Even as their students christened the new laboratories, technology-enhanced classrooms, and collaborative spaces with clear views of Lake Michigan, Professor Erlan Wheeler and his colleagues sensed something missing from Carthage College’s science center.
In a building so teeming with life, the faculty agreed the clinical, off-white walls needed a splash of color.
Periodically passing through the college’s Hedberg Library in summer 2016, Wheeler watched a student plug away on an elaborate mural near the circulation desk. He thought, why not commission “that mural guy” to paint something similar in the science building?
That artist, Carthage senior-to-be Paul Salsieder of Muskego, eagerly accepted the task. Last week, he completed a 400-square-foot science and math-themed mural in the heart of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Natural and Social Sciences.
Unlike “Domains of Knowledge” — the traditional, single-wall mural that Salsieder created in the library — the new piece covers all four walls of an opening between the science building’s first and second floors.
One section of the mural serves as a broad timeline from the Big Bang to what Salsieder calls “the birth of human consciousness.” Another part celebrates major milestones in science and the men and women who achieved them.
Planning began in May. After meeting with professors from across the Division of Natural and Social Sciences, which funded the project, Salsieder tried to represent a range of subsets from chemistry to math.
“Whatever field you’re in, you’ll have a different touchstone in the mural,” he said.
It took him about eight weeks to do the actual brushwork. He used acrylic paint, detailed with a few touches of stamping and imitation gold leaf.
“You wouldn’t think one person did it all,” Wheeler said. “He’s able to pull off a lot of distinct styles.”
Anyone looking closely at the image of Albert Einstein might spot the student research notes that Salsieder incorporated into the cheeks — fitting for a man often considered the face of science.
Like “Easter eggs” that gamers unlock, the mural contains a few inside jokes. Only a sliver of the center’s users will recognize that the lines of ones and zeroes, seemingly unrelated to an image of the first moon landing, spell out “ONE GIANT LEAP” — from astronaut Neil Armstrong’s historic quote — in binary code.
A feel for the space
Both of Salsieder’s campus murals are mounted to the wall on canvas rather than painted directly on the surface, in case future maintenance requires access to those walls. In theory, then, he could’ve worked on the new one from the solitude of a studio.
“It would’ve been a 100-foot-long painting I just did by myself, sitting alone in a room,” he said. “But that just did not feel right to me.”
There’s an advantage to painting in the space where the piece will reside. Professors would drift past and offer suggestions or minor corrections, like the color of the fins on the Saturn V rocket.
Salsieder also shared the building with fellow students who tackled projects like tiny satellite payloads or vocal analysis of wolf howls through Carthage’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience. He did plenty of his own digging, to better understand the intricate concepts that the mural would portray.
“I felt like I took 24 credits in a month,” he joked.
That gave Salsieder, who had briefly considered minoring in biology, an excuse to rekindle his interest in the sciences. Years before entering college, he found his mind blown by topics like astrophysics.
“It makes you feel unimaginably small, but in the best way possible,” he said.
Advising a studio art and art history major was an unusual but welcome assignment for Wheeler, a professor of mathematics and computer science. Different disciplines aside, he admits the two share a penchant for perfectionism.
Four coats of varnish will protect the section that faces the building’s eastern windows from morning sunlight. Now that the paint has dried, the 2-year-old science center feels like “a more human space” to Wheeler.
The artist, on the other hand, has warring emotions: “It’s this moment of ‘Look what I accomplished’ and ‘What do I do now?’”
While finishing his studies at Carthage, Salsieder plans to keep an eye out for the next big canvas. Two murals down, and who knows how many more to go?
As he put it, “I don’t plan on stopping until every wall in the world has paint on it.”