Arts Everywhere recently teamed up with UNC alum, Caroline Greiner, and the UNC – NCSU Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering to add a splash of color to the basement of Phillips Hall. Read the story below to see how one student’s vision became a reality!

A brighter and more inviting space

Anyone who has spent time in Phillips Hall knows it is not the most colorful place on campus. As a biomedical engineering student, UNC alum Caroline Greiner ’21 spent countless hours studying and taking classes in the drab basement of Phillips, which got her thinking: what could she do to help brighten up the space, improve students’ moods, and show off the creative side of engineering? Turns out, the solution to all three was a little splash of color.

“I wanted to help create something that brightened up the Phillips basement. I am drawn to murals and public art so I thought a mural would be a great way to bring color and life to the space. I also wanted the mural to be a creative representation of the often technical concepts of math, physics, and BME to remind students that creativity and engineering go hand-in-hand.”

blank wall space under stairwell
Phillips Hall Stairwell

Greiner already had the full support of her advisor, Dr. Devin Hubbard, who coincidentally had some history with the Phillips Hall space as he had been in charge of the design of the basement space for the BME department. Sprucing up the exterior to make people feel invited was something he had been wanting to do for some time: “When I heard that one of our own students was taking ownership of a project to do a mural down there…, I got VERY excited! The most important part of it for me is that the students in our program feel ownership of the space.” 

With full support from Arts Everywhere and the represented departments in Phillips Hall, the process to select an artist began. 

Breathing life into mundane or obscure places

A call for proposals was released and a selection committee of undergraduate (from both UNC and NCSU) and graduate students, alumni, staff and faculty was assembled to select a muralist. After looking through many proposals, the committee unanimously chose local artist Max Dowdle because his design best matched their vision and goals for the mural. 

Dowdle had been involved in fine art work with galleries, graphic novel publishing and comic conventions for the past two decades, but his public art interests have grown to overtake those other forays in the past few years. “I’ve found that the public art medium has allowed me to explore a variety of interests on a large scale. It’s very gratifying.” He especially loves using “creativity to breathe life into mundane or obscure places. Under the stairs near a science lab was the perfect spot for a mural!”

For his design, Dowdle “wanted something bright, eye-catching, and fun.” Thanks to the helpful suggestions from the selection committee and the represented departments housed in Phillips, Dowdle created a geometric repeating pattern interlaced with biomedical engineering, physics & astronomy, and math iconography that are instantly recognizable.

printed design proposal juxtaposed to wall of stairwell
Design draft in front of wall

Working with the icons ended up being Dowdle’s favorite aspect of the mural: “The relationship between the icons was something that I didn’t anticipate having so much fun with. The way the two hand shapes next to each other can suggest a human, or a stopping gesture, or how the electronic elements balance out the organic elements, it was all very surprising to discover along the way.”

mural icons in progress
Icons in Progress

Once the design was approved, it was time to put paint to brush to wall! While it was smooth going at first, Dowdle did run into an unexpected obstacle: “The ancient paint used in the building stairwell was a particular challenge to overcome. The mural paint resisted adhering to the older lower layer which meant that each element needed an extra coat to really make it pop, even with a layer of primer beneath!” However, he did get an assist from Greiner, who returned to campus to help Dowdle paint the hexagons!

Caroline and Max stand in front of mural
Caroline Greiner ’21 (left) stands with artist Max Dowdle (right)

An incredible demonstration of the awesome power of collaboration

This arts x science collaboration resulted in a colorful masterpiece titled THINK!. When asked about the title, Dowdle said, “THINK! is a directive, but also a joyous ejaculation. Our society is built on the shoulders of scientists and their discoveries. I wanted the mural and the title to really nail that idea.” It doesn’t hurt that NCSU’s motto is Think and Do – a happy coincidence for a project that honors a program housed at both UNC and NCSU!

THINK! by Max Dowdle

As a whole, Dowdle says that THINK! “was one of the smoothest installs in recent memory.” He was pleased it came together so easily and if nothing else, he thinks it is a great place for selfies! With a chuckle, he adds, “with Philips Hall being the maze that it is, maybe students and visitors can differentiate the stairwells by referencing the mural!”

Perhaps Dr. Hubbard summarizes it best in his reflection when he says that the mural was an “incredible demonstration of the awesome power of collaboration—the mural represents the passions, work, and education of BME, Math, Physics and Astronomy, and Art” and is a reflection of “the community that occupies the building.” He hopes that this project will encourage others to continue bringing more art into the less traversed spaces of Phillips Hall:  “I hope other students see it and think: ‘Wow, one of my peers led this?! I can lead something like this too!’”

And for Greiner, who dreamed up the project and saw it from start to finish, she hopes that the mural will inspire students in their everyday lives and “bring color and life to those who encounter it.”

To learn more about the artist, read our interview with him in our latest blog post. Special thanks to the UNC – NCSU Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering for collaborating with us and to the UNC Math Department and UNC Physics and Astronomy Department for their support!

Peruse through Arts Everywhere’s other mural projects!