At the epicenter of LSU’s Baton Rouge campus stands the College of Art + Design. Sixty-eight feet above the entrance to the building’s atrium, a master artist and his team work in a flurry of color, transforming a once empty wall into a campus landmark. The halls, known for producing some of the greatest visionaries of Louisiana, now directly honors one of the most iconic and boundary-breaking professors: Julian T. White.
The portrait mural, championed together by The Walls Project, LSU Foundation, and the College of Art + Design, honors the legacy of the first Black professor at Louisiana State University. When Julian T. White joined LSU’s faculty in 1971 to teach architecture, he paved a way for people of all backgrounds to have equal opportunity. He spent thirty-three years as an educator at LSU, impacting his students, inspiring them to break barriers, and cultivating several waves of strong architects. White maintained an architecture firm in Baton Rouge with projects at area schools and churches across the country. He also taught at Southern University and Tuskegee University while serving on the State of Louisiana’s Board of Architectural Examiners.
After his passing in 2011, the LSU Art+Design department honored White’s work by naming the building’s atrium after him. In addition to this, leadership wanted to memorialize him in a bold and meaningful way.
“When we were thinking about how to celebrate the naming of this space, we came upon the idea of doing a mural and not just a little bronze plaque that no one would read. We thought that this man’s contribution that freed and opened the doors of LSU to everyone was great enough to be commemorated in a way just as exceptional as he and his teaching was,” said Alkis Tsolakis, dean of the LSU College of Art + Design. Tsolakis said he has inspired by a small picture cut out from Julian T. White’s driver’s license, a gift he received from the late professor’s wife, Loretta White. “His picture sits on my desk and looks at me every day,” said Tsolakis.
As the mural design began The Walls Project had 99 public murals in their catalog. The organization was ecstatic for this landmark mural to become its cornerstone 100th public artwork. To complete the job, Robert Dafford, a master muralist with nearly 500 public artworks, was selected for the job. Globally known for his murals, Dafford has painted murals in the United States, France, England, Belgium, and Canada. When hearing about the project he happily accepted.
“I am very excited to paint something in the arts building and to honor Julian White who was the pioneer minority person who opened the doors for so many that followed,” said Dafford. “That’s an honor for me to get to do this and to paint so much diversity. The student body is so diverse now and I want to reflect that it started with this man leading the way.”
This mural’s completion has not come easily. Working at an active college campus in a nearly 70-foot space led to some engineering challenges. To combat the foot-traffic and vertical spacing issues, Dafford ingeniously designed a pulley system for the mural to be created as three large canvas panels. Work was going smoothly until Dafford fell from a ladder at his studio and broke his foot and ankle. The injury sustained required surgery and recovery time, halting production for another six months. Despite this setback, Dafford worked with his assistants to finish whatever he could while battling reduced mobility.
By the beginning of this year, Dafford was healed and ready to finally install the panels. The first pieces went up at the beginning of February. Dafford, with his production assistant, Miguel Lasala, began finishing the elaborate and large piece in the heart of the atrium. The project is proposed to be finished in early March for generations of students and faculty to enjoy.
The Portrait of Julian White mural is already touching the lives of those around it. From LSU’s Art + Design team to the students who see it every day, Julian T. White’s impact is still being made.
“This project means everything to me. It means another step in freeing LSU and making a home for everyone. Another step in what Julian White did for LSU, for Louisiana, and for the world,” said Tsolakis.
Feature photo by Micah Viccinelli.
By Helena Williams
Special to The Drum