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New mural shows how veterans can fit into college life

The Student Veterans Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis is designed to help ease the transition from the military to campus and eventually to life in the greater community.

Now, the center has a new mural to help show the way.

Stretching 7 feet tall and 12 feet wide, Mike Wattle’s painting titled “Student – Veteran – Identity,” hangs just outside the center on the UMSL campus. It depicts a campus scene featuring characters in a variety of military uniforms, plus a couple of students jogging in athletic gear, with the Millennium Student Center in the background.

Wattle, a Navy veteran, is set to graduate this spring with a degree in art education. He said the contest-winning concept is designed to illustrate the purpose of the veterans center — clearing the path between military service and campus life.

Mike Wattle explains why the veterans are in military uniform.
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Mike Wattle explains why the veterans are in military uniform.

“I'm showing each character on the painting as active duty,” Wattle said last week as workmen helped hang the painting just outside Room 211 of Clark Hall.

“Because veterans, we have a lot of different experiences than most of the students on campus, compared to the ones that come straight out of high school. As a veteran, sometimes you feel not like the other students, because your experiences are so different. It’s a little bit tougher to fit in.”

Jim Craig, who heads the school’s department of military and veterans studies, said getting out into the civilian world isn’t always easy, but it’s necessary, and UMSL tries to make the journey as smooth as possible.

“One of the things that we're always trying to tell our veteran students,” Craig said, “is that it's great you can congregate here and connect with each other, but you really have to connect back to the university, because it's that university that's going to take you to the next step. The fact that that's what in this mural is really wonderful.”

Overlapping identities

Craig said the idea for the mural came from the dean of the school of arts and sciences, who had commissioned wall paintings near his office. He asked whether the department would be willing to stage a contest for the best design, and Craig jumped at the chance.

Originally, Craig said, it was going to be open only to student veterans, but then he decided to widen the field. Reviewing dozen proposals, which he said ranged “from very, very simple to abstract,” a panel quizzed the artists about their designs and chose Wattle’s.

“It’s fantastic,” Craig said. “It really does run this gamut of student veteran identity, attached back to the university.”

He said he expected submissions to be more military than what Wattle depicted, but he liked how the mural — which Wattle originally titled “Overlapping Identity” — juxtaposes students in civilian clothes and those in military garb. It shows visually the concept that Craig emphasizes, that the university is an intermediary between military service the world beyond.

“The fact that Mike’s got this fantastic artistic talent to help us tell that story in a mural is going to be really helpful,” he said.

In the essay he submitted along with his sketch, Wattle put it this way:

“My goal is to show how veterans feel at school while trying to continue bettering themselves and blending in to society. The transition from active duty to civilian can often times be difficult. We veterans have our military memories with our brothers and sisters in arms. People who have not experienced what we have during our military careers will never understand fully the life that we have lived before we became students…. “Military service members, active and veteran, often feel they do not always fit in to the surroundings. They might as well just be wearing their uniform for the rest of their lives. This is why I show veterans still in uniform doing daily student activities.”

From Jefferson County to the Persian Gulf

For Wattle, who is 32, life led him from Hillsboro High School to the Navy, where he served on a flight deck from 2001 to 2006, including a tour in the Persian Gulf. He enrolled at UMSL in 2008 and is currently living in Imperial and student teaching art at his high school alma mater.

Like the veterans he painted in the mural, Wattle at first could feel out of place on campus.

“I felt like I didn’t fit in whatsoever,” he said. “Because with everybody around me, for one thing, our age was a little bit different. And I guess my ideas, my outlook on a lot of things, were a lot different than the students’, when I first came back. But it’s been easier these last few years to really feel comfortable in the school environment. You kind of grown up.”

Last Tuesday, Wattle and a buddy brought the mural up from Jefferson County in a two-vehicle caravan, driving on an UMSL service road up to Clark Hall. His first task was picking small leaves and flowers off of the surface of the painting, which had ridden in the open air and was still wet.

As a veteran, sometimes you feel not like the other students, because your experiences are so different. It's a little bit tougher to fit in. -- Mural artist Mike Wattle

He estimated that he spent 35 hours on the project in his garage – time that wasn’t easy to come by between his teaching job, his classes and school schedules that didn’t always mesh.

After helping to carry the three sections into the building, Wattle worked with two UMSL maintenance men – measuring, sawing, drilling, and hanging the sections one by one. First the left one went up, then the right one, finally the one in the center.

The two end pieces were slid toward the center, and Wattle stepped back to take it all in. He pronounced himself satisfied.

“It’s pretty level, so that’s good,” he said. “I like it. It’s come together pretty good.”

Unlike most murals that are painted directly on a wall, Wattle’s painting can be moved. He likes that arrangement just fine.

“I know it’s supposed to be a mural,” he said, “but I didn’t want to paint it like that. When I put the time into it, I want it to last, I want it to be able to move. As an artist, I don’t want it to be put on something that can be painted over.”

A formal dedication ceremony of Wattle’s mural will be held at Clark Hall at 12:15 p.m., Tuesday, April 5.

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.