Michael Gomez and Benji Jacob adjust a large painting on a wall

Collaborative mural helps UTM community leave their mark 

Kate Martin

When Benji Jacob joined UTM’s Student Recruitment as a work-study student last summer, he suggested a more literal approach to connecting with students: a collaborative mural titled “Leave Your Mark." 

The office of Student Recruitment offers prospective students residence tours, visits to lectures and club events and talks with students in their desired program. Jacob suggested visitors could paint a small section of an art piece while they waited for their tours to begin. 

“It was the first idea to create something physical,” says Michael Gomez, manager, student recruitment communications. “Even if (prospective students) don’t decide to come to UTM, they know they have made an impact.” 

After receiving the go-ahead, Jacob, who had been interviewing students about life on campus in his role as the department’s social media manager, began conceptualizing ideas for the image. 

“When we were looking at what to represent, one of the things that came to the forefront of what UTM is is it’s not only a place to learn but also to connect and grow, meet new people and try new things,” says Jacob, now a second-year student pursuing a double major in psychology and biology for health sciences with a minor in biomedical communications. “The mural shows two heads fusing, creating colour and vibrancy. That’s what I envision happens when people come to UTM.” 

Guided by Indigenous Awareness Month and UTM’s Strategic Framework objectives of truth, openness and reconciliation, and encouraging collaboration and belonging, Jacob found his muse in the Anishinaabemowin phrase “Maanjiwe nendamowinan," meaning a gathering of minds

After researching Indigenous artists and techniques, Gomez and Jacob approached UTM’s Office of Indigenous Initiatives (OII) Director Tee Duke and Indigenous Student Support Specialist Jessica Tabak. They also consulted UTM Indigenous faculty member Maria Hupfield, director of UTM’s Indigenous Creation Space, and Blackwood Gallery interim Director Ellyn Walker, for additional expertise. 

“At OII-UTM/Indigenous Centre, we want to collaborate and partner as much as we can,” says Duke. “(The mural) was an opportunity to build stronger relationships with each other while learning from each other. We’re very proud to support and be a part of a project that helps build and foster a stronger and unified community at UTM.” 

OII provided consultation to Jacob and Gomez as well as funding for supplies. 

Gomez said receiving such a positive response was a great relief. 

“I was a little nervous because neither of us is Indigenous. We wanted to be sure to balance appreciation versus appropriation.” 

It’s an important consideration, Duke agrees. 

“When it comes to cultural appropriation versus appreciation there is often a very thin line between the two,” says Duke. “Cultural appropriation is often described as the act of taking something that doesn’t belong to you or your culture. Cultural appreciation is the act of seeking to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden perspective and connect with others cross-culturally. This was an integral discussion given we were working with a talented non-Indigenous student artist and these challenging conversations were well received and carried throughout this project.” 

Once Jacob outlined the approved image, the scope of the outreach grew, with the work-in-progress travelling beyond the recruitment office reception area to Fall Campus Day, the scholars reception and Exam Jam for artistic additions. 

“Originally, we were just aiming for incoming students,” says Gomez. “But we actually ended up with so many more than we originally intended to, which made it even better, more collaborative.” 

In addition to prospective students, portions were painted by their families, visiting teachers from local high schools, siblings, current students, staff and U of T dignitaries, including U of T President Meric Gertler. Each session was captured on video. 

The project inspired Jacob, who is planning for a future in neuroscience, to start an art club at UTM called Studio X.  

“We want to beautify spaces around UTM, but also share profound messages about social justice issues and provide a space for learning,” says Jacob. “(The mural) showed me it was possible and that there is support on campus to do projects like this. It just takes initiative and drive.” 

The Pearson Scholar says he appreciates that life at UTM affords opportunities to pursue interests beyond his degree. 

“I’m not studying anything remotely connected to arts or design,” Jacob says. “I’m just following my passion.” 

Gomez says he hopes others will follow Jacob’s example and expand their interests while at UTM. 

“Don’t just go to classes, do something bigger than yourself if you want,” he says. “Don’t let perceptions of what you should be doing limit what you want to do. Come to UTM and do something, make an impact, because there are people out there willing to listen to your idea and help you grow it.”  

Visit the Student Recruitment & Admissions office to view the finished project.

Benji Jacob
Pearson Scholar Benji Jacob, now in his second year, suggested the mural during his work-study placement. (Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)