During his 19 years as dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, Murry DePillars nearly doubled the school’s enrollment to 2,400. He grew its endowment and its performing arts facilities. He propelled the school’s national prominence — most recently, it placed No. 2 in the country among arts schools.
In honor of his accomplishments both as a dean and an artist, VCU on Thursday renamed its fine arts building at the intersection of West Broad and Shafer streets for DePillars. The building, long and thin, is located at a prominent location, along the north side of Broad, one block from the Siegel Center.
A drum roll commenced and a curtain was lifted, displaying DePillars’ name above the building’s entrance, high above the sidewalk. It can be seen from a distance.
“He leaves an amazing legacy,” said Carmenita Higginbotham, the school’s current dean.
DePillars brought jazz festivals and high-profile fashion shows to Richmond, and he emphasized hiring minority employees before diversity was a priority for universities, Higginbotham said.
DePillars was the first Black dean of VCUarts, and his African American heritage was distinctive in his artwork. In his 1968 drawing “Aunt Jemima,” he depicts a pancake box with its trademark African American mother emerging from the box, wielding a spatula as a weapon.
The inspiration for his work came from living in a part of the culture that wasn’t always appreciated, said his wife, Mary DePillars. His art rejected the status quo and demanded accountability from authority, she said. He died in 2008 at the age of 69.
“Today is just a phenomenal day in our lives,” Mary DePillars said at Thursday’s event. “I just wish he could have been here to see and hear the many accolades coming his way, because Lord knows he deserved every one of them.”
A free exhibition of his paintings in the DePillars building is now open to the public. It runs weekdays through Oct. 14.
Many of his other paintings resemble quilts with a brightly colored patchwork of triangles and squares. But layered within the patterns are shadowy images and people.
In the painting “Wynton,” an image of famed trumpet player Wynton Marsalis emerges over the quilt. Hidden inside the layers are a Bedu mask, serpents, a drummer and a saxophone player.
“He weaves all of these threads together in a most wonderful way,” said Richard Woodward, curator of the African art collection at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
To get all the detail, you have to look two or three times, Woodward said. Watch with a passing glance, and you’ll miss something.
Though DePillars was busy as a VCU dean, he managed to find time to paint. He often carried a briefcase containing a small canvas, brushes and paint. If he was sitting at the airport with 20 minutes to spare, he’d open the case and paint for a little while, Woodward said.
The changing of the building’s name comes at an important time, VCU President Michael Rao said. The edifice, which has been known only as the Fine Arts Building since it opened in 1999, was approved for a new name last year.
The school’s board of visitors voted to put DePillars’ name over the door at the same time they made the controversial decision to erase Confederate references from the campus, including plaques and busts of Confederate soldiers and supporters.
Ever since, VCU has chosen names that unite everyone, Rao said. VCU’s mission is all about the people it serves and the lives it lifts. In those ways, DePillars embodied the university’s mission.
“He just elevated VCU — all of VCU,” Rao said.