Myself and President Braveman. With hard hats and lantern for our art adventure in the tunnels [Photo: Jane Kelly]
To a Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History, a subterranean tunnel system decorated with wall paintings is an embarrassment of archaeological riches.
That’s exactly what one finds in the tunnel system linking all the original buildings of the campus. For my time travel spelunking, I was joined by Nazareth President Daan Braveman and Jane Kelly, Associate Vice President for Student Development. We walked through the history of the school as it has evolved from a Catholic women’s college into a co-ed, non-denominational, comprehensive college — perhaps no better exemplified than in Dr. Braveman, its Jewish president.
The painting themselves have never been cataloged or systematically photographed by the college. In a way, this may have been the first “official” tour. Daan and I learned there is no formal submission process or set criteria for choosing paintings. Instead, students–when moved–simply fill out some nominal paperwork. Apparently, none have ever been flatly rejected or censored. The results are spontaneous and organic.
As we strolled through the labyrinth of hundreds of artworks, the strict historian in me was disappointed. Except for the few I and Jane photographed, most did not contain overt social or political themes. Rather, they were brightly colored images of clubs, of teams, of individual figures, of uplifting themes, joyful, soothing, and life affirming. Many were untitled and artist unnamed. Rather than history–except for a montage of yearbooks–we got timelessness.
As we veered left and right, we discussed overall patterns or motifs: along with spontaneous and organic, “authentic,” “creative,” “inclusive,” “diverse” and “generative” — all in keeping with the tenor of the campus above ground.
I will say that at this point we began to feel claustrophobic. Daan admitted–except for the art, of course–he likes fresh air over the tunnels. The students enjoy wearing flip flops in winter, but he prefers natural light. On this yet another picturesque Pittsford day, it felt blasphemous to be underground.
Finally back to hazy autumn sunshine, I pondered the excursion. One term kept coming back based on the tones, images, motifs, and themes: “feminine mystique” — old fashioned and essentialist as that sounds. True, over time most Nazareth students have been women and undoubtedly most of the artists too. But that initial reaction says more about my own cultural perceptions. So, as I re-thought, a better term: feminist mystique. A term I would use approvingly regardless of the actual gender of the artists.
I liked the murals and their visions as did Daan (although he would probably not use my phraseology). The paintings were not made to represent the spirit of Nazareth per se. But they come close enough.
Another excursion (video) Using the tunnels