Church Fine Arts graffiti stairwell: An alternative canvas for artists

For the past 10 years, the graffiti-covered, three-story stairwell has been a hotspot for creative expression

This large, colorful bug takes up nearly a whole wall in the graffiti-covered, three-story stairwell

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1/5/2017 | By: Hannah Richardson |

The University of Nevada, Reno contains several hidden gems sprinkled throughout campus, but none like the three-story stairwell nestled within the James Edward Church Fine Arts building. The graffiti-covered walls and floor that make up the stairwell are a collaboration of artists' expression and imagination. An explosion of color and shapes overlap, representing nearly a decade of diverse artwork. Since its inception 10 years ago by Michael Sarich, an associate professor of painting and drawing at the University, the stairwell has become a campus hotspot for current and prospective students.

According to Sarich, the graffiti began when he suggested using the stairwell as an alternative canvas for a group of students in a summer session painting course. Since then, artists from the University and around Reno have contributed their own artful creations to the stairwell.

"I think the stairwell is just a place of total freedom," Sarich said. "The students can put up whatever they want and collaborate too; they will play off of each other's marks, which is neat to see."

The stairwell is filled with hundreds of artworks including caricatures, birds, dragons, wolves, abstract designs and random quotes such as "too weird to live, to rare to die;" "now is not the time for fear;" and "sometimes you got to burn some bridges to create some distance."

Rebekah Bogard, associate professor of ceramics and chairperson in the University's Department of Art , is constantly surprised by the magnetism of the stairwell and its powerful ability to speak to the youth culture and to stimulate continual interaction.

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"Young tourists are always in awe of this stairwell as they linger, examine and take pictures," Bogard said. "It is not uncommon for their jaws to drop - literally. In addition, I constantly run into students hanging out in this space. They often eat lunch, play their guitars, do homework, take selfies and do photo shoots there. This stairwell has an uncanny ability to speak to the students here at the University."

Bogard believes that young adults are drawn to the stairwell because it is their culture and their space, and they enjoy being surrounded by the voices of their generation. She further explained that the stairwell is a living representation of the students on campus, a layering of past and present students that span generations.

Sarich thinks that graffiti art has become more mainstream as it is more connected to today's art. According to Sarich, the stairwell acts as a learning tool for students and other artists. The artists who paint in the stairwell learn that things are temporary, that their images will be painted over and changed. However, an exception to this is the large blue and orange painted buffalo , which has remained almost unmarked since it was added to the stairwell several years ago.

Blue and Orange Buffalo painted in the stairwellPainting of the blue and orange buffalo in the stairwell.

The blue and orange buffalo on the north wall in between the first and ground floor is Sarich's favorite piece in the stairwell. The brightly colored fur of the buffalo and the Mexican motif that it portrays reminds him of Luis Jiménez's work, an American sculptor who creates brightly colored sculptures that have a Hispanic theme.

According to Sarich and Bogard, there is an unspoken rule to not paint over the buffalo. Bogard believes this rule is in place simply because the stairwell has a certain creative mythology and because of the sheer beauty of the buffalo. Bogard suspects the mythology of the buffalo stands as a sentinel over the stairwell, protecting it for students who are encouraged to freely express themselves.

Sarich would like to see the stairwell continue to collect new art as it has always been a work in progress since its inception.

"The stairwell is constantly evolving and you never know what you will see each time you walk through it," Bogard said. "I love the fact that the stairwell has become such a beacon for the University and that it is always highlighted on the campus tours. It is a testimony to the power of art to transform any space."

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