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The Bigger Picture Washington and Lee students partnered with Eagle’s Nest Clubhouse members to create a 32-foot community mural around the theme of recovery.

“Great conversations can happen when you’re standing next to one another working on a mural.”

~ Andrea Lepage, associate professor of art

On the first day of Spring Term, there were only blank panels. One month later, W&L students and members of Eagle’s Nest Clubhouse in nearby Buena Vista proudly unveiled a brightly colored, 32-foot public mural they had painted on marine-grade plywood panels and hung on the side of an Eagle’s Nest outbuilding on 29th Street.

“This project began as a pie-in-the-sky idea,” said Phil Floyd, Eagle’s Nest director and manager of psychiatric rehabilitation services at Rockbridge Area Community Services. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have something that represents recovery in the truest sense, to have a project that pulled the community together and gave our members the chance to participate in a project that was a positive part of their recovery?”

The collaboration for this project began three years ago, when Floyd reached out to W&L, who has been placing interns from the psychology and sociology departments at Eagle’s Nest since 1983, the year the facility opened its doors.

“Eagle’s Nest has been investing in W&L students for decades,” said Karla Murdock, David G. Elmes Professor of Psychology. “For the last 13 years, Phil Floyd and Eagle’s Nest Clubhouse members have visited my Introduction to Clinical Psychology class to talk about experiences in coping with and recovering from mental illness. Their input crystalizes and enhances all of the information we cover, and they have educated my students in a way that a traditional classroom process cannot.”

When Floyd broached the idea of a collaborative community mural project, Murdock said the wheels in her mind started churning. She pulled in Andrea Lepage, associate professor of art history. Kathleen Olson-Janjic, Pamela H. Simpson Professor of Art, and Peter Simpson, W&L studio art lab technician, joined the project to provide essential expertise.

Lepage studies muralism, particularly produced by Chicana and Chicano artists, and she noted that many cities across America maintain vibrant community mural programs. Lepage said, “Community murals are a powerful form of art because they can bring together disparate groups to accomplish a communal goal. In the process of designing and painting, murals have the capacity to amplify the voices of marginalized members of the community.”

Olson-Janjic teaches painting and drawing in the studio art program. When the Colonnade was undergoing renovations she supervised the work of students who painted murals on the fences surrounding the construction site. Lepage and Olson have talked for years about the possibility of teaching a course together on Community Muralism, so when the opportunity came up to work with Eagle’s Nest Clubhouse, Olson-Janjic immediately signed on. “The most rewarding part of the course was the interaction between ENC members and W&L students,” she said. “The shared moments and the friendships that were formed made this a transformative experience for everyone involved.”

This spring, with the Eagle’s Nest project in mind, Lepage and Olson-Janjic developed and co-taught a new class open to all students, Community Muralism, which traced the historical development of community murals and gave students experience in planning, designing and producing a large-scale mural. Floyd, who has served the Eagle’s Nest as manager for 30 years, procured the necessary permits and permission from Buena Vista’s city council.

Intersecting with the art class was Murdock’s Spring Term class, The Pursuit of Happiness, which focused on the field of positive psychology. “My course emphasizes empirical research, from multiple subdisciplines of psychology, that illuminates what helps people to thrive,” said Murdock. “But the service-learning component — working side by side with Eagle’s Nest members — allowed us to actually experience processes that promote well-being and recovery. The project has served all of us, because we have shared the excitement of producing something beautiful together, and have benefited in all kinds of ways from the merging of W&L and Eagle’s Nest communities.”

Deconstructing the stigma associated with mental illness is also an important aspect of the project. “Part of the impulse behind the creation of the mural is to acknowledge the important work Floyd and the Eagle’s Nest have done for our community while also celebrating the Eagle’s Nest members,” said Lepage. “The mural represents their visions of recovery.”

The process began with Eagle’s Nest members and W&L students talking about positive images and memories that represented recovery. They then chose the prominent elements of the mural — the sun, the soaring eagle, the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Maury River. Smaller panels surround the central images and represent personal memories and feelings of safety, including gardening, friendship, music and freshly baked bread.

After sketching ideas on paper, the groups transferred those images to the panels. “Great conversations can happen when you’re standing next to one another working on a mural,” said Lepage. “Stories come out naturally. Some Eagle’s Nest members talked a lot while others spoke less, but any level of engagement in the process can be therapeutic.”

For several days, the Eagle’s Nest members traveled to W&L’s painting studio to work on their creations. Then the panels, mostly complete, were transferred to Buena Vista for the finishing touches and a couple of coats of varnish. “We wanted to make this as durable as possible, so we used professional-grade materials for the project,” said Olson-Janjic. To prime the panels, students applied three coats of professional gesso, sanding in between coats. The panels were then ready to receive Nova Color acrylics, a high-quality paint used by professional muralists. “As the mural is mounted on a north-facing wall and painted with color-fast materials, I expect this to last for about 30 years. We hope this mural will bring deserved recognition to Eagle’s Nest Clubhouse and help to form a bond with the community,” she continued.

By the end of the term, Eagle’s Nest members not only had a new piece of public art to celebrate, but new friendships, as well. Skylar Prichard ’19 and her project partner, Justin Snyder, who has been with Eagles Nest for four years, commented on what the process meant to them. “I was impressed by his ability to mix colors,” said Prichard, “Justin has been a light to be around. They are all great people,” she said of the Eagle’s Nest members. “So talented and beautiful.”

Snyder, who created beautiful handmade jewelry that was sold at the mural unveiling ceremony, said the experience gave him the courage to think about returning to school for his fashion degree. “I don’t want mental illness to define who I am,” he said.

Jayson Wilberger, an Eagle’s Nest member for 28 years who writes songs and poetry, succinctly summed up his takeaway: “Heaven can be anywhere as long as you focus on the good things in life, instead of dwelling on the bad. Think about all the good things in life that cheer you up. A smile will always set a person free from sadness.”

At the end of the project, particularly at the unveiling ceremony, there were certainly smiles on everyone’s faces. “The mural will be a lasting and compelling testament to the possibility of recovery,” said Floyd. “It gives voice to people whose stories have too often been ignored.”

Watch the Timelapse:

Thanks to Professor Emeritus Larry Stene for his extraordinary help with the mural design. Funding for the project came from the Class of ’63 scholars in residence and the Mudd Center for Ethics, and support was provided by W&L’s Office of Community-Based Learning.

Ross McDermott,  co-founder of the Charlottesville Mural Project and owner of Surface Below Media, served as a consultant and documentarian for the mural project. His short-form documentary brings to life the faces and energy of the W&L/ENC collaboration.

Mural photo by Larry Stene, professor emeritus of art. For more about the mural, visit the interactive website at recoverymural.academic.wlu.edu/interactive-mural.