When classes began last Tuesday at the University of Southern Maine (USM), students were welcomed by an artistic addition to campus. In the entrance corridor just outside the Osher Map Library, a mural painted by Bowdoin Professor of Art Mark Wethli awaited their arrival.
"I'm really proud of this mural," said Wethli, who painted "Locus"—Latin for 'place'—at USM with the help of fellow artists Cassie Jones '01 and Andrea Sulzer.
Wethli chose the four "quietest days of the year" to install his mural: December 30 to January 2.
"I wanted to install the mural when the fewest number of people were around, when it would interfere as little as possible with the people that worked there," said Wethli.
The mural's light green background image is a silhouette of Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion map, which Fuller offered as a solution to the problem of how to represent the globe on a flat surface.
"This map is also etched, in a repeating pattern, on the library's metal façade, so I thought that including it in the mural was a good way of connecting the mural to both the existing structure and to the map library," said Wethli.
The black line superimposed on the map is even more abstract than the Dymaxion silhouette.
"It's a design that's very loosely based on Ambrogio Lorenzetti's composition 'The Effects of Good Government,' a mural in Siena, Italy's town hall, from 1340," said Wethli. "It's meant to remind the viewer of the lines on maps in general, whether roadways, air routes, or other graphic representations of how to get from here to there."
"The lines also suggest geometric solids, which flip around and re-combine depending on how you look at them," added Wethli. "This makes the work not only interactive as one walks by the mural—especially in response to its uniquely curved wall—but is also meant to address what Fuller's map does; the tricky business of mapping 3D forms onto a 2D surface."
Wethli's 9-by-27 foot mural was painted with acrylic on slightly curved drywall.
"The way the architect designed it, I knew the wall wanted something on it," said Wethli. "I thought it should somehow act as a place-maker to signal the entrance to the library."
"Locus," which took Wethli two months to design, is an abstract design that symbolizes finding one's place.
"The piece is meant as a place-maker and to some extent a way-finder, marking the location—therefore the title "Locus"—of the map library and adding a harmonic expression to the existing architecture," said Wethli.
Wethli was selected to paint "Locus" at USM through the very competitive Percent for Art project sponsored by the Maine Arts Commission.
The Percent for Art program exists in many states. Through the program, 1 percent of the construction or renovation cost of any state building—such as schools, courthouses and libraries—is dedicated to commissioning a work of art for the building.
"Locus" is Wethli's third Percent for Art project—previous ones include artwork in the Maine Department of Transportation Office Building in Augusta (2003) and the Knox County Courthouse (2005). He has a fourth commission, "Civitas," in progress, due to be installed this summer, also at USM. This sculptural installation, to be erected in the neighboring Wishcamper Center draws from the line drawing on "Locus," and is "meant to serve as a pendant to that piece," said Wethli.
Wethli has been painting murals for the past 10 years. His first major mural, titled "Four Quartets" after a book of poems by T.S. Eliot, was painted at Mid Coast Hospital in 2001.
Wethli's love for murals, however, doesn't stop there. This spring, he will be teaching "Public Art" at Bowdoin.
"Public Art encompasses a lot of material and many different types of practices that we [will] cover over the course of the semester," said Wethli.
The course was last taught in the spring of 2008, when Wethli's students painted a mural at Woodside Elementary School in Topsham. The fifth grade students at the elementary school selected the best mural design from a variety of options presented to them by Wethli's students.
"The course covers everything from how to come up with a design proposal to how to leave a clean work site when you're done," said Wethli. "I'm never sure what's in store when I teach this class, but that's actually the part I enjoy the most; seeing things take shape organically."