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History Department Mural Gives Life to Professors’ Unique Expertise

History Department Mural Gives Life to Professors’ Unique Expertise

History department murals

History Department Murals, for Update, Carrie Quinney photo

Paying a visit to Boise State’s history department is a little like descending into the mythical Labyrinth of Crete, minus the Minotaur. The department is located deep in the belly of the first floor of Albertons Library, tucked away from the books and study tables that traditionally draw students into the building. Windows are scarce and natural light is nonexistent. Yet, the department is one of the homiest, most welcoming spots on campus, thanks to a decades-long art project brainstormed by staff and realized by talented local artist Karen Woods.

You see, a river runs through the history department. The Boise River, to be exact. Against the backdrop of this hand-painted river that dominates the walls, 26 colorful murals stand out in stark relief, representing the unique expertise of Boise State history professors, past and present.

“The river is a stones throw away but nobody can see it,” explained Woods. “So we made the river the thing that tied the murals together.”

The project, called “Bridging the Past,” represents a visual journey through the eyes of every tenure or tenure-track professor in the department.

“They’re our version of cave paintings,” joked department chair Joanne Klein, a British police historian whose discipline is represented by an early 20th-century English constable walking his beat. “It’s a way for us to show all the research faculty do without putting up stereotypical mug shots. Plus, they’re beautiful and very historically important.”

Woods, whose husband is Asian history professor Shelton Woods, began painting the river and murals in 2000 and finished the last batch, representing the newest faculty members, in 2013. Each faculty member gave Woods an image to embody their research area. Some murals are more literal — a painting of a Basque tree carving, for instance — while others, like a 1950s Seagram’s Gin ad, are open for interpretation. Still others, like a painting of a Roman mosaic or Russian cathedral, strike viewers with their intricate detailing.

History Department Murals, for Update, Carrie Quinney photo

Los Volcanes depicts Mexican folklore of two star-crossed lovers immortalized in mountain peaks.

A colorful pamphlet produced by the department pairs each painting with a professor and explains its significance. Klein said that when students declare themselves history majors, the department tradition is to quiz them on the murals.

“It was so fun, and it stretched me so much, trying to figure out how to paint each of these, how to put them together, how to get the details right — even how to paint in black and white again, for example,” said Woods, who specializes in painting streetscapes. “I felt like I knew the professors better after painting these images.”

Klein said that’s exactly the point. She encourages anyone with a little free time to stop by, have a look, and get to know the history department faculty a little better.


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