New mural celebrates the student union as a place for everyone

In a section of the Erb Memorial Union transformed from a dining area into a mural painting zone, University of Oregon senior Anna Gröne makes detailed brush strokes using yellow acrylic paint. One trick she’s learned: keep your wrist loose.

This September, Gröne and nine other UO students took turns helping Chicago artist Sam Kirk create a 25-foot-tall mural titled “We Are the Foundation.” Together they’ve painted 16 irregular shaped boards now installed near the EMU’s north entrance in interlocking pieces.

“Public art is important for communities,” Kirk said. “It’s an opportunity for us to create more visibility and representation for folks who have been excluded throughout history or continue to be excluded.”

Painting color guides
Students used painting guides to complete the mural

“When people see this piece, I hope they see a reflection of themselves, feel comfortable and are reminded of their power,” she said. “I hope it reminds them that this building is a safe space.”

Kirk was chosen by the EMU’s art committee in April following a national call for proposals. The multidisciplinary artist — who identifies as a queer, biracial woman — often explores culture and identity politics through her art.

Her creative process began with research about the university and the EMU. Kirk also talked with students, faculty members and staff. As her drawings evolved, she sought additional feedback through focus groups and online forms.

In addition to dozens of public art works throughout Chicago, Kirk has created murals for Columbia College Chicago and the University of Wisconsin. Her portfolio includes a Times Square installation for WorldPride NYC 2019 in New York City and a mural in Casablanca, Morocco. She’s collaborated with brands such as AT&T, Pepsi and U.S. Women’s Soccer.

Students painting a mural panel
Students working on one section of the mural

The EMU mural portrays Oregon’s mountains, rivers and trees. It also features student activities that happen at, or are fostered by, the EMU, such as political activism, outdoor adventures and the creative pursuits offered in the Craft Center.

Most of the people in the mural are iconic representations but two are specific, Kirk said. Jan Oliver was the first African American president of the Associated Students of the University of Oregon and the second woman to be elected to the office.

Marie Equi was one of the first female physicians in the state. She earned her medical degree from the University of Oregon in 1903. Equi was an out gay advocate for women, workers and reproductive rights.

Kirk first designed the mural on her iPad. To translate the drawing precisely to a larger format, she used a process called pouncing that uses a laser to burn tiny holes in sheets of paper cut in the same sizes and shapes of the mural’s final pieces. The holes form the basic lines of the drawing.

Paints and brushes used to create the mural
Some of the paints and brushes used in the mural

Then 16 sheets of particle board were cut to match the paper pieces and chalk dust was applied over the paper. The chalk sifted through the holes, creating reference lines on the boards that compose the mural.

Then the students — all of them paid, few of them experienced artists — joined in the extensive project, carefully following the chalk lines. Kirk and her team mixed and labelled the paint colors in advance, helped the students and made final adjustments.

Though the project is extensively preplanned, the process has its organic moments, Kirk emphasized. She encouraged the students to contribute their own creativity. The time they spent together also led to colorful conversations about the mural, what it’s like to make a living as an artist and other topics.

“It’s important that the students helped,” Kirk said. “Otherwise it’s just me just creating a mural that goes up and everyone wonders where it came from. We painted it in a public space for everyone to see. Hopefully, this creates more of a connection between the students and the work.”

By Ed Dorsch, University Communications
—Top photo: Fisheye view of students working on a section of the new EMU mural (Photos by Travis Worrell)