Mural art benefits MC students, community 

 Mural art benefits MC students, community 

Feb. 14, 2020

It’s a win-win-win situation when Maryville College art students share their expertise in community artwork. The students get real-world experience as they learn the business end of being professional artists while receiving course credit at the College; the organizations where their works are displayed benefit from having professional-quality art at cost; and the community as a whole gets enjoyment from the touches of color and whimsy in public spaces.

The students are enrolled in Dr. Carl Gombert’s Advanced Painting and Drawing class at the College and have created murals over the past 10 years in such places as Peninsula Hospital, the Howard H. Baker Jr. Federal Courthouse in Knoxville and Farragut Presbyterian Church. Their most recent endeavors have been at the Blount County Animal Center, Blount Memorial Hospital and Thaw Hall on the MC campus.

Research and design

Gombert, professor of art at Maryville College, said, “Not only do the students get a portfolio piece and/or resume building, it’s real-world experience as opposed to classroom projects. I’m really interested in murals because there’s this myth that artists are all dangerous loners working in solitude or isolation, but so much art is actually project-based and collaborative. So students get chances to not only develop their project management skills, they also learn a lot about how to be creative and insightful and at the same time, cooperative and having to work under the direction of an art director.

“There’s a lead artist, usually, on a lot of projects,” he said. “But students also have to develop skills in research and design of murals and they also have to propose them. Oftentimes, they’ll propose three or four possible solutions and only one of them actually gets made. That’s an invaluable lesson – a lot of times in the arts, the answer is ‘no.’ Most of the things you want to do, 75 other people want to do, as well.”

Research is a key part of the students’ proposals.

“They go and interview the client, ask what they envision or what they want,” Gombert said. “They do a lot of measuring and take a lot of photographs. They brainstorm and talk to each other and come up with ideas and find visual sources that might be inspirational. Then they come up with possible solutions and make mockups to give the client a pretty good opportunity to visualize what the final product is actually going to look like—then they go pitch them.”

Advanced Painting and Drawing is only offered in the fall with six to 10 students.

“That’s why I always have to tell people, we can’t be covering acres in weeks,” Gombert said. “We work relatively slowly and can’t take on too many projects at once. I have to marshal what resources I have to make sure that we can do good stuff for the things we are going to do. I may have independent students working in the spring, but no guarantees.” 

Sense of pride

The students have created two murals at the Blount County Animal Center, one in the cat room, the other in the large dog area.

Jim Naelitz, director at the Blount County Animal Center, said the cat room mural depicts cats in different poses. “The students used varying materials on the surface to get different textures and different appearances,” he said. “When they were in the design phase and the planning phase, I left a swatch with the paint color so everything they chose was building on that color.”

In the dog area, the students painted portraits depicting several breeds of dogs.

“The thought with that was, like people, each dog has a different personality,” Naelitz said. “The students utilized that with the different portraits they painted. For example, one is a football player, an athlete. One, an afghan, is very prim and proper. They used the different personalities and allowed them to come out in their portraits.”

Naelitz said the artwork “dresses up” the facility and shows the ties it has to the community. “It allows the community to be a part of the Animal Center,” he said. “Working with Maryville College on this helps elevate the facility and it just proves how much pride we take in it and how much pride Blount County has in the Center.” Plus, the students gain valuable experience. “The students had to present a sales pitch, just as they’d do with a client that’s commissioning a work of art. It was a good life experience for them.”  

‘Float on down’

Connie Huffman, Blount Memorial Hospital’s assistant administrator, Foundation president and chief operating officer, said the “creepy hallway” on the hospital’s service level—known to the public as the hallway to the cafeteria—is now a bright, whimsical space thanks to Gombert and his students. “One of our clinical nurse educators, Briana Dahl, RN, had the idea to do something in that hallway,” Huffman said. Through the hospital’s partnership with Maryville College, Huffman contacted Gombert and his students, who proposed a solution for the 120-foot hallway.

“I love it! It’s fish!” Huffman said. “It brightens up the hallway so much. The only thing the hospital had to do was paint the hallway blue. The fish are attached to the wall, not painted directly onto the wall. When you stand at the end of the hallway and see the pipes above it, it kind of looks like water. The staff loves it! You can ‘float on down’ to the cafeteria that way.”

Since the hallway is so long, the project is a work in progress, Gombert said.

“We got a good start on it, but we’re certainly planning on adding more in the next academic year, so that one is ongoing.”

Huffman said the mural benefits the hospital’s employees and visitors. “When you look at it, you’re going to smile!” she said. “It’s unexpected, too! You don’t expect these fish out in the hallway. Whether you’re an employee or a visitor, it’s really neat. I can’t wait to see what the next class does.” 

Unique opportunities

Gombert said the Maryville College program is unique. “We’re the only ones in the area doing this,” he said. “There aren’t other colleges or universities competing for these opportunities – but also, the students stand apart because they’re amazing. They do very thorough work. They make sure they identify and understand the parameters of the project, they come up with ambitious but doable solutions, and then they deliver on it. I think that makes them pretty remarkable!

“The community gets professional-quality work at cost. The students are earning course credit so they’re not paid for the work. The client provides the materials, but then we provide all the design work and all the labor,” he added. “There are also more intangible benefits. The community partners have a vital role in determining the direction, coming up with the space. They get public art, which has all kinds of benefits.”

Does he have a favorite of all the murals his classes have created? 

“Every mural has been so different,” he said, adding with a chuckle, “Asking me to pick a favorite is like asking me what my favorite Beatles song is – they’re all great!”

Story by Linda Braden Albert for Maryville College   


Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”