At the heart of Merrill College is the Merrill Moat, a long wall that stands before the Merrill A and B dorms and spans nearly the entirety of the college. It’s not just any blank wall — the Moat is covered with brightly colored murals, a visual manifestation of students’ views, values, and voices. Each year, the Merrill community comes together to celebrate Moat Day, a laid-back, art-festival-like event that sees the introduction of the Moat’s newest murals.
Merrill College held its first in-person Moat Day in three years on April 23. Moat Day’s return featured a clothing swap meet, speed friending bingo, free screen-printed T-shirts, lawn games, and a live pottery demonstration by the Merrill Pottery Co-op. Burritos and refreshments were catered by the downtown branch of Vivas Mexican Restaurant, a lost staple of the Merrill community.
At the beginning of each winter quarter, mural design submissions open up to Merrill students and alumni, who can submit proposals either individually or as a group. Later, Merrill Student Government and college program assistants put the designs to a vote in order to decide which murals to introduce and which murals to retire to make room for the new ones.
This year’s new mural, by second-years Tianna Calderon and Alisha Solomon, is a stunningly colorful triptych centering around themes of climate change, politics, and Indigenous cultural knowledge. The mural, currently unfinished, is located around the corner from the Cultural Center and adjacent to the Baobab Lounge.
“It reflects the spirit of Merrill’s ethos by reflecting on cultural knowledge and bringing awareness to what’s going on outside, not just in college,” said Calderon.
The murals in the Merrill Moat speak to the college’s theme of cultural identities and global consciousness with detailed renditions of political cartoons, Indigenous sayings, Beatles song lyrics, prominent historical figures of color like Cesar Chavez, Billie Holiday, Harriet Tubman, Mahatma Gandhi, and more.
In the earliest days of Merrill College, the Moat was an entirely student-run community effort. However, in 1979, newly appointed Provost George Von der Muhll put a stop to the project by ordering most of it to be painted over without consulting students, believing the images to be crude and distasteful. Amidst student backlash, the Moat became a more formal undertaking and moved under the direction of the Merrill Programs Office.
From then on, the tradition of Moat Day emerged and continued until the COVID-19 pandemic, when it was converted to a virtual event with a speaker panel of alumni muralists and a livestream of new murals being painted.
Despite the addition of alumni and a livestream, nothing could replace the community and togetherness felt at an in-person Moat Day.
“Right now, we’re in a healing process, because of COVID-19 and how that’s impacted the community,” said Merrill College Programs Coordinator Veronica Shane-Vasquez. “Coming together at this time is really important.”
Calderon and Solomon’s mural is composed of five images across three panels, each with a striking statement about the intersections of politics and the climate crisis.
One side of the duo’s projected mural depicts white flight amidst catastrophic climate change — the top half is an idyllic suburb set amongst rolling green hills, while in stark contrast to it on the bottom half is a gloomy urban city being rapidly swallowed by rising sea levels.
The other side depicts cultural burning, an Indigenous land use practice of lighting smaller fires to enhance the health of the land, as well as lawmakers’ disregard for such traditions in their search for solutions to wildfire crises.
“The point of this piece is to illustrate how certain communities are affected by the brunt of the climate crisis before other privileged communities are, and to try to highlight the injustices within that. There are several layers to climate change, and one of those layers includes social issues and structural injustices,” said Solomon.
Though murals are painted over with each passing year, each new coat of paint builds upon a decades-long legacy of student voices and expression in the culture of Merrill College.