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MayX Snapshot: Public art goes up against the wall

Students work on a mural during their MayX course in public art.
Students work on a mural during their MayX class in public art.

Each day this week, we’re highlighting a course from May Experience – a chance for students to explore topics beyond the typical academic year.

COURSE: Art and Community Engagement
INSTRUCTOR: Ross McClain, chair of the art department
OBJECTIVE: Encourage creative research, design and practice outside the gallery setting, and explore public art in its many manifestations.

When Ross McClain looks at a wall, he’s silently judging it.

“I want to get high visibility,” says the art professor. “There are some walls that are too tucked away. And some are really complicated. The bricks can be very deep-grooved, and that would be very challenging to deal with.”

He’s hoping his MayX students will begin to think the same way after spending the month painting a mural on the side of D’Allesandro’s Pizza near downtown Greenville. The artists – some of whom have never picked up a brush before, McClain says – aren’t just learning how to put paint on brick; they’re also awakening dormant creativity.

A dog barks in front of a mural painted by MayX students.
A dog barks in front of a mural painted by MayX students.

“The whole mission of our department has been about reengaging students,” McClain says. “A lot of times, students feel like art is a frivolous waste of time. And as a result, they’re hesitant to embrace their creativity.”

By painting in a public place right off heavily trafficked Wade Hampton Boulevard, the students are also discovering how art can provoke conversations.

“People come up and start to talk with them,” McClain says. “They learn a lot about what’s going on in people’s lives and the impact that what they’re doing has in the community.”

The young artists are also coming away with valuable lessons in organization and collaboration. There are multiple partnerships behind each MayX mural, McClain says – including with property owners, local artists and Pepsi of Greenville.

McClain’s classes have decorated many of the Upstate’s blank walls through the years, including a few in Greenville’s Stone Avenue area and one in Travelers Rest. For each mural, a local artist – this year, it was Matteo Miles – outlines the initial design on the wall. The students then fill it in, essentially “painting by numbers.”

To honor Pepsi’s sponsorship and support, many of the murals prominently feature vintage Pepsi products and logos. The D’Allesandro’s mural shows a Pepsi bottle spewing out, next to a Dali-esque pizza slice melting over Greenville’s iconic Liberty Bridge.

It’s an intriguing time to study public art, McClain says, especially given the recent controversy over several “Wings of Greenville” sculptures placed downtown.

“When it’s in the public space, people have to engage with it,” he says. “They can’t really move away from it. And people feel like they have ownership of that.”

What McClain hopes his students take away, however, is that public art is essential to the soul of a community.

“It gives a sense of identity and representation of the ethos of a campus or even a city,” he says. “It is a representation of all of us. And it should be a celebration – and it should challenge us to go in directions that we feel like we need to go.”

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