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Northeastern’s newest artist-in-residence puts mural in students’ hands

Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Bay Area muralist Susan Cervantes, Northeastern’s newest artist-in-residence, and her team of artists are doing something quite rare for the mural that will wrap around the Latino/a Student Cultural Center—putting the design and the execution in the students’ hands.

The way Cervantes figures it, “It’s the people who use this building who are going to be living with this every day; we’re going back to San Francisco,” she said. “It’s important that it not be something someone came in and painted, but that it’s something that represents the voice and reflects the values of the people here.”

She and a handful of artists from her organization, Precita Eyes—a community mural center in San Francisco—have been working with LSCC students and staff for the past week to develop the images that will cover three exterior walls of the Forsyth Street building. The work is part of Northeastern’s Public Art Initiative, launched in 2014 by President Joseph E. Aoun to provide stu­dents, fac­ulty, staff, and artists from around the world “can­vases” throughout campus to dis­play their works for the entire North­eastern com­mu­nity to expe­ri­ence.

Bree Edwards, director of the Northeastern Center for the Arts, said that this mural is different from others that have been part of the Public Art Initiative—including Cedric Douglas’ “A World of Innocent Discovery;” John Park’s “Reality Check II;” Daniel Anguilu’s work on the MBTA retaining wall; and El Mac’s mural on Meserve Hall; among others—because it’s been almost wholly student-driven.

“Students who are part of the LSCC said they wanted a mural for their building that would represent the history of Latino culture at Northeastern,” she said. They created a list of artists they would have wanted to work with and submitted it to the Public Art Initiative Committee, which ultimately narrowed it down to Cervantes.

Bay Area muralist Susan Cervantes and members of Precita Eyes are working with Northeastern students this week to design & paint a mural for the Northeastern Latino/a Student Cultural Center. The process began last week, and the design is based on community and student input, rather than one specific artist's vision.

Bay Area muralist Susan Cervantes and members of Precita Eyes are working with Northeastern students this week to design & paint a mural for the Northeastern Latino/a Student Cultural Center. The process began last week, and the design is based on community and student input, rather than one specific artist’s vision.

“Susan has a process that’s incredibly inclusive,” Edwards said. “Up to this point, artists have come in with a sketch and executed it. This is a radical shift in that students are involved in the process from the very beginning.”

Students will continue to be an essential part of the process, all the way through painting the mural on the building—which starts Monday. Students can sign up for painting shifts throughout the week.

Then, on Tuesday, Oct. 11, members the Latino/a Student Cultural Center will host an open house to unveil and celebrate the new mural.

The process started with a brainstorming session with students and staff, Cervantes said. The group created a list of themes that resonated with them. Some, such as “different dances from different regions,” “family,” or diversity” were more concrete, while others, like “unity,” “passion,” “roots,” or “respect” were more abstract. But each was important to the LSCC members.

The group then turned those themes into ideas for images that could be included on the roughly 2,200-square-foot mural. Students helped research specific images that fit with those ideas, and last Wednesday Cervantes and Precita Eyes artists were busy tracing their sketches onto a to-scale outline of the building—creating a two-dimensional roadmap to guide the eventual full-size painting.

A sketch awaiting transfer to the final plan for the mural.

A sketch awaiting transfer to the final plan for the mural.

The phrase, “Many streams, one river,” will arc across one wall in both English and Spanish. The phrase, which was created by a student, will likely end up the title of the mural, Cervantes said.

Last Wednesday students wandered in and out of the meeting room in the cultural center where Cervantes and company had set up camp to inquire about the progress of the mural, and a few volunteered to help trace the sketches.

“It invokes more ownership,” Cervantes said of her community-based process. “We didn’t come in here with any preconceived notions of what this would be. The process is more important than the final product.”

Cervantes herself has been a community artist for almost 50 years, and is responsible for more than 400 murals. Her approach was influenced by the Mujeres Muralistas, a collaborative group of women muralists working in the Bay Area in the 1970s.

She and her husband, Luis, established Precita Eyes Muralists in 1977 as a way to enrich urban San Francisco-area communities and bolster the rich mural history of the area.

Cervantes’ son, Suaro Luis Cervantes, emphasized the importance of supporting a community vision through murals.

“What we’re doing here is stronger because of how many sources it pulls from,” he said. “That’s the beauty of it.”