After transporting it down Interstate 55 to the University of Missouri–St. Louis campus on a windblown day in late March, U.S. Navy veteran and education major Michael Wattle hustled to install his Veterans Center mural in Clark Hall.
Wattle had invested about 35 hours of work in the showpiece, but he needed to add highlights to the dusk sky, the stars and stripes of the American flag and a fallen soldiers memorial before it was all finished.
“Art has always been important to me. When I was a kid, I doodled in notebooks and filled the pages with monster trucks and hot rods,” he said. “As I grew older, I realized how powerful art could be in capturing thoughts and moments. In my living room now, I have paintings that show memories of my life from when I was stationed in the Gulf during Operation Iraqi Freedom. I’d like the Veterans Center mural to have that same kind of impact. No mural is ever perfect or complete, but I have a few more important details to add.”
At 7 feet by 12 feet and spanning three wood panels, the large oil-paint mural depicts military members studying outside of UMSL’s Millennium Student Center in full service uniforms. Wattle uses this image as a metaphor to display how veterans feel about the overlap of their military and civilian lives.
Manager of the UMSL Veterans Center Rebecca McMenamin said she believes Wattle’s concept is spot on.
“When you see the mural, you see how different veterans feel on campus,” she said. “Because of their military background, they might not quite fit in with the average first-year student, but they’re here, doing what they need to do for their long-term goals. As always, the goal of the Veterans Center is to make vets feel at home, and the mural allows them another level of expression and understanding.”
Wrestling with questions of identity after leaving the military for college and civilian life is an experience Wattle knows well.
“I went to basic training with the clothes on my back and a toothbrush,” he said. “I had to give up everything I knew to defend my country and loved ones, and not every student has that experience. The transition from active duty to civilian is difficult. It is a matter that most veterans don’t want to talk about, so it becomes hard to blend in. Sometimes they feel like they might as well just wear their uniform for the rest of their lives.”
Wattle and McMenamin hope the mural will make student vets feel more welcomed on campus. And civil engineering sophomore and U.S. Air Force veteran Tony Bertolini, who served three years in Alaska, confirms that the mural adds to his comfort level at UMSL and supports the Veterans Center’s mission.
“The center has been key to all of our success as far as coming to school and getting back into the swing of things,” he said. “The mural speaks to how hard we work to reintegrate into the academic community.”
As Wattle worked through his teaching practicum this semester, the importance of lifelong education became clearer to him. Being chosen to paint the Veterans Center mural and earning the $1,000 scholarship that came along with it boosted his confidence — confidence he can take back to his hometown of Hillsboro, Mo., where he seeks to become an art teacher and football coach.
Working over the weekend, Wattle finished his mural in time for the unveiling event.
On April 5, red, white and blue curtains concealed the mural as Chancellor Tom George, Dean of Arts & Sciences Ron Yasbin, Department of Military and Veteran Studies chair Jim Craig, McMenamin and Wattle offered remarks to an expectant crowd jammed together outside of the Veterans Center in Clark Hall.
After the remarks, it was time: Bertolini and two other student veterans pulled away the curtains and revealed the final product of Wattle’s time, effort and passion to an overwhelming round of applause.