Ohio State University: Mural installations on Columbus campus explore art and activism

As students, faculty and staff return to The Ohio State University this week, colorful murals stand in popular destinations on campus. The artwork delivers a powerful message.

The murals, installed in the plaza south of the Wexner Center for the Arts, Thompson Library and Hale Black Cultural Center, are part of a collaboration with the Greater Columbus Arts Council (GCAC) to bring #ArtUnitesCbus, a Black Lives Matter public art initiative, to the Columbus campus this fall.

Following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests in the summer of 2020, GCAC and the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts worked with Columbus-based artists to paint murals on the plywood used to cover broken windows at the Ohio Theatre and Arts Council offices. This helped spark a city-wide movement of murals covering the boarded-up windows throughout the Short North, downtown, and other neighborhoods. Felicia Dunson, who creates art under the name of FDZ Graffiti, is one of the mural artists and remembers a tense atmosphere when creating one of her paintings.

“Literally the day that we were [creating the murals] was one of the days where the protests were most intense at the Statehouse,” she said. “There were helicopters flying overhead. There were military trucks on the street. The atmosphere, it was intense around us, but it was also very warm to be around other artists, in the middle of quarantine, where we had all been very isolated.”

The creative expression that emerged from a summer of protests and pandemic separation resulted in more than 200 murals. Their messages ranged from support for Black Lives Matter, to tributes to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, to messages of love and hope. One of Dunson’s murals is about understanding.

“I want to talk to the people who might disagree with me. I want to also kind of neutralize the extreme because that’s what is creating the war. You can’t hear anybody if everybody’s yelling at each other,” she said.

The campus collection, Art Unites Columbus at Ohio State, reflects that vision. Led by the Wexner Center for the Arts and University Libraries, the project includes programming and learning opportunities that explore topics such as art’s role as a catalyst for social change and the history of underlying systemic racism.

“I’m thrilled that our students, faculty and staff have this opportunity to experience this intersection of public art, social commentary and political debate, which reflect a dialogue happening in communities throughout our country,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Melissa L. Gilliam. “Our campuses are places to learn and explore, and the Art Unites Columbus at Ohio State initiative will spark discussions about many crucial topics facing our society.”

The murals at the plaza near 15th Avenue and High Street and Thompson Library connect the heart of campus at opposite ends of the Oval. The connection is part of a natural partnership between University Libraries and the Wexner Center for the Arts.

“#ArtUnitesCbus presents the campus community with a meaningful opportunity to engage in the broader conversations about racism and inequality that are happening across our country,” said Damon E. Jaggars, vice provost and dean, University Libraries. “By activating the university’s resources and expertise, we hope to provide greater context for these artworks and foster the kind of deeper understanding needed to create change.”

Johanna Burton, executive director of the Wexner Center for the Arts, said the collaboration offers an opportunity to explore racial equity through the emotions art can provoke.

“We are glad to join University Libraries and the Greater Columbus Arts Council on the continuation of this citywide public project,” Burton said. “As the latest partners to host these important and timely works of art, we recognize that in addition to offering a platform within our campus communities and the city at large, we must use the opportunity to engage in crucial dialogues around racial equity and institutional responsibility.”

In addition to University Libraries and the Wexner Center for the Arts, Office of Outreach and Engagement, Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Hale Black Cultural Center and faculty members from various academic units, including Social Work, Architecture, Art and the History of Art, worked together to bring the project to campus.

“The long-standing partnership Ohio State has with the Greater Columbus Arts Council helped make this project possible,” said Ryan Schmiesing, vice provost for outreach and engagement. “These partnerships provide great opportunities for our faculty, staff and students.”

Dunson hopes her art inspires some self-reflection.

“I would hope that people reflect upon themselves, and check on your emotional state, check on your mental state, find what it is that you need to absorb before you’re projecting,” she said. “I think that that is essential to what we need as a society right now, with all the social turbulence that’s going on.”

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