Steamed up

By Lawrence Cosentino

New downtown mural creates deafening clash of symbols

It’s big and colorful and science-y and it’s definitely trying to communicate to us. But what is the message?

A new 36-foot-by-20-foot mural on the north face of the Impression 5 Science Center has a lot of people scratching their heads.

Spoiler alert: If you want the satisfaction of figuring the puzzle out for yourself, don’t read beyond the next two sentences.

It doesn’t say “Rosebud.” The mural is a classic product of civic improver groupthink. A crowded jumble of symbols, from the state Capitol turned into a teapot to a swing crane to a stage with ballerina legs, spells out the word “STEAM.”

Now you know everything. Not. What meaneth STEAM? The mural refers to STEM to STEAM, an educational movement that emphasizes the role that art, and creative thinking, plays in science, technology, engineering and math. The movement started at the Rhode Island School of Design and has spread to many schools across the country.

As every teacher knows, the science, technology, engineering and math curriculum is often abbreviated “STEM.” Add art to the acronym and you get “STEAM.”

In the mural, the leap is represented thus: “S” is a plant (biology) under a giant microscope, the “T” is a swing crane (engineering), the E is … hmm.

“It’s just an ‘e,’” East Lansing artist and mural creator Carolyn Damstra said with a laugh.

The “m” is some kind of vapor with a chemistry-ish feel, coming out of a teapot/ State Capitol.

The “A,” of course, represents the arts, with a vengeance.

In a nod to at least two famous surrealists, Damstra turned a canvas on an easel into a theater proscenium, a la Magritte, and attached a ballerina’s legs, a la Dali.

Thank goodness “technology” is nearby.

A swing crane lifts the “A,” perhaps to ease the strain on the ballerina’s legs. A plus and minus signs precede and follow the “A,” to show that it has been added to the STEM curriculum, and to add a touch of math. There’s also a great big violin in the sky.

The mural was funded in part by Keep Learning, a coalition of education, business, government and media partners that has called for Michigan to double its output of college graduates. Riverwalk Theatre, Impression 5 Science Center and the Capital Area Community Fund also supported the project.

Damstra worked up the design in about a week, sent a small version to the judges and got the nod to paint a full-size version, which she finished in December. The mural went up in early August.

Damstra lives in East Lansing but spends a lot of time at a cabin up north, where she paints from nature. She has done illustrations for Michigan History, painted a mural for the MSU Butterfly House and was a grant program manager for the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

To satisfy another requirement, Damstra threw in local touches like the River Trail and a few city landmarks.

She admitted there’s a lot to look at in the mural.

“I don’t know if people are going to get it all,” she said.