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Murals to embrace racial equity


Sometimes, images speak louder than words. Especially when those words are “Black Lives Matter.”

A bold, four-panel mural created by SUNY Cortland students that reflects the national struggle against racial and social injustice will be mounted in the Moffett Center lobby area later this spring.

A group of three graphic design and digital media majors were selected as project artists in December following a competition that attracted 20 online entries. They will create four different panels that will be mounted side by side in the recently renovated lobby of Moffett, comprising an artistic and social statement about the size of a two-car garage door.

“The main goal is to highlight the different aspects of Black Lives Matter, but the students also wanted to spotlight the individuals of the past whose shoulders we stand on,” said Lorraine Lopez-Janove, SUNY Cortland’s chief diversity and inclusion officer.

“It’s a way for us to think about where we’ve been as a campus, how far we’ve come, and how much more we have to do to be able to say there is equity and inclusion,” she said.

Above are details from each of the four artworks to comprise the BLM installation in Moffett Center this spring.

The campus’ installation project, suggested and personally funded by Tim Bennett ’07, has been moved forward by a partnership of faculty, administrators and students.

Bennett, a local business owner, entrepreneur, and SUNY Cortland Alumni Association board member, supports numerous local civic endeavors and funded a Black Lives Matter street graphic in downtown Cortland as the nation wrestled with racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death. He approached SUNY Cortland President Bitterbaum about doing something illustrating the same concept on campus.

 Bitterbaum enthusiastically agreed.

“He was super excited,” Lopez-Janove said. “He wanted it to be something that would stay on campus for decades so that the students who were selected to make the mural and the students who were involved in creating the themes could come back years from now and say it was something they were a part of.”

 Lopez-Janove formed a small team of faculty and staff members and brought in student leaders to develop the four themes of the panels. Student artists then submitted work based on those themes that will be redone on a larger scale and installed in May. The themes, and the student artwork they inspired, are:

  • They marched so we could…” pays tribute to the work done by prior generations toward equitable treatment and opportunities, like attending college or owning homes, that were once denied people of color.
  • We got us” emphasizes solidarity among people of color and how, historically, members of the Black community have had each other’s backs.
  • Activism” is meant to illustrate activism in whatever form the artist chooses, spanning the early days of the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Lives Matter protests of today.
  • Our ancestors’ wildest dreams” shows appreciation for the gains made in the struggle that ancestors who experienced slavery and then discrimination would have a hard time imagining, while acknowledging that there is more to be done.

Two of Katherine Kressner’s proposals were chosen to become Black Lives Matter Mural panels. Shannon Delaney and Vanessa Leon Basurto were chosen to produce one panel apiece. During the winter break, the three have been assigned to extend their initial 4-foot by 4-foot designs into 4-foot wide by 8-foot tall ones.

“Unfortunately, racial injustice has been going on for a very, very long time,” said Kressner, a senior from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who has a second major in communication and media studies with a concentration in public relations and advertising. “If you’re too nervous to say anything, you can draw your ideas, you can do exactly what I’m doing.”

Delaney, a junior from Bethlehem, N.Y., said her collage and acrylic piece titled “Activism” reflects her admiration for how BLM protesters incorporate graffiti into their messages. The artwork depicts George Floyd’s face against a background of black and white newspaper articles and photos from protests with wording in spray paint.

BLM Committee members included, from top row, center, running clockwise: Lopez-Janove, Delaney, Greenidge, Taylor, Kressner and (center) Weagba Fitzjohn '19.

“I was really inspired by Black artists who were taking that back and incorporating that style into Black Lives Matter artwork,” Delaney said.

“Almost across the board, every illustrator should be incorporating diversity into their design, because you really can’t ignore the situation anymore,” she asserted. “I think that’s what Black Lives Matter is all about: not ignoring the mistreatment any more of not including everyone. It’s the simplest idea but it’s gone on too long unnoticed.”

The four themes were developed by Gia Greenidge, founding and current president of the NAACP chapter at SUNY Cortland, and Taylor Hunter, president of the Student Government Association (SGA), according to Lopez-Janove. Others involved with the BLM Mural Committee, have included Cyrenius Weagba Fitzjohn ’19, SUNY Cortland’s assistant chief diversity and inclusion officer; Tatum Pittman, SGA diversity coordinator; SUNY Cortland graduate Shaneya Simmelkjaer ’21, a former NAACP president; and Brianna Soogrim, the current Black Student Union vice president.

Staff and faculty on the team included Dowd Gallery director Jaroslava Prihodova; Zach Newswanger, associate vice president for facilities management; and Seth Asumah, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor and chair of the Africana Studies Department.

“I funded the project because I wanted to raise awareness of unequal treatment of people of color,” said Bennett, who is African American and the son of a deceased police officer who served for 25 years. Bennett said his support is separate from his business ventures and his many other local community volunteer activities.

“I know a lot of students have had a great experience at Cortland and in the community,” Bennett said. “Some have had a not great experience. With social media and cell phones it may seem like these things happened since George Floyd but many things happened before George Floyd. They just weren’t heard.”

Last fall, art entries were solicited from the entire campus community. Prihodova pitched the contest to Art and Art History faculty and at least three professors added the assignment to their course curriculums for Fall 2021. When the decision was made, everyone on the committee easily agreed on the final four selections, Prihodova said.

The final designs — whether digital, paint or drawing — in the next stage of the process will be professionally printed on canvas and stretched on a frame that will fit into the display space that is under construction.

“I’m really satisfied with all the submissions,” Lopez-Janove said. “Now it’s a matter of getting to work and getting it done.”

The timeline is to get the finished panels installed by May.

The campus community should get an early peek at selected BLM Mural project selections as part of a planned Black History Month exhibition during February in Old Main Colloquium. Details will be announced later.