The Meaning Behind the Mural

by Andrea Lepage

How do you visualize recovery?

Sitting side-by-side with a group of undergraduate students from Washington and Lee University, members of the Eagle’s Nest Clubhouse set out to answer this question. 

The Eagle’s Nest is a non-residential facility in Buena Vista dedicated to supporting individuals during their recovery process from psychiatric illnesses. They tried to answer the question by drawing images that illustrated their own personal journeys toward mental health. 

One clubhouse member, Mary Harris, was uneasy about working with students that first day. “Usually I’m kind of nervous being around younger people…It’s just kind of awkward because I never went to school much.” Despite a little apprehension, she embraced the new experience, saying,  “I got in there and I sat down and I really couldn’t think of what to draw but they were just so kind and everyone sat around and just started visiting and just started drawing.” She concluded, “Wow! This is a cool mix.”

A student working on the project, Sarah Concepcion, echoed Harris’s sentiment, also recalling that none of the students knew what to draw right away either. Yet from the moment the drawing sessions began, the room was filled with laughter, animated voices, and positive energy. The images emerged quickly.

By the end of just three one-hour drawing sessions, the twenty or so club members working on the project had produced over a hundred original works. Sheets of paper were covered with images focused on the theme of wellness: memories of an old family farm, the smell of freshly baked bread, the feeling of caring for a vegetable garden, and the joy of swimming with a son.

These drawings would serve as source material for a large mural showcasing the positive benefits of mental health treatment that Eagle’s Nest members and W&L students would paint together on the side of an Eagle’s Nest building. 

Recovery, it seems, was best equated with feelings of acceptance, comfort, and inclusion in the community.



The Idea

The idea to create the mural first came from Phil Floyd, the Eagle’s Nest longtime manager of psychiatric rehabilitation services.

He hoped that a public artwork celebrating the members’ unique stories might help to reduce stigma around mental illness and treatment, saying, “It’s almost as if people don’t want to listen to them.”

He knew it was time to begin the project when a much-honored member of the club passed away. His name was Clyde. Staff and members recalled Clyde speaking about his personal image of recovery: the rising sun. Clyde placed a mark on his calendar for each morning that he woke up to see the sunrise. Each mark symbolized a day worth living.

His image of recovery ultimately inspired the central theme of the Recovery Mural. Floyd said about Clyde, “He is still an inspiration to us to this day … the mural is actually in remembrance of him and the impact that he made.”



The Project

The mission was to design, paint, and install the  6 x 32 foot mural. The project involved twenty-four students and about twenty club members working shoulder-to-shoulder, developing relationships with one another. As Floyd described, “Our intent was to bring people together, to communicate, and share life histories and life stories.”

Floyd invited W&L psychology professor Karla Murdock to participate. For twelve years, Floyd and clubhouse  members—including Clyde—have visited Murdock’s Clinical Psychology class to talk with students about their experiences living with and recovering from mental illness.

Murdock discussed the impact of these workshops on students, saying, “They teach the students about the Eagle’s Nest psychiatric rehabilitation model and tell about their lives, interests, and experiences of mental illness and recovery. I have no doubt that this is the primary, perspective-shifting thing that students take from my class. It allows them to think about psychiatric symptoms in the context of a whole person. It shows them that a person’s mental illness, even if it is chronic or severe, is almost never the most interesting thing to know about them.”

Murdock and Floyd brought me, an art historian who specializes in community murals, into the process. It was my role to provide students with a broad context for the mural. Knowing that we needed a skilled painter for the project, we asked art professor Kathleen Olson to join. She led students in creating a coherent design and taught them the basics of color theory and design. Olson and I created a new course entitled Community Muralism: The Art of Public Engagement that ran alongside Murdock’s class, The Pursuit of Happiness. W&L’s Roger Mudd Center for Ethics and the provost’s office provided essential financial support to bring the project to fruition.



Murals as Healing

Those early drawing sessions turned out to be important moments for community-building with members and students. It was also during these sessions that student perceptions transformed.

At the advice of Floyd, we asked students to reflect upon their expectations about the collaborative mural project before meeting the Eagle’s Nest members. Some students felt fully informed about psychiatric illnesses or had more personal experiences with mental illness in the context of their own families. A few students initially felt nervous about working alongside members coping with mental illness.

Any uncertainty dissipated the moment we began to work together to design the mural. Students and Eagle’s Nest members formed connections and built relationships almost immediately.

On our second day painting the mural, I remember chatting with one clubhouse member about his interest in sports and he mentioned attending a lacrosse game. Three members of the W&L women’s lacrosse team happened to be part of the project and broke into easy conversation with him about their season stats. The clubhouse member became one of the team’s biggest fans for the rest of the season. He attended their playoff game and even braved a downpour to see them through the end of a game.

Ellie Aburn, a member of the W&L lacrosse team and a student enrolled in the Community Muralism course, reflected, “I think I was surprised to find so many shared interests with the members, like camping and lacrosse.” Of the experience, she concluded, “It was amazing and something I won’t forget.”

The mural imagery commemorates stories of personal recovery and also the relationships between members and students that were formed in its creation. Student Emily Ellis reflected, “While I recognize the theme of wellness and recovery in the mural, to me, the mural also stands for friendship.”



Transformation

Take the time to visit the Eagle’s Nest Clubhouse mural at 101 East 29th Street in Buena Vista, Virginia. 

Each image on the Recovery Mural contains within it a story, an experience, or a memory that Eagle’s Nest Clubhouse members generously shared with students and the general public. Member Neil Bishop was surprised by how little he knew about some of the other members before working on the mural, saying, “You learn quite a bit about the people around you that you don’t know. Through the artwork, the stuff you see on it, [you learn] what they like and what they don’t like.”

When the mural was complete, we all took a step back to reflect on what we had accomplished in one month. Thirty-two feet of imagery and dozens of new friendships formed. Olson concluded that the project “was truly a transformative experience for everyone,” and I couldn’t agree more.

Jayson Wilberger, who has been an Eagle’s Nest member for 28 years, was proud of the final mural, saying that it made the members “happy [to] have created something with their own hands.” He continued, “It gives us something to remember this time by for years. It’ll be there forever. It’s kind of like leaving a mark on the world.” Another member echoed Wilberger’s statements saying, “It made me learn that I can do things on my own... It makes me think that I’m somebody.”

Josh Baldwin