A New Perspective: Art and Theatre Majors Team Up

The warmth of a First Fire celebration, a wealth of opportunities for recreation and exploring the natural world, and Rounds Tower’s skyscraping squash are all quintessential elements of Plymouth State University. These signature activities and PSU’s laid-back vibe have been captured in a new mural gracing the Guy E. Speare Administration Building.

The Cluster collaboration combines the talents of both art and theatre arts majors. Stretching eight by twenty-four feet across Speare’s lower level, the artwork is the product of Painting Murals vs. Scenic Art, a new special topics project course co-taught by Professors Tom Driscoll of the art faculty and Matt Kizer of theatre. One of their overarching goals was for students to see the practical issues associated with both art forms.

Professors Tom Driscoll and Matt Kizer with their students in front of the mural

“Students learned the similarities and differences between imagery and process in large scale paintings,” says Driscoll, whose extensive experience in the craft includes supervising student-painted murals for the Museum of the White Mountains and for the city of Berlin, NH.

Scenic artists render backdrops meant to be viewed from a distance that follow a set designer’s instructions, while muralists create more relatively detailed work that has been approved after a proposal process. Dissimilarities in paint, brushes, and technique are among other considerations.

Kizer led the class in texture research at the beginning of the semester, and the masked class journeyed to various campus buildings and structures to assess the bonding and weathering of painted brick, stone, and marble. Students further evaluated these materials by painting individual panels with alternative tools and paints.

The class included three art and eight theatre majors, and their different perspectives and those of their professors combined to create the joint project.

“The most valuable lessons I learned were how to work collaboratively, and that there’s a lot of planning that goes into things like this,” says Jacob Derocher ’22, an art major. “Even when I thought the design was extremely simple, it was still a complex task to keep everyone on the same page.”

Anna Skala ’22 is a theatre arts major who anticipates graduating with a triple option in acting, musical theatre performance, and tech design. She found it refreshing to work with other majors because it allowed a new perspective on the work process and design. “I learned so much from the art majors,” she says. “It was an interesting educational process, learning the different vocabulary and methods.”

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Vice President for Finance and Administration Tracy Claybaugh had the idea for a new mural in Speare, and her vision dovetailed serendipitously with the needs of the experimental course. Claybaugh and Vice President for Communications, Enrollment & Student Life Marlin Collingwood assumed the role of project client and provided students with general parameters in an initial Zoom meeting.

The class was subsequently divided into three groups, and each presented a formal design concept that the administrators reviewed before making their selection. The finished piece depicts a seated student in the mural’s lower left quadrant, daydreaming contentedly of all things PSU.

Kizer, a theatre lighting professional, employed a projection system that allowed students to trace imagery on the panels before painting. Acrylic paint was applied to medium density overlay (MDO) plywood, which is commonly used for shop and construction signs.

As with all courses this fall, Driscoll and Kizer had to plan for a potential pandemic shutdown of on-campus learning. Students were responsible for individual four-by-four-foot panels to be finalized at home if necessary, and the two professors teamed up on the mural’s twelfth panel.

For Matthew Kadam ’21, a theatre arts major in the theatrical design tech option, the process was both intriguing and, at times, difficult. “Working with other majors means working with people who have been trained differently and recognizing this was a crucial part of our collaboration. There were certain parts of the mural process that involved the art students and other parts that involved the theatre students. At the end of the day, it was this balance of work that led to the final production of the mural.”

The joint efforts resulted in an imaginative upgrade to a well-traveled corridor in Speare, and just as importantly, in a satisfied client. “It was a pleasure to work with the art and theatre students,” says Vice President Claybaugh. “They were professional and understood what we were looking for. What they produced was creative, and it captured the look and feel we were hoping for.”