For over 50 years, the interior walls of Risley Residential College have been lined with colorful murals. For residents, visitors and alumni alike, the artwork is a key part of Risley’s history and character. However, after a decision by the University’s Housing and Residential Life, over 100 of these beloved paintings will soon be removed.
On March 11, Jessica Burley, residence hall director of Risley, wrote an email to the dorm’s residents — referred to within the community as Risley-ites — explaining that she had walked through the building with Tim Blair, executive director of Housing and Residential Life, who selected the murals to be repainted.
Selection criteria followed the new list of guidelines for murals in campus residence halls, which HRL compiled this semester. Reasons for mural destruction included damage to paintings, such as paint cracking or water damage, and lack of a rectangular border around the artwork, which the new guidelines stated was necessary for Facilities staff to paint around them.
In the email, Burley provided a Google Form that students could fill out to request specific murals to be saved. For murals to be preserved, student volunteers must repair any damage and add borders to murals lacking them.
Past and present Risley-ites expressed resentment toward the new guidelines, arguing that they did not serve Risley’s artistic community.
“From my understanding, the guidelines put forth are meant to apply to all housing residential areas,” said Thomas Mitchell ’23, the chair of Kommittee, Risley’s student-run governing body. “I think it’s difficult to then apply those to a dorm specific to the arts.”
April Townson ’20, a Risleyite for her sophomore through senior years, said she worried that the new policies would hinder many Risley-ites’ artistry.
“There are so many murals in Risley… that those [guidelines] can’t even be applied to them, and so they would have to be painted over,” Townson said. “I think that that really stifles a lot of the creativity that makes these spaces really special.”
Before beginning to paint a mural, students must propose their ideas at Kommittee and obtain permission from the RHD. For this reason, some Risleyites feel stifled by the additional guidelines.
“[They’re] taking away Risley’s ability to decide what murals are acceptable to go on its walls,” said Shivank Nayak ’21, who lived in Risley for their sophomore through senior years. “I think it robs students of the artistic agency that really helps them grow as artists and as people.”
Certain guidelines state that murals painted must be visually appealing, stating that, for example, poorly-drawn murals and murals with more than 50 percent dark colors are aesthetically unacceptable. Leo Almada-Makebish ’22, who lived in Risley during his first three years at Cornell, said that these new criteria seemed too subjective.
“Who will be the person to judge what reasons are good enough to keep a painting?” Makebish said.
In addition to their dissatisfaction over the new guidelines, Risley-ites lamented the potential loss of a favorite aspect of living in the building.
“They are a very personal, colorful [and] whimsical feature of the building,” said Oliver Stern ’24, a Risleyite since they started at Cornell last fall. “I think they really define its character and make it feel more like a home than a dorm.”
Nayak emphasized the connection that murals foster between past and present Risley-ites.
“This is a place with a history to it,” Nayak said. “This is a place where all kinds of people have come through and left something of themselves for other people.”
Other residents agreed that murals hold historical significance for the community. Makebish hopes to save a mural that Risleyites began to paint in March 2020, right after students learned that they would complete the remainder of the semester online.
“A lot of people who had been approved to paint murals were like, ‘Okay, let’s just do it right now,’” Makebish said. “It was a very special experience, and I feel like that holds a lot of significance, historically.”
In their efforts to save the murals slated for repainting, Risleyites have started a petition advocating for increased discussion with HRL and a revision of guidelines to better fit Risley’s identity as the Creative and Performing Arts program house. At the time of publication, the petition has more than 200 signatures from current students and alumni.
Elizabeth Klosky ’21, a Risley-ite for four years, expressed confidence that current Risley-ites would persevere through the situation.
“Even if [the mural repainting] happens, Risley would still be Risley, and the people within and their constant outpouring of artistic expression would persevere throughout,” Klosky said. “Take heart in the knowledge that Risley’s walls and its people within will stand fast no matter the storm that comes, and fight the good fight.”