Local artists bring social justice art to South 40 Underpass
One of the most iconic parts of the South 40 is the Underpass. Freshmen and sophomores pass by the colorful ads for student events painted by Washington University student groups on their way to and from class every day. Traditionally when the freshman class arrives on the 40, there’s a welcome message painted on the Underpass greeting them as they move in. However, when the Class of 2024 arrived on the South 40 two weeks ago, they were greeted by a different kind of message.
Over the course of nine days, five St. Louis artists and one documentarian—De’Joneiro Jones, the lead on the project, Brock Seals, Danny McGinnist, Roland Burrow, Damon Addison and Nicholas Coulter—worked together to create the vibrant and emotionally stirring Underpass mural, bringing a message of social justice to the space.
After becoming an art practitioner in 2005, Jones has used his artwork to give back to and inspire the St. Louis community. Jones was led to the project on the South 40 after being referred to the First Year Center (FYC) by Adrienne Davis, William M. Van Cleve Professor of Law and vice provost of the University.
“We really didn’t have a game plan,” said Jones, “but I knew I wanted to make a historical impact.”
The mural, titled “The Story That Never Ends,” was a collaborative “freestyle” between the artists. “I wanted it to include a lot of history, because I knew in the height of where we were…with the racial tension and all of the things going on in the world—the political climate, the socio-political ills of society—I thought it would be appropriate to add words into the artwork, and also incorporate images of Black [people], [especially] dealing with a lot of St. Louis history,” said Jones.
One such figure depicted in the mural is Homer G. Phillips, a Black civil rights attorney from St. Louis who was murdered in the early 1930s after advocating for a medical facility for African-Americans, which was later named after him. Another prominent individual depicted in the mural is Annie Malone, one of the first Black millionaires, who made her fortune selling hair-care products and was the founder of the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home, which is now most commonly known as the Annie Malone Children’s Home.
The artists also chose to incorporate someone close to home: the late Dr. Robert L. Williams, a former Wash. U. professor of Psychology and African and African-American Studies as well as the coiner of the term “ebonics.”
The first Black athlete to win an Olympic medal—George Poage, who won two bronze medals at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics—is also featured in the mural.
When asked what he hoped students take from the mural, Jones immediately mentioned collective art. The entire team of artists who worked on the project are accomplished artists in their own rights and they deal with tough issues in their art like public health, racial disparities and more. However, the artists were not the only ones who contributed to the creation of the mural.
“We wanted to be reflective of people’s thoughts and people’s feelings,” Jones said, “because we interacted with people who would come up and see us paint, so we started taking in and internalizing what they were saying.”
This internalization led to the inclusion of prominent figures in Black history as a whole, like the depiction of late U.S. Senator and civil rights hero John Lewis, who passed away in July—painted by Danny McGinnist—and the addition of late actor Chadwick Boseman, most famous for playing the titular role in Marvel’s 2018 film “Black Panther,” Jackie Robinson in the 2013 film “42” and Thurgood Marshall in the 2017 biographical cinematic drama “Marshall.” His image was added to the mural by artist Brock Seals.
Very graphic in style, the mural is an elevated take on graffiti, serving as an educational art piece and a very memorable experience for those who see it. The colors are rich and the images and messages are moving, even if you take a fleeting glance on the way to class or on the way home after a long day of studying. “The Story That Never Ends” is thought-provoking and inspiring in a way that breathes a new purpose to role of the South 40 Underpass, not just as an avenue for student groups to publicize their events, but as a space for artwork that provides a message that we all need to hear.