When Rowan Griscom ’17 and Allie Rockstroh ’18 first heard they’d be painting not one, but two, massive murals for public display, they were a little intimidated.
“The wall (on Stone Avenue) was huge, the ladders were tall, and I had no idea where to begin,” said Griscom, an art major from Nashville, Tenn.
“This was unlike anything I’ve ever done, and I was nervous that I wasn’t artistic or patient enough to do the job well,” said Rockstroh, a communication studies major from Phoenix, Md.
But as they got paint in their hair, and even more on their hands, their fears quickly melted away and their art became a story.
Seven Furman students from five different majors came together for a month of painting as part of the May X course, “Art and Community Engagement,” taught by Art Professor and Department Chair Ross McClain. The effort was supported through Furman May X funds, the Duke Endowment, and the City of Greenville.
“I got so excited when I heard I only had one art major in the class,” McClain said.
He said he had been looking for opportunities for undergraduate students to become part of the local art scene, “opening the lens of what art can do.” Thanks to a partnership with local businessmen, artists, educators, and the City of Greenville, two major opportunities presented themselves.
The first was a whimsical garden mural of colorful flowers painted on the side of an office building at 217 Stone Avenue, led by Furman alumna Jean Wilson Freeman ’91, guest artist-in-residence at Stone Academy.
Furman students and fifth-graders from Stone Academy worked on the creation as part of the Stone Mural Project, spearheaded by North Main resident Stephanie Burnette and Greenville City Councilwoman Amy Ryberg Doyle. The project was funded through The City of Greenville Arts in Public Places Commission and Stone Academy’s Parent Teacher Association.
“Art can change the visual landscape of a neighborhood and create space for people to rethink, reconsider and celebrate their community,” said McClain. “My goal was that students engaged in this course emerged from it with a new perspective on how creativity and the applied arts could be used as an instrument of change for the good to benefit the entire community.”
The second project, a mural at Horizon Records on Stone Avenue, pays tribute to Russ Morin ’84, one of the Upstate’s most talented musicians and craftsman of ukuleles who died in 2015. It also features Greenville native Josh White (1914-1969), the influential singer, songwriter, and actor whose hit song, “One Meatball,” is depicted on the mural.
The project teamed students with Horizon owner Gene Berger, Furman Arts Program Specialist Marta Lanier and artists Lib Ramos and Charlie Tyre on both the design and the final product. Griscom said she learned valuable communication skills by “talking with the artists and making sure that we had their vision in mind while integrating our own personal touches.”
The gigantic 8-foot-tall by 24-foot-wide mural began indoors as a large-scale paint-by-number project. The 4-foot by 8-foot aluminum panels were assembled and painted against the wall of Furman’s Thompson Art Gallery using durable, weather and fade resistant automotive paint. The shiny new mural was then disassembled, loaded onto a flat-bed trailer, and reassembled outdoors onsite.
“Projects like this have a dual motivating factor,” said McClain. “The work of the students inspired the community and promoted a sense of pride. The collaborations with the community inspire, bring a sense of pride and build confidence in the students. I hope that students rediscovered the simple joy of making a difference through the act of creating/making… with a little bit of paint, sweat, and good vibes.”
Students were graded on attendance, grit, participation, and joy, but several said the experience gave them much more.
Sarah Cooke ’17, a music major from Greenville, said the course gave her valuable training that she can use when she enters the work world.
“With a potential career path in arts administration, I can take these skills of learning about fund-raising, city planning and aesthetic visualization and apply them to a job in the future. I can also use my painting skills for my current job at Vino and Van Gogh and any other artistic endeavors,” said Cooke.
For Christina Nguyen ’17, a business administration major from Vietnam, one of the highlights of the course was studying the lives and professional careers of White and Morin.
“I am glad I got a chance to be part of a project that honors these talented natives of Greenville,” said Nguyen. “I learned a lot about Greenville and finally got a chance to make my own contribution to this city.”
Paige Stover ’17, a communication studies major from Charlotte, N.C., said the course pushed her to think and learn in completely different ways.
“I cannot wait to drive by these murals in the years to come and think back on how I got to be a part of it,” she said.
Learn more about the Furman University Art Department.