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15 Murals and Much Papier Mache

The Ruddock OPI sequence continues in this installment of "4 Years and 4 Seasons." In this post, I will be talking about painting all of the murals to go on the dance platform, so turn on your artistic ears. (Are those even a thing? I must be tired, writing this at 3 a.m.)

Just like how the construction team uses a lot of power tools and wood, the art team uses copious amounts of paint and things called wallboards. Wallboards are flat pieces of drywall–gypsum plaster sandwiched between two pieces of plaster, literally used in houses that people live in. Luckily for us, wallboards are available at Home Depot and other stores, and we buy them to frame our dance floor for our interhouse party. They are rather heavy, not to mention awkwardly sized, and generally require two people to handle. They come in pristine, white, 4 foot by 8 foot panels (and this time I mean, truly those dimensions, not half a foot shorter).

To ready the surface for painting, we have to slather primer on one side of the wallboard. Primer protects the drywall surface and increases adhesion of paint to the surface. To do this, we use paint rollers to cover all 32 square feet of a wallboard (note that primer is white, not the teal blue shown in this picture):

Usually we give it one to three coats of primer–we re-use wallboards through the years as well, so sometimes more primer is needed to cover up the previous designs that have been painted onto the whiteboard. Using a paint roller is quite fun, but washing each one can take up to half an hour. It is not advisable to let the primer dry on the roller, as it will become clumped and unusable. This year, we have 30 4’x8′ wallboards to prime…it was quite the assembly line to get all of them done!

Painting murals is a rather more free-form business than building the dance floor, in that the structure of how one chooses the number and size of murals every year is largely determined by the art team leaders’ creativity and pragmatism and, of course, by the theme of the party. I mentioned in my last post that the Star Wars OPI murals were based on different planets–specifically, we had 3 planet worlds on the elevated and half-elevated platforms and each was 6 wallboards. Then on the ground floor we had 6 wallboards of space-themed murals, somewhat contiguous. Here is the same picture from the last post to illustrate this fact:

This year, the theme is the video game Kingdom Hearts. For anyone not familiar with the game, like I was initially, Kingdom Hearts is essentially a crossover of Disney with some additional characters–the protagonist and his friends, to be specific–thrown in. Our art team decided to have mostly smaller, 2-wallboard murals of a different Disney world that shows up in the game. Anyone in the House who would like to design can claim a world and be in charge of painting it. The designs are drawn over winter break and a projector is used to trace scale it up and trace it onto the wallboard before painting.

I decided to do Halloweentown from "The Nightmare Before Christmas." All of the murals would be designed as if the viewer were looking at it through a keyhole. Here is a picture of my original sketch:

I rewatched the entirety of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" just so I could screenshot different scenes from the movie for use in designing my mural. If you’re familiar with the movie, Halloweentown itself is a very drably-colored place, but Christmastown is gorgeous. I wanted to incorporate some color into the mural so I wouldn’t be painting gray and black all the time, so instead of focusing very precisely on one scene that appeared in the movie, I made a sort of composite of them. Here is a picture of my roommate Sandra helping me paint the ghost dog Zero’s wicker basket:

Once in a while, we like to take breaks from painting, so the next picture shows Sarah and Lily, the two leaders of the art team this year, along with helper Ethan painting artistic tattoos onto Michael, who came in for a break from helping with construction.

This is the near-finished version of Halloweentown. Many thanks to Surya, who did the Christmas cards and the ornaments on the tree; Skye, who helped with the cards and the cobweb-shaped floor; Iman, who painted Jack Skellington and his wonderful suit; Sandra, who painted the basket and parts of the book; Rupesh, who also helped with the book and the floor; and Sarah, who did the dog’s blanket and the books behind the ladder:

I had a lot of fun trying to paint realistic depictions of water and wood (referenced some Rembrandt for it, came up a bit short but I’m satisfied with my work for now). The grating on the ladder was fun. I enjoy my realistic styles, but once in a while I think it’s nice to remind the viewer that they are looking at a subjective piece of art and not a photograph. I think the mural came out really well, and was definitely the opposite of gray and black and drab!

Kingdom Hearts also incorporates a stained glass motif, so we have some of those as well:

And this one:

Below are works-in-progress of some of the other murals. And the little papier mache things on the sides are creatures called Heartless, which try to kill you in the KH game.

OPI is in a week! Time to get back to work. Though the learning curve for art is perhaps not as high as for construction, it is still a complicated process that welcomes help from all skill levels. There is plenty of opportunity for novices to paint solid colors, as well as for aspiring Rembrandts to practice shading and detail work.

This kind of highly collaborative artistic effort has been one of my favorite experiences at Caltech. It is indeed sweet irony that I would find a chance to improve my painting skills at a tech nerd school like the California Institute of Technology. Hope you enjoyed the preview, and watch outa post about the actual finished party in the coming days!

Till next time,


Anita Chen

Anita is a senior majoring in chemistry and minoring in English. Born in the island nation of Taiwan, she braved the cold on the American East Coast for a year at the age of six before moving to San Diego, California. At Caltech, she is involved in the music program and the literary and visual arts magazines. She is also an upperclass counselor (UCC) in Ruddock House, one of the 8 dorms on campus, where she watches out for the mental health of her peers and every once in a while tries to stir up trouble and excitement for her hallmates. In her spare time, she tutors and TAs, writes poetry and prose, plays the violin, draws, paints, cooks, and climbs rocks. She is currently pursuing her senior thesis project under renowned professor of chemistry Harry B. Gray, and plans on attending graduate school next year.

Graduation year: 2017

Option: Chemistry

Minor: English

House Affiliation: Ruddock