New mural in Sinsheimer Laboratories building celebrates diversity in science

The mural by artist Paul Lewin was commissioned as part of the healing process after disturbing incidents of vandalism targeting Black Lives Matter posters

Paul Lewin standing next to mural
Paul Lewin painting
Artist Paul Lewin painted the new mural in the Sinsheimer Laboratories building. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

A series of vandalism incidents in the Sinsheimer Laboratories building, starting in 2020 and continuing into 2021, left Black students on Science and Engineering Hill feeling unsafe and unwelcome. As one step in the healing process, a new mural by the artist Paul Lewin now brightens the first-floor entrance to the Sinsheimer Labs.

Juliana Nzongo, a graduate student in microbiology and environmental toxicology who served as the student representative on the mural committee, said the reactions to the mural have been very positive. “Some people go there every week or every morning just to look at it, and a lot of people have said it brings them a sense of peace coming into the building,” she said.

The students met with Lewin twice before deciding he was the right artist to do the mural. “It felt right to go with Paul Lewin—I felt he would represent Blackness in a way that could help Black students in the sciences feel a sense of belonging, like this is their community too, because there are not a lot of us on Science Hill,” Nzongo said.

Lewin’s art, which has been featured on the covers of novels by science fiction author Octavia Butler, is inspired by Afro-Caribbean and African folklore, nature, science fiction, and Afrofuturism. The mural features a variety of images related to science and nature, including motifs that appear in many of Lewin’s paintings.

“My art and life have always been inspired by science,” Lewin said. “In the mural, there is a central figure, an ancient ancestral spirit, performing a ritual that celebrates the interconnectedness of all life on earth.”

Born in Jamaica, Lewin was based in Oakland for many years and currently lives in Miami. He was one of several potential artists suggested to the committee by John Jota Leaños, professor of film and digital media, who had met Lewin in San Francisco.

“When John first reached out to me back in March of this year about the mural, I was really moved by the backstory,” Lewin said. “Hearing the students tell their stories directly was very impactful to me. I wanted to create an image with a strong representation of Blackness in the sciences that encompassed many generations, from ancient Africa and other indigenous communities to the present and future Black students of UC Santa Cruz.”

Ocean Sciences Professor Christina Ravelo, who serves as associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Division of Physical and Biological Sciences, said the mural is just one step in the division’s efforts to create a more supportive environment for students of color.

“The mural needs to be seen as part of a process of transformation that we are working on, and not as an indication that we are where we want to be,” she said. “The vandalism and other incidents, in the midst of all that was going on nationally, was very stressful. It was a bad time.”

It began in June 2020, when campus buildings were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students and researchers conducting pressing research and running essential experiments were allowed to use their laboratories in Sinsheimer, but access to the building was restricted. When Black Lives Matter posters in the Sinsheimer elevator were defaced and torn down, students felt threatened, especially since they were often in their labs when few other people were around.

“Somebody who had access was saying, ‘You don’t belong here,’ and it made a lot of students feel unsafe,” Nzongo said. “One of my good friends had to come late at night to do some time points for her experiments, and we had to keep in touch via text to make sure she got home safely.”

The campus has since installed additional security cameras, including in the elevator. Ravelo also said a growing number of departments in the sciences have held or scheduled anti-racist training programs for faculty and staff.

Nevertheless, Nzongo said students felt angry and frustrated by what they felt was a slow response to the incidents by campus police and the administration. “The students had a list of things they wanted in order to feel safer on Science Hill,” Nzongo said. “The mural was one thing we were able to get money and support for right away.”

The mural committee sought an artist who would create a mural that “captures UCSC’s vision of science excellence, innovation and creativity, which can only be achieved in an environment that is mindful of different identities and lived experiences, and that approaches collaboration with cultural humility and mutual respect.”

Nzongo said she recently brought a group of high school students who were on campus for the COSMOS Program to see the mural.

“They loved it, and they all wanted to take photos in front of it,” she said, “so it hasn’t just touched those of us on Science Hill, but others who, when they see the mural, stop and think about what it means for them.”