The Renk Learning Center in the UW School of Veterinary Medicine looks a little different these days and a lot more colorful. In October, the school unveiled a new mural from Milwaukee muralist Tia Richardson. The mural was a collaborative effort, with veterinary medical students, faculty, and staff contributing paint strokes across its 24-foot expanse.
The mural, titled “Leading, Learning and Loving,” vibrantly depicts a veterinary student’s journey from a nervous student, seen in the first panel on the far left, to their role in imagining the future and hope of the profession – that of a more inclusive, diverse, and welcoming field.
“The mural shows what we want as a community. It shows what we want to get better, what better can look like, and how we can get there together,” Richardson says.
The initial inspiration for a mural in the school came a few years prior when students and other members of the SVM community highlighted the lack of diverse representation among imagery and artwork in the school. They emphasized the need for a stronger sense of belonging for those from marginalized communities, with imagery throughout the school just one component of this.
“Students brought up that they wanted to see more representation on the walls and halls of the school. One of the ideas they had was a mural,” says Richard Barajas, assistant dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the SVM.
Fostering a Welcoming and Inclusive Community
Improving diversity, equity, and inclusion is of high priority at the SVM and in the veterinary profession. Efforts are underway locally and globally to reveal and remove barriers for those from historically underrepresented communities and improve the sense of belonging for all.
Veterinary medical students, faculty, and staff discussed such barriers at the most recent Iverson Bell Midwest Regional Diversity Summit, hosted in spring 2022 at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine. Over 140 students, faculty, and staff from more than 13 universities across the country attended the three-day conference. Ideas shared and generated at the biennial summit play a significant role in efforts to increase diversity and inclusiveness in veterinary medicine.
In preparation for the summit, Barajas, who led the program planning, returned to the idea of a mural. He saw a community mural as a way to foster community building and stimulate conversations around inclusion and community in the profession.
Browsing muralists online, Barajas came across pictures of Richardson’s past works and thought her style and approach would be the perfect fit for such a project. Richardson aims to create community and ensure a sense of belonging through her art. Barajas invited her to design the mural and serve as a keynote speaker for the summit.
Before the summit, Richardson toured the SVM to understand better the school’s history, future, and culture. She explored the learning center and anatomy labs, taking notice of the myriad animal skeletal models that later inspired components of her mural design. She also toured the teaching hospital and was struck by the care and dedication of all involved.
“I saw all the people working very closely together. The rooms are small and lent themselves to building a tight atmosphere and camaraderie,” Richardson says. “The impression I got was just the sheer amount of care that goes into maintaining and caring for animals on a daily basis.”
Imagining a Brighter Future
As a next step in the artistic process, Richardson held workshops at the school in early 2022 to help guide the mural design before painting began at the summit.
“Through the design workshops, the veterinary school community – students, faculty, and staff – were given a chance to acknowledge challenges in their community, think of what others can do to help make those challenges better, and then imagine a brighter future as a direct result of those choices,” says Richardson.
Workshops members reflected on the changes needed in the veterinary medical school and profession, like having more opportunities to discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion, and making the environment more welcoming.
“Tia guided us on brainstorming about our expectations on the academic environment, mental health, diversity and inclusion, and what changes we would like to see as a community,” says Isabela Fraga de Andrade, a 2022 PhD graduate of the Comparative Biomedical Sciences program who participated in the workshops as a then-graduate student. “It was great to hear other people’s voices as well as my own.”
Workshop participants discussed and sketched these ideas and other important aspects of veterinary medicine. Students drew books acting like a bridge, the role of faculty in guiding students, and the bond veterinarians and clients share through their animals. Richardson brought up cow uteruses, which she had learned about during her tour of the school as a memorable element of first-year DVM classes. Others discussed and drew the therapeutic benefits of hugging cows and the importance of street medicine in providing veterinary medical care to those without easy access to it. Richardson combined these ideas and sketches to create the final mural design. She also added key elements she saw on her tour of the school and city, like the skeleton of Sally the giraffe in the school’s foyer and the state Capitol building.
“The mural represents a collective mindset of the community, integrating all these different perspectives,” Richardson says. “Everybody has something different that they care about. The purpose behind community workshops is to bring all those perspectives together in a way where everybody who wants to can be included.”
This collaborative aspect became ever present at the Iverson Bell Midwest Regional Diversity Summit when painting took full force. Richardson gave a keynote address at the conference titled “Healing Through Art,” a highlight of the event for many. During an hour-long break in the summit program, all attendees were invited to paint portions of the mural.
“Many of us were moved by Richardson’s ability to bring people together in a way where all are equal,” Liz Jacka, a lecturer at the SVM, said after attending the summit and helping to paint. “Through her art, she creates a space for all members of a community to come together to work toward the same goal.”
Richardson herself was struck by the community and camaraderie in painting at the conference, saying, “Everybody was so eager to get involved. We all have an inner kid. We all want to express ourselves as part of something bigger. That was beautiful to me.”
The mural itself also showcases such collaboration. From left to right, veterinarians in the mural work together with patients and students, all in an effort to care for animals, each other, and the planet. Related, a group around a stethoscope on the far right highlights the idea of One Health, with everyone at the table, animals included. The SVM and the field of veterinary medicine embody this collaborative approach, recognizing that human health is connected to the health of animals and the environment.
“The community expressed in the mural interpersonal relationships and, as a school community, bringing everybody closer through a shared commitment of caring for animals, the planet, and the environment – it is all intertwined,” Richardson reflects.
The Beauty of Art
Richardson continued to paint the mural at the school following the summit and invited members of the SVM community to join. Fraga de Andrade, who had participated in a brainstorming workshop for the mural, was glad to see the effort come full circle. They helped paint the mural as they concluded their graduate studies, contributing a chameleon on the mural’s right side.
“It was great to take a break and focus on something beautiful during the final months prior to my graduation,” Fraga de Andrade says. “Painting is a great meditative activity as you get to focus on colors and details rather than being involved in our usual worries.”
The finished painting was unveiled in October 2022 in the student study space within the Renk Learning Center. It serves as a marker for creating a welcoming and inclusive environment both at the SVM and, more broadly, across the field of veterinary medicine.
“The painting represents our hopes for the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine to be a diverse and welcoming environment for all those who love animals and want to learn and give care,” Fraga de Andrade reflects.
“The mural is a great step towards opening space to art and collective activities, which are essential to give a sense of belonging and nourish our humanity. It is an example of how we can connect to our local community,” she adds. “Hopefully, actions like this can inspire future projects that benefit those within and outside the university.”
Richardson encourages all who visit and our part of the SVM to view the mural and take their own perspective on it.
“There are different pieces that are going to mean different things to different people,” she says. “I think that’s the beauty of community art. It doesn’t have to mean one thing for everybody.”