Cael Neary sits on a stool in front of his colorful mural in the Gender and Sexuality Diversity Center.
Cael Neary '17 painted colorful sunflowers as part of the mural in the Gender and Sexuality Diversity Center in Memorial Hall. (Photos by Danny Damiani)

The Gender and Sexuality Diversity Center in Lawrence University’s Memorial Hall now features a large, colorful mural, painted by Cael Neary ’17.

Neary, an Appleton artist, said the mural is part of a goal to make the Gender and Sexuality Diversity Center at Lawrence more inviting to students.

“This space should be something welcoming, inspiring, uplifting, comfortable,” Neary said, “and also, I thought, something very colorful, something lively.”

Cael Neary stands on a ladder as he paints the mural.
Cael Neary '17 began the mural project in April and continued work through much of Spring Term.

A studio art major, Neary graduated from Lawrence in 2017. They have remained in Appleton with their partner and keep in touch with Lawrence faculty and staff. With Lawrence already planning for a mural in that space, Meghan Sullivan, the Uihlein Fellow of Studio Art, reached out to Neary to gauge interest.

“She knew they were looking for someone to do this, so she said, ‘Hey, you’re still around, and this might be a project that is close to your heart that you’d want to do and have the skills for,’ so I jumped on that,” Neary said.

They started the project in early April. This was Neary’s first mural, but they already had experience painting on canvas. Using existing skills and new insights, Neary first planned out the mural digitally, gained approval from the students running the space, and gathered ladders and other supplies needed to tackle a makeover of the nine-foot wall.

“It was kind of ideal to do an indoor one first to not have to deal with weather,” Neary said. “You mostly do surface research and spend a lot of time on design work behind the scenes.”

Drawing from a personal love of sunflowers, especially those painted by Vincent van Gogh, Neary decided on a floral theme to represent inclusion and self-expression.

“One of the reasons I went with flowers instead of figurative work … is I don’t want to leave anyone out,” Neary said, “I thought about a sunflower that hasn’t opened yet being for people who maybe haven’t figured themselves out yet, who are in the process of coming out, or who are maybe closeted.”

Cael Neary paints near the top of the mural as the project nears completion.
A love of sunflowers helped inspire Cael Neary '17. 

Neary also included various pride flags in the mural.

“I couldn’t fit all of them because there are so many, so I chose a number of them that I thought most people could relate to and find themselves in,” they said.

Neary is interested in doing more murals while continuing to explore oil painting.

"Both my senior show work and the mural are more graphic and stylized in nature, and I like painting that way, but I am currently pursuing my technical training with oil painting and painting true-to-life realism," they said.

“I thought about a sunflower that hasn’t opened yet being for people who maybe haven’t figured themselves out yet, who are in the process of coming out, or who are maybe closeted.”

Cael Neary '17

For other studio art majors or artists in general, Neary's advice is to never stop creating.

“One of my favorite speeches to go back to if you’re feeling down or uninspired or you’re having a really difficult day is Neil Gaiman’s graduation speech,” Neary said. “It’s titled Make Good Art, which you can find on YouTube. I think anyone could listen to that and just be like, ‘Ah, yes. OK, I can do this.’ I know I definitely listened to that on at least one occasion making this.” The speech was given at Philadelphia's University of the Arts in 2012.

Neary said there's pride in being part of enhancing the Gender and Sexuality Diversity Center, which is such an important space on campus.

“People were fighting for a long time to have a permanent area on campus for queer students, staff, and faculty,” Neary said. “Making something beautiful out of something painful is something I think a lot of LGBTQ people can relate to. … I think it’s easy if you’re walking by every day to be curious and feel that this space is inviting.”

Karina Herrera '22 contributed to this story.