In Roy Nydorf’s Drawing II, students are able to study the artwork of various cultures that have impacted the artistic endeavors of the United States over the years. Taking this class fulfills Guilford’s ‘Diversity in the U.S.’ general education requirement – not to mention, this means it helps develop your understanding of what it means to be an artist practicing in America in today’s world. The class’s subject matter easily allows for extended learning opportunities off-campus…and this time, they went to Winston-Salem State University to take a look at a couple of truly astounding murals.
Currently, Roy’s students are working on a project that is inspired by African-American art – Perfect! We happen to have relatively easy access to two John Biggers murals located only about 30 minutes away from our campus! In the early 90s, John and his nephew James were commissioned by Winston-Salem State to produce two murals for the campus library. The murals, “Origins” and “Ascension”, are 30 feet tall and 15 feet wide – I gotta say, they were a bit bigger than I’d anticipated. I was kind of flabbergasted. They are massive. Gigantic. These adjectives aren’t long enough in relation to their size. Not only that, but every inch of acrylic covered canvas is painted with meaning. As WSSU’s website** says, they “represent an integration of knowledge from many academic disciplines. African mythology and folklore are fused with mathematical concepts, scientific theories, literary extracts, American historical events, sociological patterns and religious beliefs…”
Origins, located on the west wall of the atrium, addresses man’s continuous quest to understand the forces behind the beginning of life. Ascension, on the east wall, interprets the experiences, hopes, suffering and joy of living in America. Though the dramatic images are characteristically African and African-American, the messages contained in each mural are universal and speak to all humanity. The people, animals, objects, colors, and shapes are layered with multiple meanings and symbolism.
If I tried to explain in any more detail, I might explode. The richness of them both physically and emotionally is actually quite mind-blowing.
It was at the end when the trip turned bittersweet. While we had just spent a solid 45 minutes hearing the history and weight of these two murals, when a group of prospective students came in with their tour guide (presumably a student). One of the visitors asked something to the effect of, “So, what’s this artwork?” To which the guide replied, “Oh, it’s just a mural.”
Just. A. Mural.
Unfortunately, the tour guide was not casually leading into a great speech about the majesty of these works, which we had just traveled all the way to see and hear about. It’s like if, while watching Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins finally got to Mordor to chuck the evil ring of power into the fires of Mount Doom, destroying the thing causing such toil and travesty, only to have Gollum pop up and say, “It’s just a silly ring, precious.”
Sorry, I went full angry nerd there. My point is, it was kind of a killjoy. Nevertheless, looking back, I think we can all take something away from this – The fact is, this is why art classes like this are available. If we hadn’t specifically come to view the murals because of what we were learning, might we not have dismissed them as easily, too?
As someone who’s taken the class and who is now serving as the Drawing II TA, I feel obligated to say please don’t take your opportunities for learning for granted. It’s easy to get bored during all the PowerPoints and overwhelmed by assignments, but try to enjoy it and take something away from is as well.
(And if you are that tour guide and you’re somehow reading this, please go learn about the murals – they’re right under your nose at your very own school! I promise you won’t regret it.)
**A picture of one of the murals, “Origins”, is on this site. Please take a look as I was not given permission to photograph them myself.