A new Purdue mural, from all angles
Faces in a new mural by street artist Cobré in Peirce Hall, dedicated to diversity and inclusion, includes former Purdue police officer who sued, claiming racially motivated treatment
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There are plenty of angles to take when looking at a new, two-piece mural – the eyes of two Black women, gazing from behind flowers across the room at the other – finished late last week in a third-floor break lounge area in Purdue’s Peirce Hall.
But let’s start with the fact that it was almost left half-done.
Andrés Petreselli, an Argentinian artist who works under the name Cobré, was in Lafayette in July 2021, working on a mural that covered one side of a home at Sixth and Romig streets – part of a city-sponsored art project in the Ellsworth-Romig Neighborhood – and fitting in the Peirce Hall project on the side that same Fourth of July week.
(You might be familiar with another Cobré piece in Lafayette. In 2018, Petreselli created a massive portrait of a train conductor on the side of a city maintenance barn on South Second Street, for the first of three street art projects called “Wabash Walls” in and around the Wabash Avenue Neighborhood.)
But a day or so in, mid-project, Purdue pulled the plug over concerns about fumes from the spray paint Petreselli works with. One wall was 100% Cobré. The other wall was a collection of shapes and designs Tetia Lee, executive director of The Arts Federation, painted as reference points for the artist’s second set of eyes on the second wall. (“If I’d known it was going to be up for months …” Lee said. “It was kind of embarrassing, thinking we might not get Andrés back to finish, and that was going to stay up there.”)
Petreselli found himself in West Lafayette last week, after he wound up with plans to be in Miami for another project.
“Right across town, really,” Petreselli said Friday, during a dedication ceremony at Purdue. “At least, closer than Argentina. I called Tetia and asked if it would work. And here we are.”
Purdue set up elaborate sheets of plastic and air abatement – “Next level safety,” Lee said – that allowed Petreselli to come in last week and finish in one, 9 ½-hour day.
It was far removed from the initial get-together Lee held at her home last summer to introduce the artist to potential models for the project Purdue was pulling together.
Franki Kung, an assistant psychology professor, said the idea sprouted nearly two years ago, as part of the Psychological Sciences Department’s diversity and inclusion efforts. Peirce Hall, an early-20th century space just behind the Class of 1950 Lecture Hall, had a break room that was tucked away and barely used. The concept, ahead of finding new furniture and other amenities for what had been an industrial-looking space, was to make a unique piece that celebrated underrepresented minorities and the sort of human connections that were at the heart of the department’s research.
“You come in and see the two women looking across the room, making this eye contact,” Kung said. “It’s an amazing work. What we were going for came through.”
Lee said that once she understood the concept and what Petreselli had in mind, she called on women with connections to Purdue and stories to tell, for one. Secondly …
“I specifically thought of women I thought of as being fierce,” Lee said.
In that summer night at her home, Lee invited Vanessa Pacheco, assistant director of wellness programs at Purdue’s Co-Rec Center and a social justice advocate in the community. Pacheco’s portion of the mural went on the south wall in the room first. Pacheco said she saw pictures of the mural of her face, tucked behind flowers and vegetation in the Cobré piece, but resisted coming to see it in person until the entire installation was done. She allowed that there was more than a little freak-out factor going on Friday. But she spent Friday trying to put into words how it had been to be asked – and then how a detail like a curl shown in her hair in the finished work had taken her aback.
“It’s hard to explain, but it feels good to be seen,” Pacheco said.
The other was Tenecia Waddell-Pyle, the first Black woman officer with the Purdue University Police Department. Now director of diversity, equity and inclusion for MyPath, a company that provides services for people with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities, Waddle-Pyle’s departure from Purdue was anything but smooth.
Waddell-Pyle and Ryan Pyle, another former Purdue officer, sued the university in 2016 after they were fired, claiming the police department unjustly put them through an internal investigation when they started dating.
According to a Purdue Exponent account in 2018, Purdue contended they’d crossed a policy that prohibited intra-departmental relationships. They claimed that similar relationships had been tolerated at the police department, except in those cases, their lawsuit claimed, the relationships didn’t include a Black officer or interracial dating. (Pyle is white.) Waddell-Pyle had been let go a year earlier, as well, for failing a firearms qualification test. But she’d been reinstated when the failed test was attributed to misaligned sights on her gun, a problem Pyle had previously reported in connection with possible weapon tampering that affected firearms qualification for another Black officer.
They settled their lawsuit out of court in 2018.
“To know that now my face is forever etched on this wall – if they don’t paint over it, which maybe they will now that they know, who knows? – as a person who clearly went through adversity, clearly went through challenges that had to do with the kind of things we try to combat in diversity, equity and inclusion, here in a space that’s going to help create that sense of belonging and safety for people, I don’t know if people will quite understand it all,” Waddell-Pyle said.
“I think Vanessa and I will,” Waddell-Pyle said. “And I’m proud that we’ll be looking at each other across the room for a long time.”
Pacheco added: “We've never been afraid to have a really honest conversations, I think, that resist things like white supremacy, that resist things like racism and the structures in institutions that are even as old as this one, right? You have to be bold, you have to be really tough. While I wish these weren’t the things that made us and molded us … I think being able to be in this space means that this is an environment where we can put all of those stigmas around having honest conversations down.”
AND FINALLY … BACK TO THE SWEET 16: After two Purdue wins in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, including Sunday’s 81-71 final over Texas, bring on Saint Peter’s in the Sweet 16.
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