Texas Southern University’s long and storied history of art lives on in a new set of student-produced murals recently hung in the school’s Wellness and Recreation Center.
World renowned artist and founder of Texas Southern University’s Art Department, the late Dr. John Biggers, who came to TSU in 1949 instituted a departmental requirement early in the program’s founding that all graduating seniors paint a mural. The cost-saving move of using the walls of Hannah Hall as the students’ canvases launched what has become a tourist attraction for global art students who come from everywhere to pay homage to Biggers and the work of his students.
However, a moratorium had been issued on the painting of murals on campus, thus ending a long and proud tradition, which was only recently rescinded; and by accident at that.
In search of artwork to give added life to TSU’s Recreation and Wellness Center—known by students as the Rec Center—its director, Iisha Voltz, originally looked at other companies to provide artistic works to adorn the building’s walls.
“Then one day I said, ‘Wow; we have an art department on campus. Maybe we can partner with them to produce some murals,’” recalled Voltz. “Seeing that the Rec Center is a student-funded facility, what better way to showcase TSU art students and their skills than to have them produce something that will remain a fixture on this campus for decades. These works will be something they and their families and children can come back to and see the mark they left on campus.”
To get the ball rolling, Voltz ventured to the University’s Art Department and began asking whoever she saw for leads on muralists. She was eventually directed to Jesse Sifuentes, a TSU art professor and instructor of the school’s mural painting class.
“With the moratorium on murals, my students were just painting murals on canvas,” said Sifuentes. “Thank goodness for Ms. Voltz. She went in art classes looking for students to paint murals. When I told her I have a mural painting class next semester who can help out, she said great. She gave us the opportunity, and we jumped on it. Ms. Voltz needs to be commended. She’s either a troublemaker or a hero; but definitely a hero in my book,” shared Sifuentes.
The students who produced the works are Derrick Brown, Nathaniel Donnett, Frederica Grant, Christopher Hicks, Robert Riojas, Isaiah Thomas and Faith Schwartz.
Sifuentes explained that unlike paintings done on easels where an artist paints, and then names his or her work, “With murals it’s the other way around.” Voltz provided the students with the theme, a narrative of “Health and Wellness.” And once equipped with their charge, Sifuentes’ students did a walk-thru of the Rec Center and each chose their wall for their future painting.
“After the walk-thru we met once again where the students had their visions of what they wanted to do,” said Voltz of her team’s review of the artists’ sketches.
According to Voltz, there were just a few minimal changes suggested to the students’ visions as everyone was consistent in staying on theme.
“Once we looked at their sketches, we let them go to work. About a month in towards completion my assistant and I did walk over to the Art Department to look at their work. They were busy transferring their sketches to the actual plywood board. What was memorable to me was that I didn’t actually see the final products until they physically brought them over to the Rec Center,” stated Voltz, who was blown away once the students delivered them.
“When the students arrived with their works I felt amazing, very prideful; overall just happy. It was so great to see the finishing touches and how much creativity and talent we have on this campus; talent that a lot of people are not aware of. But to actually see what these students are capable of doing—just give them a vision and they are able to actually put it out—amazing,” said Voltz.
While Voltz was moved by the actual arrival of the student painting, Sifuentes was overcome while watching his students selflessly help each other physically walk each other’s works, some section by section, from the Art Department to the Recreation and Wellness Center. For Sifuentes, it was symbolic of the camaraderie and connection between and among his students.
“It was a beautiful sight to see how. At the end of the day, even though each student produced their own individual work of art, it was as if they felt a collective ownership of all the painting; these rebel murals,” stated Sifuentes.
The process that began in mid-January 2017, came to fruition by May, when the murals arrived and were mounted for all to see. All but one of the works is on quarter inch plywood. The lone painting on canvas belongs to Hicks who painted his masterpiece in his dorm room.
“Christopher is kind of a quiet, unassuming guy. And the wall he chose was way in the back, deep down in the Rec Center where very few people would see his work. But when Ms. Voltz saw his painting, she said it was too beautiful, and made the decision to place it prominently in the lobby entranceway,” recalled Sifuentes.
Riojas, who has been making a name for himself around the city with his works of art, produced the tallest mural. It is the one seen first by those who enter the Rec Center. Riojas, a senior art major, has been such an outstanding art student that he recently participated in the inaugural HBCU Summer Teachers Institute in Technical Art (STITAH) at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Of the 11 nationally-chosen participants, TSU sent four students altogether.
Thus, the legacy of impactful art started by Biggers and ceramicist Carroll Simms is being honored and continued by a new generation of artists growing in their greatness. And Voltz wants to make sure visitors to the Recreation and Wellness Center know their names.
“One thing I’m working on is to create a plaque for each of the paintings so Rec Center visitors can see visibly the names of the artists, paintings and dates they were produced,” she said.