On Wednesday, Sept. 6, I walked into the atrium of Clowes Memorial Hall just in time to see the curtain come down from a massive 20 ft. x 40 ft. painting by Justin Vining called “The Journey from the Outside in.”
It’s a richly colorful, fantastical landscape that portrays the Butler University Campus in the center of the world, and the Indianapolis skyline curving around — almost eclipsing — the sun.
And while you see the Indianapolis skyline, as if in profile, you see the Butler University campus from above, as if you were flying above it.
There's a rural section of the painting as well, recalling the landscapes of Grant Wood or some other W.P.A. painter. Except this rural landscape is upside down, curving around the Butler campus as if it’s wrapping around the bottom of the Earth.
There's much about Vining’s signature style that is playful, but there's also a tension between the rural and the urban that runs through his work.
That stems from the fact that Vining, now living in Indy, grew up in a rural environment. In 1999, when he was a senior in high school, his family's farm in northern Indiana was sold, along with all the farm equipment.
“I can vividly remember that day,” Vining told me back in 2012. "Your barn being emptied and everything you have come to know disappearing in a day is not something that’s easily forgotten.”
Vining went to law school at Valparaiso University, after receiving his undergraduate degree at Purdue, and he passed the bar in 2010. He works as both as a painter, based in the Harrison Center for the Arts, and as an attorney.
A majority of the artists who helped him on the project are also based at the Harrison Center. (The artists who helped him paint portions of the painting were Benny Sanders, Johnny McKee, Kyle Ragsdale, Nathan Foxton, Rich Anderson, Kipp Normand, Alicia Zanoni, and Matthew Allen.) He paid them in pizza and beer.
They went through 25 gallons of paint (acrylic) on the canvas which can be viewed from the ground floor of Clowes, or from four stories up.
There were significant logistical challenges to completing the canvas this June, between the construction at Butler and summer camps. The Clowes Hall stage had to suffice as their easel.
“Because of the sheer scale, we had to bounce between two venues here at Butler," said Vining. "We were on the stage of Clowes Hall. And then we were in the Lilly Studio Theatre over in Lilly Hall. They had camps and they had construction this summer... And so when I did have access to the mural, I had to run hard and run fast. But there were times this summer when we had to roll it up and we stored it. And there were also times when we didn’t roll it up: we hung it on the stage at Clowes: and they flew it all the way up into the ceiling.”
His wife Halie, he said, had the most influence on the title of the project, “The Journey from the Outside in,” being a Butler graduate.
“Besides being married to a Butler alumnus,” he said at the podium in the moments before the unveiling, "I really had no connection before this project. And now after spending an entire summer here I now feel in a small way that I’m a part of Butler, and in another small way I feel that Butler is now part of me. And that title seemed appropriate.”
Vining encouraged each of the painters that he enlisted to paint in their particular style.
“I had them paint the values darker and so from down here 40 feet below," he said. "It just looks the shadows of the city are some subtle variations but when you get up to the fourth terrace, you can start to see the individual paintings."