At Pauli Murray College, ‘monumental’ mural honors its pioneering namesake

The new mural in the dining hall of Pauli Murray College, which honors its namesake, features a portrait of Murray when she was about the same age as the undergraduates in the residential college, with a long future as a champion of civil and women’s rights still ahead. (Photo by Allie Barton)
March 29, 2023

When Tina Lu, head of Pauli Murray College, first commissioned an artistic work to commemorate the residential college’s namesake, she had three requirements: She wanted something “monumental,” “enduring,” and “challenging.”

This week, at an unveiling of the new mural — designed by acclaimed New York-based visual artist and 2002 School of Art graduate Mickalene Thomas — Lu beamed as she faced the work of art, covering the entirety of one of the dining hall’s large walls. The mural, she concluded, was all she could have hoped for.

Murray accomplished something monumental — a “reimagining of American justice” — and the large-scale mural, Lu said, feels monumental in its scale and artistry. As a tiled mosaic, it’s a creation that will “last forever.” And in Pauli Murray College, a residential college built in 2017 but designed to look like “old Yale,” the mural —  and Murray’s legacy as a jurist, author, and civil and women’s rights advocate — serve as a reminder that sometimes institutions need to be challenged to make themselves better.

Made with thousands of varying-sized enamel tiles, the mural features a giant black-and-white image of a smiling Pauli Murray as a young adult, gazing out toward a blue sky. Interspersed with fragments of sky are depictions of pink- and green-hued flowers and plants, leaves, and abstract shapes.

Tiled depictions of flowers, plants, leaves, and abstract shapes.The mural’s 75 separate panels of enamel tile were fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle on the wall. Head of Pauli Murray College Tina Lu said she wanted the mural to be “monumental,” like Pauli Murray’s contributions as a jurist, author, and activist. (Photo by Allie Barton)

Although it took about six years to plan, design, and construct, the mural took only two weeks to install in the dining hall of the college named for Murray, who in 1965 became the first African American to receive a J.S.D. degree from Yale Law School.

A team of artisans overseen by Thomas’s project manager Jeff Vreeland and mosaic craftsman Stephen Miotto installed the mural, made of 75 separate panels that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Students from Pauli Murray College, members of Murray’s family, and university staff members and administrators joined the celebratory unveiling on Monday afternoon, which featured a convocation prayer by Donyelle McCray, associate professor of homiletics at Yale Divinity School and a scholar of Pauli Murray, and performances of hymns by the girls’ choir of the Trinity Church on the Green and by the Yale Gospel Choir.

Yale community members gathered in the Pauli Murray College dining hallMany students attended the celebratory “unveiling” of the mural, which took six years to plan and design but only two weeks to install in the college. (Photo by Allie Barton)

In her work as a lawyer, Pauli Murray argued for civil and women’s rights, helping to dismantle segregation and discrimination. She authored the 1950 book “State Laws on Race and Color” and later “Jim Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII” and “Roots of the Racial Crisis: Prologue to Policy.” Later in life, Murray became the first African American woman to become an Episcopalian minister.

Lu said that in deciding upon an artist to commemorate Murray, Mickalene Thomas was the first choice for her and the students in Pauli Murray College. “She’s truly an artist of the ages,” said Lu. Thomas, who is also a painter, photographer, collagist, printmaker, sculptor, and filmmaker, is especially known for her exploration of ideas around femininity, sexuality, race, power, and gender in her work.

Thomas acknowledged that she at first found her Yale commission “overwhelming.”

I had to show up and bring it to the table,” she said. “I was quite nervous to come up with ideas. I wanted to create a portrait that would live forever.”

The portrait she created of the first Black woman to have a college named after her, Thomas said, shows her “envisioning, looking out.”

You can see yourself in her,” she told the students at the unveiling. She added, “I wanted each and every one of you to feel connected to her. You need to be constantly reminded why you’re here and what Pauli Murray created.”

Mickalene Thomas Mickalene Thomas, a multimedia artist and graduate of the Yale School of Art, said she wanted the mural to remind students of Murray’s legacy as an advocate for racial and gender equality. (Photo by Allie Barton)

Thomas said that for every project, she thinks about the relationship of the art materials to the place the artwork will be in. The idea to create a mosaic mural is because “the history of mosaics is so much more profound than oil paint,” she said, and is fitting symbolically with the history of Yale as a college and with its longevity. To design the work, Thomas traveled to Murray’s childhood home in Durham, where she took pictures of the sky and the flora, and juxtaposed depictions of those images with those of pictures she took of the sky and plants while at Yale.

Robert Murray, Pauli Murray’s nephew who attended the unveiling, said he mostly remembers his aunt hard at work at a typewriter, but admits he did not realize until much later her importance to civil rights and women’s rights.

Beth Ward, who was a friend of Pauli Murray and now a fellow of Pauli Murray College, noted that Murray wasn’t as well known when she died in 1985. “But I think Pauli knew in a humble way how important she was to the historical moment,” she said.

A group of first-year students sitting together in the dining room said they found the mural breathtaking. “We were discussing how she is represented in the mural with so much of her life ahead of her,” said Kyle Ramos. “She is looking at the sky. For first-years, it inspires us to think about what our futures might look like.”

Tina Lu also remarked on the significance of Murray being depcited as young person, at a time when she was just beginning her journey as a champion of racial and gender equality.

The Pauli depicted here is your age,” she told the Yale students. “Your story is never over. Plan big. Be monumental. Be challenging.”

Susan Gonzalez

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