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Butler College invited Trenton artist Will Kasso to conduct a painting workshop over spring break. Kasso and members of the University community created a 40-foot mural on canvas which will be installed later this spring on the lower level of the Butler dorm complex near Studio 34.

The mural attempts to express the University’s multifaceted history, depicting important figures in the University’s past and present, with more recent alumni of color and alumnae emerging from the University’s past into the future.

The project is part of the larger Campus Iconography Project, an effort by the Campus Iconography Committee and the residential colleges to make the art and imagery on campus more representative of Princeton’s current diverse population.

“There’s really a desire to have some iconography that is more reflective of the student body as it exists now, as opposed to say, 1888,” said David Stirk, dean of Butler College. “One part of the committee is to solicit new ideas for the portraiture on campus, but another part of it is just within the residential college to look at what ideas we might come up with.”

One of those ideas, formulated by Stirk and Head of Butler College J. Nicole Shelton came about when they met Kasso at an art show in Trenton last August. After continued correspondence with Kasso, Stirk and Shelton invited him to be an artist-in-residence for a week and head a community mural project at the University. The project was supported by funding from the Campus Iconography Committee.

Shelton made the intentional effort to make the project about the entire University community, not just students. As a part of this effort, she invited Laura Kalin, an assistant professor in the Program in Linguistics, to help paint. Kalin was excited to be a part of the project and the larger goal it was trying to accomplish.

“I figured, why not?” Kalin said. “I think the goal was to create an outlet for students to be able to talk to each other about these important issues and create something physical that embodies the discussion.”

The mural attempts to express the positive and negative aspects that go along with each historical figure.

“It’s a lot about reckoning with the complicated past of our beloved University,” Kalin said. “It’s very much about bringing diversity to Princeton and reckoning with a non-diverse and exclusionary past.”

Kasso encouraged students to wrestle with the often difficult and politically charged topics represented in the mural.

“Whatever you paint you have to defend,” Kasso said. “If you believe what you’re putting on that wall, that canvas, that paper, what have you, you have to defend it because not everyone is going to appreciate it; not everyone is going to see it the way you do.”

Kasso was impressed with the students’ ability to go through parts of the University’s history that may not have been pleasant but were still important to discuss and depict.

“We just dumped out a lot of stuff, talked about the history of Princeton, the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Kasso said. “You gotta go through the darkness to get to the light, right?”

Kasso believed that the student-led nature of the project made it unique.

“My role in this is more or less like a coach,” Kasso said. “I help you, I draft up the plays, but you have to execute them. It’s really taking their ideas and showing them how they can really be transformative.”

The students reflected on the rewards of being in charge of the mural project, even with very little previous art experience.

“I think the coolest thing for me is that we are in charge,” Anna Wolcke ’20 said. “[Kasso] is the artist, so he knows how to paint and draw, which most of us don’t, but we can say something, make a comment, and he adds it.”

The project began with a workshop on Monday, March 19, when students discussed graffitti as well as the parts of the University’s history they wanted to include and how those components would be represented. 

“Kasso was guiding us on the process of what we should be thinking about, but basically all the ideas that are on the wall are student-generated,” Manisha Kapasiawala ’19 said. “All the issues that are in Princeton, or anything we want to put on the wall, whether it’s people or a black squirrel on Blair Arch, all of those are student ideas.”

Kasso emphasized that another important component of the project for students came in understanding that art is made through multiple mistakes and involves constantly painting over and making changes before the final product can be made.

“I tell people, there’s three paintings underneath the painting that you see,” Kasso said. “Ideas change as you go, but it’s a lot like life: as you grow, your perspective on things changes.”

The students around Kasso took the lesson to heart, explaining that it was beneficial to have an environment where mistakes were not something to be feared but a part of the creative process.

“You don’t have to be afraid to make mistakes,” Wolcke said. “It’s paint; it dries, and then you can just paint over it again, and that’s a really nice feeling. You don’t have to be afraid of trying something, and if it’s bad, you just change it again.”

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