Opposing the iconic Rotunda, Old Cabell Hall stands as an unmistakable landmark on Grounds. Home to the University’s premier performance space, the hall serves as a hub of musical celebration for the Charlottesville community. But upon stepping into the building, many visitors are struck initially not by music — but by artwork. Wrapping around the lobby is “The Student’s Progress,” a mural by artist Lincoln Perry that pays homage to the student experience at the University.
According to Perry, one of his first decisions upon beginning the mural in 1996 concerned the narrative of the work — who its central character would be and how they would develop. Given the mural’s home of Old Cabell Hall, which accommodates the music department and other University music resources, it felt natural to Perry that the mural’s main character would be a musician, specifically a violinist.
Another early element of the narrative was obvious to Perry — the protagonist would be a woman. Inspired by his mother and cognizant of the overt difficulties faced by women in the arts especially, he sought to highlight the challenges that women encounter in and beyond the academic world.
“I was very fond of my mother, you could almost analyze me on that count,” Perry said. “But I have tremendous respect…for what women are up against. And that was part of that story, that she not only has to learn to play the violin against a very difficult context for making a living doing that, but also that she was a woman and that she had that difficulty.”
Perry named this character Shannon, who he imagined as a student musician at the University. “The Student’s Progress” presents her academic journey through the University, emphasizing the physical and mental obstacles that she faces.
At the center of the mural lies perhaps its most notable panel, which depicts students and faculty gathered in front of a statue of University founder Thomas Jefferson. In conceiving the panel’s design, Perry noted that on the opposite side of the wall lay a copy of “The School of Athens,” a fresco by Renaissance artist Raphael. Recognizing an artistic opportunity, Perry painted the central panel as a “School of Charlottesville,” modifying Raphael’s work to represent the people and ideals of the University.
While “The Student’s Progress” now envelops the entire lobby, Perry was commissioned initially to paint only the 11 central panels of the hall, a project he concluded in 2000. Perry’s idea to extend the mural arose six years later when his wife assumed a teaching position at the University, leading him to spend more time around Grounds.
At the suggestion of former University president John T. Casteen III, Perry taught courses at the University, including studio art and a seminar on museum art. However, in search of other opportunities to engage with Grounds, Perry offered to continue the mural.
“I went to him and said, rather than teaching for the same salary, I'd be willing to expand the mural that was already done,” Perry said. “And he said, ‘great bargain.’”
The second section of the mural, which Perry completed in 2012, depicts Shannon after her graduation from the University as she attends graduate school and marries and raises a daughter who ultimately also attends the University.
According to Perry, the experience of painting the second section of the mural was distinct from that of the first section. For the work’s first 11 panels, Perry created the paintings at his house in Maine before transporting them to Old Cabell Hall and gluing them to the walls. The remaining panels were painted directly in the hall, however, allowing Perry to connect with the University community.
“Two things happened — I became very good friends with people in the ticketing office to the left … and I put them in the paintings,” Perry said. “The other thing that was kind of nice about it was I got to say to students who were going by, do you want to be in the mural? And they'd say, yeah.”
More than a decade after the mural’s completion, Perry continues to reflect on the ability of his art to maintain a larger impact and move people on a visceral level — a quality he refers to as soul.
“How do you know when you have soul?” Perry said. “The answer is you try, you keep trying, and you could do it for in my case, 55 years, and you hope that after 55 years your radar works as to when something is working. It's probably very similar to learning to play the violin. It would seem to me you can hear the results — I can see the results.”
To view more artwork by Lincoln Perry and a documentary on the creation of “The Student’s Progress,” visit his website here.