UC Davis Magazine

Coloring a Community


Mural photo Most students don't waste their precious academic career taking a class twice unless they flunked it the first time around. But Chicano Studies 171, or the mural class as it is fondly referred to, is different. No other class affords students the opportunity to make a lasting impression on their community, learn how to construct and paint a mural, work outside during glorious spring days, visit other mural sites, exchange ideas over potluck meals and get a good grade without writing a single term paper.

Malaquias Montoya, a professor of Chicano studies who teaches the Mexican tradition of mural design and painting, credits the course's popularity to the transforming effect it has on the students.

"Creating a mural is an empowering experience," he says. "The students who take this class learn not only how to express their ideas in pictures, but also how to be part of a community."

The class is taught only once a year, in the spring quarter. This past year, Montoya was asked by the Woodland Unified School District to construct and paint a mural for its high school campus.

Coming up with a theme for the mural was perhaps the most challenging part of the whole process, Montoya says. Before deciding on images, the 16 UC Davis students met with student representatives from Woodland High School to learn what qualities were important to their school and community. After identifying the major themes--agriculture, pride, land, a sense of community, and the role of music and art in education--Montoya's class began to design images. The class divided into three groups to work on sketches and later reunited to share their drawings and choose the best images from each group to incorporate into the mural.

"It's interesting to see how the students mix and match ideas to come up with a cohesive rough sketch of the mural," Montoya says. "Those with little or no drawing experience provide direction and comments while the artists in the group give life to the ideas."

Mural photo Enrique Garcia, a Chicano studies major with a double minor in education and sociology, suggested using Mother Earth as the central figure in the mural. According to the class's description of the work, the image of the woman represents strength, wisdom and a path toward empowerment. In her right hand, she holds tools and in her left a diploma--a symbol of knowledge and educational growth. Garcia says the inspiration for the figure came from his own mother, who has always nurtured and encouraged her children to reach for their goals in life.

A few students were assigned the task of rendering the sketch onto translucent vellum paper on an inch-to-foot scale--in this case the rendering measures 12-by-40 inches. The numbered squares on the grid were matched with a grid drawn on the wood paneling erected over a brick wall at the high school. (Bricks don't provide a smooth painting surface.)

Mural photo After priming the wood and adding the grid, the students sketched the design in charcoal. Sepia-colored paint and finally a color wash followed the charcoal.

At last the painting began in earnest. By the time Montoya's class started applying outdoor acrylics, finals were under way and, for a few, graduation was close at hand. But a sense of pride and accomplishment kept the group working early hours and on weekends as well.

Josh Reiten--a student who took the class last year when they painted a mural at Vacaville High School--says this experience was particularly rewarding.

"The students really seem to appreciate and support our efforts," Reiten says. "I had so much fun last year taking this class as part of my Chicano studies requirements that I took it again this year as an art studio class."

This spring's class, however, was more than a lesson in mural painting. It was a lesson in life. During the quarter, Montoya's son died of leukemia. During the times when Montoya needed to be with his family, the four art graduate students in the class assisted in teaching. Instead of canceling sessions, the group forged ahead, learning more about cooperation and responsibility than had students in most other classes, Montoya says.

"Each mural class I've taught has its own uniqueness, especially because the students are coming from all different backgrounds and experiences," Montoya says. "I was fortunate to have the art graduate students who assisted and made it easier on me, especially in this difficult time. I've never had a quarter like this one."

The students agreed that this was a special quarter.

"We've learned so much more than how to paint a mural; we've learned to work together as a team," says Lisa Northrop, an art history major.

Marysol Flores, a biological science major, adds, "Malaquias sets the tone of the class in making sure we are all equals in this project." Flores says she took the class simply for the opportunity to work with Montoya and to make a lasting contribution to the community.

"Designing and painting this mural has been such a group effort," she says. "You see not just yourself grow, but others as well. You see talents in people you didn't know were there, and we've learned to appreciate each other with every stroke of a brush. This feels like a real artists' community."

Images by Debbie Aldridge/UC Davis Illustration Services.