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Arts & Culture

Finding ‘Unity,’ Healing in Art

Image of Mural Created by Hundreds Reeling From Racist Murder to Be Part of New Collins Plaza

By Shannon Clark M.Jour. ’22

Students paint mural

Bowie State University and University of Maryland students collaborated to create the Unity Mural—an artistic outpouring of both grief and hope for healing after a white UMD student murdered 1st Lt. Richard W. Collins III, a Black Bowie State student, in 2017. A replica will be installed at a memorial plaza at the site of the tragedy.

Photo by Geoff Sheil

Against a placid cerulean sky, a pair of hands releases multicolored birds to fly among words of peace and justice floating amid the clouds—a plea for hope created by students at Bowie State University and the University of Maryland after a shocking tragedy engulfed both campuses.

Over the last five years, the four-panel,16-foot-long Unity Mural they designed and painted after the May 2017 murder of 1st Lt. Richard W. Collins III, a Black Bowie State student, by a white UMD student, has been displayed throughout Maryland. Starting in May, a replica of it will be part of a new plaza on the College Park campus honoring Collins and repudiating hate and bigotry.

Collins Plaza rendering

The mural shows the power of art to help connect and transform communities, said musicology Professor Patrick Warfield, director of the campuswide Arts for All initiative that aims to build collaborations between the arts, technology and social justice.

“Created in partnership, the very act of its making allowed us to grieve, bond, question and strengthen," he said. "With a reproduction of the mural here in the Collins Plaza, it will forever provide an opportunity for us, and those who come after, to remember, honor and resolve to build a shared future."

The process that led to the mural’s creation began in summer 2017 while the shock and sorrow were still fresh, and represented a shared desire for unity and justice on both campuses.

“We started thinking about how as a community, we can support each other,” said Margaret Walker, clinical associate professor of art education at UMD. “It turned into the unification of the two campuses and brought us back together.”

But physically bringing UMD and Bowie State students together wasn’t easy. Following the killing, students at the historically Black university were dealing with feelings of unease and a lack of trust, said Gina Lewis, a Bowie State associate professor of art who helped lead the project.

“BSU students were concerned about how UMD students felt about them, and whether the UMD students hated them as well,” said Lewis. “The students needed to be around each other to realize that there was a lot of pain on both campuses.”

They began brainstorming ways to use art to express mixed emotions while honoring Collins. The idea of a community-based mural was sparked after conversations with student activists on both campuses, and sketching began in the art studio with the help of art majors at BSU and art education majors at UMD.

“It was challenging. As a student, you never have the opportunity to work on a community-based project,” said Lisa Thach ’20, a UMD alum who participated in the project. “But to see the message of the mural on both campuses and to have peace with each other, it shows that we are all human and we all have the same struggles.”

About 250 community members worked on the mural, which debuted Sept. 15, 2017, at the annual NextNOW Festival hosted by UMD’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Jennifer White-Johnson, a digital media arts professor at BSU, and her photojournalism class captured that creative process on film and video.

“There was a coming together at the festival to bring it to life, and it wasn’t just the painting of it,” said Erica Bondarev Rapach, acting executive director of The Clarice. “It was about the process of the students connecting to create it.”

The mural has since been displayed on UMD and BSU’s campuses, in the Lowe House Office Building in Annapolis and at various events around the state. The original now hangs in The Clarice, over an archway to the building’s dance wing. A scanned image of the mural will be printed onto metal plates for the permanent display in Collins Plaza, located between Annapolis and Montgomery halls near where Collins was killed.

The impact of its creation continues to echo across both campuses.

“I appreciated the way (the students) embraced the challenge of coming together at a difficult time and collaborating to create a beautiful experience that produced a beautiful artifact and artwork from a very painful and ugly situation,” said Lewis.

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College of Arts and Humanities

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