New Student Mural Honors NC Farmworkers

Creating New Work in the Ruby

(All photos by Ilona Stanback.)

This fall, the painting studio at the Rubenstein Arts Center was transformed by students in Charlie Thompson’s class “Farmworkers in North Carolina” and local Durham artist Cornelio Campos. During their arts project residency, students and Campos collaborated to create a mural inspired by their research of farmworkers in the Durham area. Duke CAST member Ilona Stanback visited the painting studio several times while the team was at work, read on for her interview with Campos, Thompson, and students Katie Nelson and Lydia Hendrick.

More about Ruby Residencies

Cornelio Campos working on the mural.

Ilona Stanback: How did you become involved with this project?

Charlie Thompson:  The “Farmworkers in North Carolina” course is a way of marrying my longterm interests in organic agriculture and the student experience with the present issue of immigration and politics of food.

Katie Nelson: I did a human rights program abroad last fall.  When I came back to Duke, I was looking for classes about visual media studies and documentation through a human rights lens. This is how I fell into Charlie’s class. I have really enjoyed getting to learn more about human rights issues on a local level.

Lydia Hendrick: My family has a background in farming, but I never knew about the issues facing local farmworkers. It is not talked about in our community. I came to college was to learn about things that are happening in the world outside of my town—I thought this class would be a good way to do that.

Cornelio Campos: Through the years, I have collaborated with a lot of non profits and institutes, but Duke has helped me a lot as far as exposing my work. I have collaborated with Charlie since we met. We made the art exhibit I had at Duke, called “American Dreams,” that showcased most of my work. A lot of my work is related to political issues, but mostly farm issues because when I moved to North Carolina, I was a farm worker.

IS: Can you tell me about the process of creating the mural?

CT: Cornelio and I have worked on projects before and have been friends for years now. He was gracious enough to become part of this class. The students have come up with the elements of the design based on their research and field trips. Other partners involved include the Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF) and the Duke Campus Farm.

KN: This class met for two and a half hours a week, so we had a lot of time to explore and go places outside of the classroom. We started with a trip to the Duke Campus Farm where we met the program director Saskia Cornes for a tour of the farm. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, we went on a series of different field trips.

LH: Our purpose was to learn about the history of these places and how they related to North Carolina agriculture and farm work. By seeing plantation land and the places where slaves lived and worked, we got some visuals. With Cornelio’s help, we were able to incorporate these visuals into the mural.

CC: We did a lot of brainstorming about the words or images that we wanted to use. Once we had a sketch, we decided what to include. Sometimes you think an image is going to work really well in the mural but it doesn’t always work. After the sketch was finished, we transferred it to the canvas.

Charlie Thompson stands in front of the
Charlie Thompson with students at work on the mural. Photo by Ilona Stanback.

IS: Who did most of the painting?

CC: The way I learned to paint was somebody allowing me to make mistakes, and that’s one way to do it. The students did most of the painting, I pretty much just directed them in what to do. Every idea counted and everyone added their own touch. It is all about community and allowing everybody to pitch in. I don’t think of this as my art, it is the student’s art. I wanted them to feel ownership of the mural.

IS: Can you tell me a little bit about some of the images you decided to include in the mural and why?

CT: In the beginning, we called on two local experts, Vivette Jeffries-Logan and Justin Robinson. Vivette is an Occaneechi leader and spokeswoman from Hillsborough. One of her main messages is that the indigenous peoples are still here. We have “huk winedewáne” on the mural, which is “we are all related” in Occaneechi. Justin Robinson, an expert on African American agriculture, also came to the class. Some of the elements that you see—such as the sorghum—come directly from their influence.

KN: We tried to make this mural as nonlinear as possible. We thought about the land and crops that grow here and the people that work the land as a continual and timeless theme. We really liked the idea of a metaphorical globe in the center, so we thought about the design from a more circular perspective. The different continents are not necessarily lined up in a geographical order. We did not want to be restricted to what the world actually looks like on a map from a linear timeline.

Students at work. Photo by Ilona Stanback.

“The students did most of the painting, I pretty much just directed them in what to do. Every idea counted and everyone added their own touch. It is all about community and allowing everybody to pitch in. I don’t think of this as my art, it’s the student’s art.”—Cornelio Campus

IS: What else should people know about the mural or your experience creating it?

KN: While this mural was constructed on Duke’s campus, its focus is not solely the experience of farmworkers in Durham or in North Carolina. This is why we left imagery of the university off the canvases. The issue of farmworker rights is not only a community undertaking, it is a national undertaking. It is not just a mural in a Duke classroom. Charlie, Cornelio, and others put in a ton of work to get this together.

CT: We know Duke did not just magically appear. Agriculture, and most prominently tobacco, helped make Duke, and this is still are part of who we are. The mural is a tribute to the history, what preceded us, as well as what continues to be part of agriculture. Viewers will see negative aspects of agriculture, but the mural also reminds us of things that are very positive that we sometimes forget. We painted the phrase “Todos somos familia,” as a message of inclusion and as a message of the need for people to stand up for these issues that affect us all. This mural has a message that both enriches and challenges the viewer.

IS: Where can we see the finished mural?

CT: We are hosting a celebration for the mural in the Ruby’s painting studio (room 236) on Wednesday, December 12, 5-7pm. Following this event, the mural will be duplicated on weatherproof material and displayed outdoors at the Duke Campus Farm. Plans are underway to display the original mural on campus in the spring—stay tuned!

Mural Launch on Wed, Dec 12Man standing next to canvas in profile with brush raised.A canvas showing a farmworker on an easel.Students painting mural, much of it blank.

Meet the collaborators:

Ilona Stanback (Class of 2019) is majoring in Psychology and working toward a certificate in Documentary Studies. She plans to work with victims of human trafficking and hopes to incorporate her passion for documentary photography by sharing the stories of the individuals affected by this issue. Ilona is currently a member of the Duke Creative Arts Student Team (CAST).