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The Language of Symbols

Article Published: Aug. 4, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
The Language of Symbols

Blowing Rock artist Brenda Councill feels right at home in the middle of the Appalachian State University campus.

The little cemetery behind the Plemmons Student Union is the final resting place of some of her Councill ancestors, and her artwork adorns the foyer of the Belk Library.

Now, Councill has another piece of art that will adorn the campus for many years. She created a giant ceiling mural for ASU's new College of Education building, set to open this month.

"The most difficult part of this mural was the fact that it was on the ceiling of a building that will last 70 to 100 years," Councill said. "There is no adhesive available that will last that long, so I didn't have the option of painting it on panels sticking it up there. So I had to paint it directly on the ceiling."

Councill made no reference to Michelangelo painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but it is easy to see the comparison. Five-hundred years later, very little has changed. Ceilings are still ceilings, scaffolding is still scaffolding, and paintbrushes are still paintbrushes.

"I used special polymer paints that are exclusive to mural painting," Councill said. "They have elastic properties that will help keep them from cracking during the aging process."

Councill began her initial sketches of the large circular mural last year and completed the finished work last week. The mural will have its official unveiling during ASU's dedication of the new building on Thursday, Aug. 18, at 4 p.m. The building is located at the corner of College and Howard streets. Guided tours and refreshments will follow the official dedication.

"The mural has many themes, including the language of symbols, human communication, gaining knowledge, what you do with that knowledge and how you pass that knowledge down to the next generation," Councill said. "I tried to incorporate the various fields of knowledge, including language arts, visual arts, math and science. I purposefully left the books on the shelf unlabeled because they represent the future, the books we have yet to write."

Councill's new mural is a large circle divided into four sections. The center section includes a spiral depicting "The Golden Ratio," an equation used for centuries in art, architecture, nature and mathematics. This section also features three visuals that look like different shaped boxes opening up to the viewer.

"The openings are representative of illumination, discovery through enlightenment and the power of education," Councill said.

The openings and other parts of the new mural utilize "trompe l'oeil" painting technique, literally translated as "trick of the eye." Other parts of the mural are truly three-dimensional, using copper sculpture that pushes out from the base of the mural.

"The new building is a very green building, and copper is a very recyclable, non-toxic material, which is why I chose it," Councill said. "The copper will naturally oxidize, and its patina will change with time. It's part of the aging process. Nothing stays the same. The only constant is change."

Although many of the symbols have specific meanings for Councill, she purposefully left many of them up to the interpretation of the viewer.

"The tree represents the cycle of life, of course, but many of the letters and symbols are left to be interpreted differently," she said.

In one section of the mural, three human hands are forming letters in sign language. Not surprisingly, those letters are A-S-U.

Another section of the mural has a distinctly M.C. Escher aspect to it as the viewer traces stairways and paths that have a maze-like quality.

"I put the paths and the steps in three dimensions to perpetuate the thought of following different paths of opportunity in life," Councill said. "Different pathways are like a labyrinth - you never know where they will lead you."

Like Councill's mural in the Belk Library, the new one was sponsored by donors Carol and Ike Belk.
Councill's next project is a local, privately commissioned mural that will be announced soon. Following that, she will be working on a mural this winter in Texas.

"I try to plan my commissioned pieces so that I work someplace warmer during the winter," Councill said.

For more information on Brenda Councill, visit

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