won’t be here for that, but down the road, we’d love to have more POC come. Not only to talk about shared experiences but also educate people on different issues that they not they’re not sure about. I think education is one of the biggest things that would help.
Adelle: This is kind of random but I also think PCC POC organizations who don’t have houses should have a physical space on campus for their organizations.
Q: Do you have any more takeaways that you think are important to mention in this interview?
TJ: I would say if students want to do something like this, think about it ahead of time, think about a lot of things ahead of time. It takes a lot more time than I anticipated. I would say it’s one of the more fun experiences I’ve had on campus. It was also one of the more stressful projects because I had to go through different people. It makes me think of how our world actually is and how projects actually happen. If you want to do something like what we did, definitely think about ahead of time and pre-plan it, it will get you a support system as well. Adelle, Israel [Palencia ‘23], and Brandon have been like the biggest support system for me, in regards to getting stuff done. There’s no way I could’ve done it by myself but having them every day, having help with the ceramic tiles and stuff has been a really helpful and really fun experience. I think the final thing, if you want to do something like this, don’t be afraid, don’t think it’s too much. I think this is something that a lot of people are like “I’m not artistic, so I can’t do something like that.” I’m not artistic, I’m not the biggest artist in the world, but I had a dream and vision. I had gotten to know people and I happen to know Adelle, and Adelle was a great support system for that. I think just don’t think of any tasks too big for yourself, and in making changes you have to just dream big.
Adelle: I’ll just say, keep it fun. Don’t get too overwhelmed, definitely keep these interdisciplinary and on campus projects going. Definitely make use of the Davidson network, if I’ve learned anything over the past three and a half years at Davidson, it’s the value of collaboration and working with people you may not have the chance to work with on a daily basis.