In the Octagon, an alumnus added new faces to a mural that has inspired many. 

by Emily Gold Boutilier

Octagon Mural

Kevin Soltau ’01 will not soon forget the week he slept in the Octagon. It was the summer before his senior year, and after months of research, he was painting a mural of black alumni who’d inspired him. On a ladder, brush in hand, he worked all day and into the night.

“Security would come by, and I’d say, ‘In a couple of hours I’ll be out of here,’” Soltau says, but when he got too tired, he simply rolled out a sleeping bag and closed his eyes.

This winter a new generation of students approached Soltau with an idea: Would he come back to the Octagon and add more faces?

“At first I was hesitant,” says Soltau, a lower-school art teacher in Atlanta, who majored in fine arts at Amherst. “My original idea was that it would continue to live on through other people.” In fact, it had: over the years, two artists, including Renata Robinson-Glenn ’04, had added eight new faces.

But students wanted to meet Soltau, and he was drawn to the symmetry of their request: In selecting people for the original mural, which fills one wall in the Octagon’s Gerald Penny ’77 Center, he’d spent time on the phone with African-American alumni, hearing their stories. He agreed to come back on the condition that current students pick the new faces.

Kevin Soltau '01

Students asked Soltau to come back and paint three more portraits.

“We wanted people we had personal connections with,” says Ajanae Bennett ’16, a member of the Black Student Union’s executive board.

Soltau arrived in February to add the images of Professor Rhonda Cobham-Sander, Dean Charri Boykin-East and the Rev. Timothy Jones ’05E—each of whom has inspired current BSU members. Jones—the Hermenia T. Gardner Bi-Semester Christian Worship Series Fellow at Amherst—was on vacation when he heard the news.

“I started screaming, ‘I’m on the wall! I’m on the wall!’” Jones says. “I can’t express how humbled I am.”

Bennett researched the many people in the mural for a Special Topics course on the Amherst black experience. “It means a lot,” she says, “to see black alumni who have done so much for their communities.”

She hopes to see herself there someday. “It’s beyond inspiring,” Bennett says of the artwork. “It makes me realize what I can do after Amherst and who I can become. It’s propelling me.”