Hidden PVD

Well of Souls

A stairwell on Brown’s campus does double-duty as a canvas


Technically, it’s graffiti. But the jots and doodles inside the List Art Center go on and on – five stories of faces, patterns, maxims, and bathroom humor. And because the List building is mostly a hub for fine art students, the sketches look less like defacement than a vast, collaborative mural. Over the years, young artists have left their mark on this unassuming stairwell, and their paint has flowed from roof to basement.

The List Art Center is a giant hexahedron of reinforced concrete, and like a lot of modernist experiments, the building has been controversial since its completion in 1971. The architecture is stubbornly eccentric, and few buildings on the 254-year-old campus look anything like it. So it’s fitting that the stairwell, originally bare, would be left to students to decorate in their own way. That said, some of the more vulgar contributions have been painted over, and Brown has hosted painting events to tastefully revise the walls.  

Much of the painting is figurative: faces and eyeballs and an anthropomorphic hot dog, among countless other images. Some sections are just jumbled patterns, noisily overlapping each other. Some quips are quotable; others are not. Occasionally, the colors extend to the steps and handrails as well. You might call it Brown’s secret art gallery.