Details of the We Are VIU Mural

Up-close details of individual tiles / Image via Isabella Ranallo

VIU students may have noticed a new mural to the side of the VIU Library entrance on their way to study…or get Starbucks. What they may not have realized is that it’s a collective, worldwide project that has been years in the making.

The We Are VIU mural was officially unveiled as part of the WorldVIU Days celebration on November 1st. VIU Visual Arts graduate and ceramics artist Joe Lyons has been working on the piece over the last several years.

The project started in a fall 2019 world geography class. Lyons’ professor, Don Alexander, told his class they could write a paper for their project—or they could volunteer at WorldVIU Days. Lyon quickly chose the latter.

Lyons said he knew both he and the world at large “needed some art.” Citing the help of Visual Art professor Scott Leaf, Lyons gradually formulated the idea of a ceramic mural made up of some 300 unique tiles. The round tiles feature illustrations from different people all over BC and the world.

Lyons knew the ceramics teacher at Nanaimo District Secondary School (NDSS) and went to the high school’s art class to gauge interest. NDSS students made and painted around 50 tiles. These first tiles were used as examples at the 2019 WorldVIU Days.

High schoolers from Haida Gwaii also travelled to Nanaimo to paint tiles for Lyons’ project.

It was important to Lyons that he included Indigenous representation in his project, so he approached Stella Johnson, an Elder at VIU. He credits her for helping him guide the project and in creating some of the final tiles, such as one representing a medicine wheel.

Lyons said what artists could put on their tiles was “very open-ended…[that’s] one of the most beautiful things about [the project].” If there was a theme, it was one of individuality.

As Lyons puts it: “What do you bring to VIU?”

Lyons set up a table on campus hoping to give people passing by the chance to paint a tile as a break from mid-semester stress. He noted how artists would become “engaged in painting” and talk to the people around them instead of scrolling on their phones.

A common response Lyons got from potential contributors was that they didn’t have an artistic bone in their body. Lyons talked about how people are so creative and artistic as kids, but a lot of that can fade as we mature. He’s glad that this project disproved that rule for many students.

Some people would complete their tiles in minutes, while others would work for hours. It was self-paced and self-determined.

While Lyons found it hard to name a favourite tile in the collection, he did mention the contribution of a nursing student from Pakistan. She had painted a pineapple on her tile. Having grown up in Hawaii, Lyons was intrigued by the familiar fruit and asked the student about it. She explained her family didn’t have much money growing up, so she would save up money to buy them a pineapple as a treat.

“That’s what this is about,” Lyons stressed, referring to the personal and individual nature of each tile. Each one tells its story.

Although the outbreak of COVID-19 put this project on hold, Lyons continued to tinker away on the mural at the Nanaimo Ceramic Arts Studio, where he works, over the summer.

He admitted that he was stressed about the unveiling, but his partner advised him to slow down and enjoy the moment. He said his excitement outweighed any anxiety he had. After speaking at the unveiling, he went straight to his partner in the crowd and they shared a hug.

Lyons estimated that he spent over 100 hours on this project. “It’s the most meaningful artwork I’ve done in my life,” he said.

So, if you’re passing by for a study session or coffee, take a minute for a closer look at the newly revealed We Are VIU mural. Some tiles are painted with hopeful messages, while one simply has an impressive illustration of Mike Wazowski from Monsters, Inc.

Either way, they all tell an individual story while coming together to spell out “VIU.”


Isabella Ranallo is a third-year Creative Writing student at VIU. She's loved storytelling ever since she stole a sheet of her mother's office paper at age four to write the first page of a story about ten kids stranded on a desert island. Her short story, "The Journal," was published in VIRL and Rebel Mountain Press' In Our Own Teen Voice 2019. These days, she spends her free time scribbling away in Moleskine notebooks or searching for cat-inspired stationery.

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