Painting on Walls: Public Humanities, Public Art

Mackenzie Clark

Throughout the history of art, wall painting has told stories, recorded myths and histories, and called groups to action. In Painting on Walls, a collaborative art history and service learning course offered by Prof. Erin Benay this past semester, students learned about the history of mural painting and applied their coursework directly to the Cleveland community. I had the opportunity to take this class with a dedicated group of students and learn more about public art in the city. Our work throughout the semester resulted in a proposal fora multi-phase public humanities project for our community partner, LAND Studio, a public arts nonprofit in Cleveland.

The service learning component of Painting on Walls specifically focused on Inter|Urban, a project of LAND Studio that seeks to connect art, literature, and transportation in the city through wall painting. Inter|Urban pairs artists with books that have won the esteemed Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, an award named for Cleveland poet and philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf that recognizes books which explore issues of race and diversity. The artists paint murals inspired by these texts along the routes of the RTA, a major public transportation method in Cleveland.

The intersections of art, literature, social justice, and community service within the Inter|Urban project provided a rich opportunity for CWRU students in the course. Prof. Benay created Painting on Walls in collaboration with Executive Director Greg Peckham and Inter|Urban Project Manager Joe Lanzilotta at LAND Studio. This past semester, the class consisted of eight undergraduates and two graduate students who worked closely to develop a public humanities project proposal for Inter|Urban.

The classroom-based aspects of Painting on Walls traced the significance of wall painting throughout multiple historical and cultural contexts, focusing in particular on the intersection of murals and social justice. We read texts from multiple disciplines to learn about art history, urban studies, and the theory and practice of public humanities. This research was supplemented by conversations at LAND Studio’s office, where we were able to ask questions and engage in dialogue about the past and future of Inter|Urban.

For our final project, we collaborated on a 70-page book outlining multiple phases of future work for Inter|Urban, including physical, digital, and distributable initiatives to engage the Cleveland community with the mission of the project. Working closely with a community partner to develop our proposal gave us an opportunity to experience a project on the scale, timeline, and budget of an actual arts nonprofit. The real-world application of the coursework transcended the boundaries of a traditional, lecture-driven seminar and made this project feel immediate and important to the communities of Cleveland.

At the end of the semester, all of the students in Painting on Walls who participated in a course evaluation survey agreed that the work they completed with their community partner enhanced their ability to communicate in real-world contexts, made them more marketable to employers, and gave them a better understanding of what a degree in the humanities can do. Students also commented on the sense of accomplishment they found in completing a project for a real-world organization.

The reward of this class extends beyond the skills learned by the students. The students left the course with the tools to pursue further questions about the public humanities in thoughtful and impactful ways. The role of collaboration in the public humanities is especially significant as CWRU students look to engage with the communities of Cleveland in the future and continue to interrogate who is the “expert” and who is the “student” in such projects. The service and teamwork that took place in Painting on Walls will not only benefit the future of Inter|Urban, but also the presence of the public humanities in Cleveland for years to come.