Ryan Chartrand

Sixteen years ago, the Cal Poly community lost a beloved architect, artist and professor.

Since Vern Swansen passed away, Alpha Rho Chi, a professional fraternity in the Cal Poly College of Architecture and Environmental Design, has preserved and curated about 4,000 of his paintings, including a decades-old mural adjacent to Backstage Pizza.

Though it won’t be able to be displayed for about 18 months due to pending University Union renovations, the mural was recently repainted by Alpha Rho Chi, then sealed by Facility Services to more resplendently present and safeguard it in the future, said Dwayne Brummett, UU director of business services.

“It’s a neat thing students got together to do, to take time out of their busy schedules to improve something like that,” Brummett said.

Alpha Rho Chi approached the Associated Students, Inc. advisory board about refurbishing the mural, Brummett said, and was able to arrange a joint effort with ASI, which helped finance the project through paying for materials and 4-feet-by-8-feet sheets of plywood that would be painted.

The sheets of plywood were sealed and stored. They will be installed by facility services, likely after the summer of 2009 upon completion of the UU Plaza renovation, which is tentatively expected to be undertaken in the spring of 2009.

“We basically redid the entire mural,” said architecture sophomore Brittany Thornburg, Alpha Rho Chi historian and Vern chair. “The one that is there is really faded; the new one will be bright and vivid, and truer to the original mural.”

At the beginning of the process, Thornburg explained, Alpha Rho Chi scanned the mural’s image and used Adobe Illustrator to transform it strictly into a line drawing that was projected onto the appropriately organized pieces of wood, which were then traced upon and painted by numbers in a couple of days.

Throughout, Alpha Rho Chi strived to adhere to the mural’s layout, using boards of the same size and matching colors, Thornburg emphasized.

“It was really cool seeing it come together,” Thornburg said of the venture initiated by architecture senior Vi Tran, now studying abroad. “We started with just the blank pieces of plywood, but the more it came together, it looked a lot better than the one up right now.”

She added that exterior paint was used in order to make the mural, which is actually an abstract of the Cal Poly seal erected in 1973, more sun-and-rain-proof.

Alpha Rho Chi was fully supportive of postponing the installation of the updated work, Thornburg said, because of the risk of it being damaged during the UU upgrade.

Swansen, born in Oregon in 1916, was raised in Pasadena before earning his Bachelor of Architecture degree at USC, where he became a member of Alpha Rho Chi, a chapter of which he was integral in starting and advising at Cal Poly years later.

He served as the president of the Santa Barbara Art Association and as the Santa Barbara Museum of Art curator of education from 1961 to 1971. He also acquired a master’s degree in art from the University of Strathclyde, Scotland in 1975.

Following stints as an instructor at Santa Barbara City College and Westmont College, Swansen began teaching architecture and watercolor at Cal Poly, and in 1987 was bestowed the faculty merit award from the CAED.

For Thornburg, in her first active year with the fraternity, dignifying Swansen made the mural revision memorable and worthwhile.

“One of the things that interested me in pledging was Vern Swansen,” she said. “I feel honored working on this, something that everyone can see every day. He wanted the best for his students.”

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