For former Idol painters, it’s a new ‘U’

Publication Date

The painting tradition continues. The object is new and different.

Painting the U

A sturdy seven-foot sculpture centered by a “Block U” stands on the former site of the Idol east of Achilles Center.

On Friday afternoon, Sept. 3, 2021, it got its inaugural coat of paint courtesy of some student leaders and athletes who played a part in the design and placement of the new icon.

In keeping with tradition, the students painted with their hands.

“What we have heard is that the most important part of [the painting] tradition was being together with your friends, engaging in a shared activity,” said President David Harris in a visit with the student painters. “The challenge was that the object being painted was part of our permanent collection and was an ancient piece of Chinese art. What we’ve done is to say, ‘Let’s keep the tradition and change what’s under all of the layers of paint.”

Alexis Candido ’22, who serves as vice president for administration of Student Forum, was among the student painters. She has painted the Idol on three occasions.

“Like a lot of students, I never knew what was under all the layers of paint and that the Idol was an important cultural symbol,” she said.

Students painting the new U

“It’s very important to all the students to honor [the painting] tradition … but also keep in mind and learn the story about what is behind the Idol. To educate and foster the diverse community we want to have on campus was super important to all the student leaders.”

Phil Facey ’22, who stopped to paint the new icon on his way to cross country practice, said, “I think it’s cool that we can preserve this part of Union history. When I come back as an alum I’ll remember that I painted it, and maybe I’ll paint it as an alum.”

Deidre Hill Butler, associate professor of sociology and director of Faculty Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging is also chair of the History and Symbols Committee. “Replacing and restoring the Idol and examining the painting tradition is one more step to move us toward a wider lens of campus inclusivity,” she said.

Hill Butler said the replacement of the Idol will be discussed at a town hall meeting with the Diversity Team later this month.

Last year, the College’s History and Symbols Committee, senior staff and trustees endorsed a proposal to restore and replace the Idol. The new icon was developed in consultation with student leaders.

Idol removal

Generations of Union students have painted the Idol. Plans are to restore the ancient Chinese statue and give it a new and safer home on campus.

A gift from the Rev. John Farnham, Class of 1856, the Idol had been targeted with paint since it was set up at Union in 1876. Farnham, a missionary in China, purchased the statue after it was unearthed during a construction project in Shanghai. Before he shipped it to Union, he had placed it for a time in front of the nearby boys school he ran there.