If you’ve been to the Student Union recently, chances are you’ve seen Gabby Coleman’s art on campus.
Coleman, graduate student in architecture, is an artist and activist who turned a studio assignment into an amplifier for student voices to be heard at Kansas State University.
“More Than A Color” started as an art installation assignment for a studio class, but she said it has grown to represent more than a simple classroom project.
Coleman, originally from Madison, Alabama, was drawn to K-State for the Department of Architecture’s five-year master’s degree program.
“I thought [architecture] would be a good way to combine math and tangible things that we learned in high school that I did well at and art,” Coleman said. “My interest is doing what I consider ‘social architecture.’ Sometimes our profession gets a little disconnected from the people that it’s serving. … I’m searching to help people through building or rebuilding, so it’s a very intentional type of work.”
However, after four years of studying as an architecture student, Coleman said she felt as though her voice and the voices of others weren’t being heard.
“I felt like we weren’t getting in touch with the people that we were designing for, which is a diverse group of people,” Coleman said. “So I was like, ‘We need to talk about social change.’”
Coleman’s art installation quite literally paints a diverse group of students on campus, displaying canvases of painted artwork that Coleman said she hopes will connect with students who have different stories.
“I want to tell a story, and I want to tell the stories of student leaders,” Coleman said. “It comes from me not feeling like I can tell my story in the College of Architecture … without feeling separated from my peers. At first I was met with a lot of hesitation from my peers in the College of Architecture because social justice was an obscure term that people don’t really understand. … My professor pushed me to make it more approachable and more concrete.”
Coleman said she began her project with research. She compiled a list of 20 student leaders from around campus to photograph and interview about social justice and to hear how their experience was unique.
Questions she asked dealt with the concept of social inequality and how interviewees’ physical appearance impacted their time at K-State.
“I’m bridging people who might not understand the experience of a person of color, or the intention of my project,” Coleman said. “They can read someone’s story and understand it.”
Coleman said getting permission to display her art in Bosco Plaza was potentially the hardest part of the project. Though she had to jump through numerous hoops to get approved, she said it was important to her for her work to be displayed in a symbolic location she described as “a triangular host for change.”
Located between Seaton Hall and the Union, Coleman’s choice to present in Bosco Plaza connects her art with what the surrounding buildings represent to her, she said.
Seaton represents the College of Architecture “not being super involved in the conversation,” Coleman said, while the Union provides a place for change where everyone needs to make progress on whatever they’re passionate about.
Additionally, the artistic choices Coleman chose to use in painting the portraits are deeply connected to her experience, she said.
“I covered the mouth because it’s my intention to sort of represent how I felt about not being able to say how I was feeling, or not being given a safe space to share,” Coleman said.
Michael Leverett, senior in social sciences, delegate for the Black Student Union and student senator, said it was good to see his image and words on display as part of Coleman’s art.
“Honestly, I think her project is important,” Leverett said. “When people see her project, I hope it makes their brains start turning on why this project is necessary. Or maybe they don’t think it’s necessary, but it sparks a conversation.”
The panels were originally displayed in Bosco Plaza in November 2018. The art was displayed in metal frames to lift it off the ground, an allusion to the symbolism of holding a riot sign, Coleman said.
Though Coleman’s art installation is no longer on display at Bosco Plaza, her project is not yet finished, she said. Before she’s done, Coleman said she plans to include a self portrait to conclude the series.
“At the end, I’ll tell my story, but first, it’s my responsibility to tell their stories,” Coleman said.
Coleman said she hopes to sell the collection someday, and potentially see it on display in the Morris Family Multicultural Student Center, which will begin construction this summer.
“This came from me not feeling like I had space, but I realized that I am the one that can make space for me to talk about what’s important to me,” Coleman said.