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Students pose with their social justice mural

Students address social justice through art

By Stephanie Ortiz, Class of 2022

Students enrolled in Social Change Through Storytelling, an interdisciplinary course offered in Spring 2022, recently completed a spectacular collection of carefully crafted murals. Each mural addresses a particular social justice issue, such as war and peace, unity and diversity, fair access to education, and women’s reproductive rights. The course was co-taught by Assistant Professors Tim Abler and Laura Misco.

“Immediately I knew that I wanted to collaborate with Tim,” said Misco. “He’s somebody who I really respect and think is brilliant.”

In this course, students studied how public art intersects with social change.

“Through our getting together and talking about what we could do, the subject of the prolific social justice murals that have popped up in the city in the last five years came to the surface, and we decided to build the class around that theme,” explained Misco.

Abler and Misco’s initial plans for the course consisted of students utilizing digital media to explore the meanings and techniques of murals found in Milwaukee; however, following the murder of George Floyd in late May 2020, the direction of the course shifted.

“The class came to be from a conversation that Laura and I had about the idea of storytelling through technology, and then…George Floyd happened, and that changed the way stories are told,” said Abler. “So, we said, ‘Well, what if we talked about how society and reactions to world events make people communicate and tell stories in a different way? What if we looked at murals and studied them, talked about them, wrote about them and had students create their own?’”

Prior to creating their murals, students were randomly divided into multiple groups. Within these groups, the students were tasked with the ultimate challenge: understanding and establishing commonalities among one another. From there, passionate discussions about relevant social justice issues began taking place. After groups collectively agreed on specific areas of interest, students learned various artistic techniques that they would eventually use to bring their creative visions to fruition.

“This is my favorite time of the year, and it has to do with that point of energy where there’s an initial excitement, and then it gets to be work,” said Abler. “People begin to realize this is a hard process. The decisions we make have implications—any implications, the colors chosen, the size of something, whether or not something is outlined—things like that. There’s a lot of decisions, and that’s my favorite part because it’s a struggle. That’s what art often is. It’s often part of the story too. Stories aren’t easy to tell.”

In addition to the murals, the groups were also expected to complete an accompanying poem and artists' statement. The artists' statements serve to describe various elements of the murals in the collaborative and unique perspectives of each group. The poems speak to the corresponding social justice issues using beautifully powerful language.

“The way the class came full circle is more than I could’ve wished for,” said Misco. “My favorite thing about [the course] is the collaboration; not just between Tim and I, but watching these cohorts find common ground and figure out not only the mural but the statement and the poem. If we can find ways to collaborate with people that we don’t necessarily know in the real world, everyone would be much better off.”

After about a month of meticulous studio time, the students’ murals were completed and ready to be displayed. On May 5, all of the collaborative murals were relocated and showcased along the Bonaventure Hall promenade. The poems and artists statements are posted alongside each mural.