KINGSTON, R.I. – Sept. 3, 2020 – It would be hard for many people today, especially students, to imagine what life was like at the University of Rhode Island in the 1950s. In fact, it was 1951 when Rhode Island State College was renamed URI.
In 1954, total enrollment was 1,956, with 1,412 men and 544 women. Most of the students were from Rhode Island–1,687. It was a much less diverse institution and it had none of the international clout it has today.
Today, the University enrolls more than 17,000 students, 57 percent of them women. Twenty-one percent are students of color. Students come from 48 U.S. states, districts and territories and 76 nations.
That monumental growth and change over the decades are why University officials are planning an upgrade of its Memorial Union, including interior decor to more accurately depict today’s URI, its people and its mission.
As part of that, the University is reconsidering how to best decorate walls and spaces in a common area of the Union, which have for seven decades been the home of murals painted by Art Sherman, URI class of 1950, which depict campus life of that era. They can no longer be seen on the walls of the Union, but campus leaders are working to include images taken of the murals in a broader depiction of campus history and people when a renovation of the building is completed.
Michele Nota, Vice President of Alumni Engagement, spoke with Sherman and his wife Jeanne in July to discuss the University’s action.
“Art Sherman is a kind-hearted educator, artist, and athlete, and it is no surprise to me and others who know him well that he took the news with grace and dignity,” Nota said. “When I notified Art that we might not be able to preserve the murals, he said in good spirits, that his gift might have served its time.”
“These murals were a snapshot in time, but the images no longer represent who we are today and where we are going in the future,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Kathy Collins. “We appreciate Dr. Sherman’s love of URI and his ability to capture that time period. We honor his military service, his athletic accomplishments and his dedicated teaching at URI. When we complete the renovations, we will invite the Sherman family to the ceremonies to thank them for their contributions to the University.”
“We’d want to reflect on many of our community members’ accomplishments, including Dr. Sherman’s, and the broader history of URI,” Collins said.
Jeanne Sherman, who earned her master’s degree in nursing education with a certificate as a nurse practitioner from URI, said it would be nice if some portion of the mural could be preserved. “Maybe it could be part of a section called then and now,” she said.
When veterans returned from World War II and enrolled at URI, they and other URI community members raised money in memory of those who lost their lives in the war for a modern student union, hence the name Memorial Union. Sherman was a decorated returning veteran, and he was originally asked to draw cartoon-like murals in a Quonset Hut that served as an earlier site for the student union. In 1953, as the current Memorial Union was being completed, the building’s manager, Chester Berry, asked Sherman to paint more murals in the new building’s ground floor.
The murals depict servicemen returning to Kingston, a class reunion, URI commencement, a South County beach scene, and students piled into a jalopy wearing letter sweaters. Through no fault of the artist, they decidedly lack two things–diversity and a sensitivity to today’s complex and painful problems.
Collins said the renovated space might feature multi-media and still images of URI’s development, which would reflect the decades since its founding in 1892. Sherman’s work, preserved in photographs, could be part of that, with a plaque or some type of explanation about the murals and how important Sherman was to the University as it transitioned from a state college to a University.
“It is essential that students see in our buildings, publications and graphics a devotion to equity, community and diversity,” Collins said. “For students of color and other minorities, campus administrators, faculty, alumni and other community members these murals show what many in the URI community experience all too frequently–being left out of the picture or conversation.”
Sherman, now 95, was a four-time All- American pole vaulter on Rhody’s track and field team coached by the legendary Fred Tootell. A professor emeritus, he taught physical education at URI for 30 years. Sherman is a recipient of the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Victory Medal, Combat Medic Badge and two Battle Stars. He was known as the athletic historian during his 30 years on campus. He collected vintage Rhode Island State College athletic equipment and donated it to the University’s library archives.
A brief Q&A:
- Was there any consideration given to preserving part of the murals as a historical snapshot in time? We explored options for preservation, including removal of the plaster walls on which the murals are directly painted. Due to the construction methods, this was not a viable option. High-resolution photography was completed to preserve the images for both historical purposes and a point of reference of the history of the Memorial Union.
- When are they slated for demolition? The initial plan is to install a covering over the murals and not to physically destroy the wall. Options for the installation of the wall covering remain ongoing. As we make plans to renovate the Memorial Union, we will be working with multiple stakeholders on what to do in and with that space that represents the future of URI.
- Can someone see them now if they’d like to stop by? The murals are presently covered with URI images that tie the wall space to the University.
- Would they be available to another organization if they would like them? (Maybe a VFW hall or the WWII museum?) Who would they contact if they’d like them? The construction method of the wall – plaster and lathe – does not permit removal without damage to the murals and to the walls. The University is open to exploring where they could be relocated. But again, we emphasize they are directly painted on the wall, which does make moving them difficult. Two entire walls would need to be removed.