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The Ruby is a catalyst for creativity and a home for making art at Duke.

Students Swap Spring Break to Mural the Ruby

Published By Robert Zimmerman
Published on: April 3, 2019

During a new Spring Breakthrough course, students used imagery from the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library to mural the Ruby with a playful deconstruction of Duke’s Gothic facades.

Last month, seven undergraduates and one graduate student skipped the beach to be part of a new Spring Breakthrough class led by Bill Fick and Mark Olson of the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies.

“Over the course of four days, we conceived, created, and installed the large-scale mural Visitors Please. On day one, students brainstormed ideas and researched visual materials in the advertising and poster collections of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, assembling a repertoire of bold visual motifs. On day two, students learned the fundamentals of screen printing, toured the Nasher Museum’s Pop América exhibition, and then set to work replicating colorful screen prints on adhesive-backed fabric. Day three saw more printing and then the remainder of the time was dedicated to installation, an exercise in both conceptual ideation and improvisational collage. The mural itself draws on Duke’s iconic stonework, as well as elements that evoke a concern for lost time, care for the environment, interconnection, and a hope that new futures can be imagined from the structures of the past.”—Bill Fick & Mark Olsen

Zhong Huang. All photos by Robert Zimmerman.

One of the students, Zhong Huang, describes the process as challenging: “We had to create a twenty-foot mural from design to finish in four days. Some late evenings, early mornings, and a lot of lukewarm coffee were involved. But I think our group leaned in to the creative control and responsibility we had.”

For the design, says Huang, “we aimed for a look towards the future. Our generation is growing up with a uniquely urgent and complicated set of global problems, particularly within the environment. We wanted the mural to acknowledge the history we inherited while focusing on the hope we have for the future.

“The color-changing stonework motif is from Duke’s West Campus. Duke is both a part of our problematic history and a part of our solutions, so the motif is interspersed throughout. The mural widens out as the viewer moves for left to right. We wanted to take the viewer from a sense of rigidity to an organic feeling of freedom.”

“We wanted the mural to acknowledge the history we inherited while focusing on the hope we have for the future.”—Zhong Huang

For the professors, it was not only a chance to hang out with students in a freewheeling, ungraded collaboration, but also an laboratory for new ideas. “A lot of interesting things came out of it for me—cool ideas I can use for teaching and for my own work and for collaborating with others,” says Fick.

One thing Olson brought to the table is an augmented reality app. Users with the app can point their phone at an image and parts of it start moving, text appears, or an audio clip plays. Fick and Olson experimented with some virtual reality extensions of the mural over spring break and are hoping to continue that work during the summer.

“It wasn’t the restful spring break experience that I’m used to, but I’m glad I did it,” says Huang. “I learned a completely new skill and had a lot of fun exercising my creativity.”

See the mural, Visitors Please, on the first floor of the Ruby (and sprinkled throughout the building)!

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