In recreating the UMass Campus Center's Civility Mural, Honors Professor John Simpson and the students in his course HONORS 221H: "The Springfield Renaissance: Art and the City" are using public art to change communities.
Simpson was a UMass student in 1989 when the Civility Mural was completed and personally knew the artist, Jonathan Kohrman. The mural is located in the recently-expanded Blue Wall eatery. It has since weathered and deteriorated, minimizing its appeal. Before the expansion of Blue Wall, the mural was in an outdoor portion of the Campus Center with no roof. Now the mural is in an enclosed area for diners to admire. The goal of the class is to brighten the space the mural occupies with fresh paint and ideas that do not estrange the work of the past, yet brings forward current day thinking. The project is planned to be completed during the Spring 2016 semester.
Class projects vary each semester, with the focus shifting between the nearby city of Springfield and the UMass Amherst campus. The next group of students will be involved with painting walls in the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum expected to open in Springfield in the summer of 2016.
Simpson himself is leading a movement to change perceptions of the city of Springfield and make it a safer, more fun place to be. He readily brings students in on his projects. “The good thing about public art is that you will often get permission to do it in places that are deteriorated and desperately in need of repair; when you do it, it is even more appreciated,” shared Simpson.
"Art,” he says, "gives more depth to the human experience and brings beauty to people’s lives."
The ideas conveyed in public art pieces—such as peace, justice, and love—start conversations. Some of the images depicted in the Civility Mural, such as those of the Ku Klux Klan, have started controversy. Would the mural be better without displaying this group? Simpson's class has discussed this question and considered the historical figures and symbolic scenes that the mural is sharing about the past and present of America.
Ultimately, Simpson and his students will determine how to update the central themes of the mural. The class will exhibit story plaques to document its history and share why certain themes were added or removed.
"There is a woman reading a book on the left side of the mural.” Simpson noted, "the quote on the book had deteriorated so greatly I thought it would be a great opportunity [to provide a quote] that students these days would be familiar with."
No prerequisite artistic experience is required for students in Simpson’s classroom. “Most students come in with little artistic skill, but with the proper tools and techniques, students can create more than what you’d expect,” shared Simpson. Students learn about the application of color, measurement and perception, painting styles, and the need for multiple layers of paint to create visually enticing detail.
The course meets twice weekly either in a classroom or at the site of the Civility Mural. Some weekends the group takes field trips to Springfield to discuss museum practices and review different aspects of installing art exhibits.
From his class, students take away an ability to solve problems and to have faith in themselves. “They are inspired to look behind the curtain, see how things work, and they can then do things that might have seemed impossible,” reflected Simpson.
“I like the group success we achieve,” reflected Simpson.