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Beyond the doodles: A deeper look at the collaborative canvas on campus 

A deeper look at the collaborative canvas on campus
The finished piece which is available for view on the first floor of Ayers. Taken by Nadia Hill on March 27, 2024.

Hidden on the second floor of Ayers Hall, between the painting studio and the Ira Latour Visual Resource Collection there is an ever-changing canvas.

There, you will find a stool with a chalk kit set on top — although you are welcome to bring your own —  and a sign inviting you to cover the canvas in drawings. 

The work comprises all types of mediums from a diversity of students passing by. 

Every mark is piled on top of another, creating an overwhelming viewing experience from afar. Still, as you get closer you can fully digest the crowded piece filled with silly characters, song lyrics and quotes, colorful scribbles, and full illustrations.

Each day you visit this piece, you will get a new experience — noticing new additions or previous additions you had yet to find. 

A close up photo of the piece, highlighting a message to Rokee Ajaw. Taken by Nadia Hill on Feb. 15, 2024.

The idea started from Rokee Ajaw, a fifth-year bachelor of fine arts student. Ajaw came to Chico State from Los Angeles.

Ajaw had always had an interest in art. Along with participating in the Los Angeles Unified School District of Fine Arts for a decade, Ajaw attributed a lot of his artistic inspiration to his father.

“My dad actually, I think is what inspired me the most,” he said, “He fled to America but before then he would always tell me he would want to be a mural artist. So growing up he would always give me a pen and we would like to draw together and stuff. So I think that’s one of the reasons it’s got instilled in me.”

Early last semester, Ajaw found himself with a large canvas in his studio space from the summer going into his fourth year. He started the piece as a commentary on how people dispose of trash in society and was composed of coupons, receipts, and plastic bags Ajaw found interesting on morning walks. 

“I was using that to build up these weird layers and layers and layers,” he said, “I was putting in drawings and stuff in there and that kinda just built up over the course of a year.” 

The top layer of the piece was made to appear to be concrete — which was so realistic, some people thought Ajaw used real concrete in the work.

“The whole idea of what I wanted to stem off from growing up in Los Angeles all I would see all the time was concrete surrounding me,” he said. Everything was just solid gray, white and black.”

His professors praised the piece, but Ajaw never felt the work was quite finished. 

Ajaw had always been interested in graffiti. In his childhood in LA, he saw buildings covered in public art like murals and graffiti.

“The idea of people having a claimed space by putting their name on there without knowing who was involved was always interesting to me,” he said. “I did a little graffiti when I was younger but I didn’t get the hang of it and I felt wack doing it.”

After his blip in graffiti, Ajaw felt he needed to pull back to see how to approach the concept differently. His current piece was essentially a giant cement slab which was the perfect candidate to explore it. 

“I had it sitting around for months just in my studio space, staring at it every day, so I was like fuck it, I’ll hang it up on the wall,” he said. “And I felt I did this and it was time to let other people see what they can do on it.” 

In August, next to the piece, Ajaw left some materials to encourage people to draw on the canvas, but people were hesitant, resulting in only a few small marks. 

“But that’s when I decided to do something to tell people they could draw on this,” he said. “And I drew a little picture of myself and stuck it on there and it said ‘Hey it’s Rokee c’mon draw on this thing help me fill it up.’” 

From there, people got the message as the canvas started to fill up with doodles and sketches. And once there was no more room, people just drew on top of what was already there, adding more layers to the piece. 

In December, a new sign was added next to the piece. The sign was a message to the public directly from Ajaw telling the viewers to appreciate the time they have in the moment.

At that time, Ajaw lost three people in three months.

“Grief is a weird thing,” he said. “Growing up in the area, I was surrounded. You almost became desensitized to it. When I first saw someone get killed I was eight-years-old and I was in the park with my dad. You never forget those kinds of things.” 

By writing that sign, Ajaw wanted to use his experience to speak out and remind people to slow down. 

“That’s why I put it in there, it’s a message I’m trying to warn people about — not like I think I’m the right person to be helping people, not yet,” he said.  “But I want to make it aware that sometimes you gotta slow down and take a breath even if it’s for yourself. Realize it’s all temporary so we need to care about what we have right now. Right now is what we need to focus on as much as we can at least.”

Coming into the spring semester, the canvas stayed up and continued to evolve into something new each day. 

Once it was up, Ajaw didn’t add much to the work — aside from adding texture with posters and woodcut prints, and also some song lyrics. He believes his work on the piece is finished.

Since all the work is done on the top layer, Ajaw has been entertaining the idea of removing that layer and placing the base in another department to become a record of that building. 

The art community at Chico State is close-knit according to Ajaw, but he also expressed concern about the echo chamber that artists can fall into without interaction with the rest of the community. Ajaw would be interested in seeing the ways other departments would react and create if the project was replicated in other parts of campus. 

“I wish we had more chances to interact with more people because we are here in our little corner,” he said.

This semester Ajaw has his culminating exhibition. A culminating exhibition is a graduation requirement for the BFA program. His exhibition will be open from March 25 to April 6 in the downstairs studio space in Ayers Hall. 

“It usually consists of setting up in the space and having a show. It’s a professional practice type of thing,” he said.

The work featured will revolve around mental illness and disassociation, which Ajaw has struggled with in his own life. The work is meant almost to overstimulate the viewers as they walk around the gallery.

Whilst the gallery is open, Ajaw will be working on a piece from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a short break for lunch. 

“It’s just gonna be me and the work,” he said. “I want to see what comes out of that and that process of putting your whole intent into something, for me it’s art, but that idea of being intentional” 

A close up photo of the piece, highlighting the Cool S in red, next to a detailed Frog Unicorn. (Nadia Hill )

When looking at the mural recently, there are a lot of iconic pop culture characters hidden. These types of doodles get the most reaction out of Ajaw. 

He admits his all-time favorite addition would have to be the “Cool S” — a popular symbol of an “S” made up of six lines.

Through the mural, Ajaw created a record of the last year for both himself and his community. The outlet he made encourages unashamed expression and fosters a shared sense of belonging.  

“At this point, it’s out of my hands, it doesn’t belong to me anymore,” he said. “I was the one who made it, but it belongs to here and everyone who contributed to it.”  

Nadia Hill can be reached at [email protected].

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About the Contributor
Nadia Hill
Nadia Hill, Arts and Entertainment and Food Editor
Nadia Hill is originally from Carson City, Nevada, and is in the middle of her sophomore year. Currently, she is double-majoring in journalism (public relations) and studio arts. She is one of two social media managers on The Orion. Both writing and social justice have captivated her with the field of journalism and is excited to continue with her second semester on The Orion. In her personal time, she enjoys painting, performing and working with children.

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    Kathy Shaw // Apr 16, 2024 at 9:22 am

    I would love to see a photo of Ajaw adding to the art