Passersby walk through the colorful Adams House tunnels.

Photo courtesy of William Chettle

Campus & Community

Tunnel vision

6 min read

At Adams House, a tradition of art in the passageways

In 1987, Vincent van Gogh’s painting “Irises” sold for $54 million. By contrast, two years later, William Chettle’s “Tunnel Gumby” failed to bring in any cash for the Class of 1989 English concentrator. In fact, it was soon painted over.

Instead of on canvas in the south of France, “Tunnel Gumby” was painted on a basement wall in Adams House. Chettle — now a marketing executive in Richmond, Va. — was among the early practitioners of a Harvard wall-art tradition that began in 1987. The goal was to bring color and cheer to the warren of dreary passages that students use to get to the laundry, to the weight room, or to the street-level doors.

“It was one of those offhand things,” said Jack Robbins ’90, who originated the wall-painting tradition with his friend Natasha Shapiro ’90-’91. “You know. These tunnels (were) so depressing.”

They approached then-House co-master Robert Kiely with the idea, and “were all geared up for getting resistance,” said Robbins. Instead they got about $200 to buy paint, brushes, and drop cloths. The rest is history, though perhaps not art history.

Looking at a photo of his tunnel painting, Chettle observed, “I would have been proud of that in third or fourth grade.” The painting was inspired by a Gumby toy that he wore as a “pocket square,” he said. “It was one of those college Dada gestures that some undergraduates like myself were given to.”

Mirka Morales ’90, now an independent filmmaker and artist in San Francisco, painted herself petting a snake. “Adams House was super-arty when I was there,” she said, and the tunnel art built community and brightened a dreary space. But the art making was sedate. “It seemed more like an art project and less like a party,” said Jocelyn Beer ’90, a onetime government concentrator and now a senior attorney with a federal agency in Washington, D.C. Chettle agreed, saying there were boom boxes playing the “big hair music” of the day, but no beer or bacchanalia.

In the beginning, old wall art was eventually painted over to make room for the new. “Considering the quality of my artwork, that’s probably a blessing,” said Chettle.

“I’m fine with that,” Robbins added. “That’s the nature of college life — that everyone has to reinvent things.”

But today, erasing older works violates one of the “cardinal rules,” said Adams art tutor Zachary Sifuentes ’97-’99. The other rules are “clean up after thyself,” he said, “and return the supplies.”

Until at least 2005, anyone living in Adams was eligible to paint. These days, only seniors can paint, and only during Senior Week.

On May 19 this year Lidiya Petrova ’11 spent eight hours on a blue unicorn mural, which she finished the next day. Her carefully mixed paints yielded a rich teal hue. “Blue, on the one hand, is the color of sadness,” she said. “But, on the other, it’s the color of poetry, of dreams.” A credible unicorn soon emerged from the blank wall, framed by words from a song in Spanish. (Petrova, a law school aspirant who is fluent in five languages, was a concentrator in Romance Languages and Literatures.)

While Petrova painted, George Zisiadis ’11, a social studies concentrator from Queens, N.Y., was just a shout away down another corridor, past a pile of mattresses and next to a stack of minirefrigerators.

“I just wanted to make some lasting mark on the tunnels I walked through every day,” said the future worker. Moving a stack of stored rugs aside, he put down newsprint and began to sketch a work: a leisure graph comparing the fun of class vs. the fun of tunnel art. (The results are mixed.) Later, Zisiadis painted in the details, to a blast of reggae tunes, and signed it “The Monastery.” The elapsed time was 30 minutes.

Kiley McLaughlin ’11, an English concentrator and poet headed to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the fall, was working around the corner on a stairway. She carefully blocked out “How to Buy Flowers,” a poemlike synthesis of instructions from a favorite book, which also has lessons on how to build a fire, how to write a love letter, and how to be brave. “I almost put that up here,” she said. As it is, the first line of advice was brave (and poemlike) anyway: “Plan ahead.”

Close by, over a light switch, is the smallest Adams House tunnel art, a 3-inch line of poetry in faint pen by Andrew Marvell that is so tiny it could be covered by a cigarette.

Big or small, Adams House tunnel art more than ever runs to text now, and away from the painted self-representation of two decades ago when students started their paintings from full-body silhouettes of themselves.  “I thought the written word was dying out,” said Chettle, a summa cum laude graduate who won a Hoopes Prize for his thesis, a novel in progress. “That’s vaguely heartening.”

The Adams tunnels display a florid, joyous flair. There are whimsical bottles of beer, ducks, cacti, ancient stylized Egyptians, an Addams House spoof, a recipe for apple Bundt cake, cartoon panels, several soaring eagles, a yellow submarine, and even the Cookie Monster, whose neighbor is a sober verse from the Bible. Petrova’s dreamy unicorn is not far from a perpetual undergraduate sentiment, rendered in a scrawl: “Carpe Hooters.”

Adams seniors are still seizing the moment, leaving lasting marks. But the real lesson may be that time is fleeting. Two things surprised Chettle when he looked at the old photo of himself with “Tunnel Gumby”: “how bad my painting was, and how much hair I had.”