Story by Erik Potter
Casey Wendleton looked at the large, blank walls on either side of the grand staircase in the Plaza 900 dining facility. A senior designer at Mizzou, Wendleton had been tasked with finding something decorative to put there. She didn’t know what it would be.
She hunted in shops around town. She searched online. Every time she thought she found something that would be good enough, she’d pass by that space and think to herself, I can’t put that there.
Hundreds of students eat in Plaza 900 every day, most of them freshmen. Dozens of staff members work there. It’s where the Mizzou family comes together to break bread. It’s an important place — too important for a generic, off-the-rack painting or sculpture, the design equivalent of elevator music.
Wendleton, an artist herself, knew what good art is capable of. Good art, she says in a soft, earnest voice, casts a spell.
“I started thinking how we have this one opportunity to make an impact, to send a message, to make art that makes people feel something — art with a purpose,” she says.
Wendleton, a painter, brainstormed with her boyfriend, Tanner Bechtel, a professional in business design thinking and a lay carpenter, and came up with an idea for an original artwork.
Nearly a year later, during Thanksgiving break 2017, an installation company arrived at Plaza 900 to hang Wendleton’s creation. Over the course of 13 hours, the crew drilled holes through yards of wall and concrete, into which they put steel rods, which would act as anchors for the pair of 15-feet-long, 300-pound stained-wood tabletops-turned-murals. Finally, they shimmied the tables up and attached them to the rods.
Throughout the creation process, Wendleton had a certain feeling in mind that she wanted to evoke from that wall space. The artwork she’d made was so big, though, that she had never seen it from the proper perspective. She painted it inside her house, but even with 11-foot ceilings and standing on a ladder, she still couldn’t take it all in at one time.
Now it hung on the wall, 20 feet in the air, shrouded in black plastic, and Wendleton still wasn’t sure she’d accomplished what she’d set out to do.
Then they tore off the plastic.
Where you belong
“Growing up as an artist, there weren’t many kids like me,” Wendleton says. In school, praise abounded for children who exceled at math or history. “I just wanted to create things, to paint and draw.”
But she had two teachers, Mr. Dowell in kindergarten and Mrs. Snapp in elementary school, who encouraged her talent and affirmed it. “They saw something in me that other people didn’t,” Wendleton says. “Because of that, I felt a sense of belonging.”
She ended up earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in graphic design at Columbia College in Columbia, and she also took classes in painting and sculpture.
Wendleton proved that she also had an eye for seeing things that others didn’t. After college, she bought the cheapest, most run-down house in Boonville, Missouri. At 22, she spent her nights and weekends learning to patch plaster and change out toilets. She turned the house into something others could appreciate, then sold it, bought another run-down house and did it all again — eight more times.
Each time, she bought a bigger house. Currently, she lives in a 150-year-old, 5,000-square-feet, formerly lavish retail shop in downtown Boonville, which was dilapidated and full of mold when she purchased it. Wendleton loves to do large-format art — she started her own company, Haunt Design, which specializes in that type of work — and the building’s big rooms and tall ceilings are perfect for her.
So when the opportunity came to fill the wall space in Plaza 900, a void big enough to swallow any timid effort, she was ready.
A whiskey and a plan
Wendleton won the Plaza 900 project in a competitive bid process. After the request for bids had gone out, she and Bechtel, a Mizzou parent, sat on her back porch sipping whiskey and talked through a business-design-thinking approach to the project.
“If you could stand [in that dining room] and speak to students, parents or the staff, how would you want them to feel? What would you want to say?” she asked.
They dug out Post-it notes, put themselves in the shoes of everyone who might be in that room, and wrote down the feelings that each might be experiencing.
Then they tried to address those feelings through images, to find something that says, “Things are going to be OK.”
Given the dimensions of the space — tall and narrow — Wendleton already knew she wanted to do something using tables. She and Bechtel decided to depict two tables ringed by pairs of hands.
The work would represent family and togetherness. The hands would be different shades, sizes and ages, but none would be at the head of the table. There would be no hierarchy. Some would be student hands holding textbooks or writing letters home. Some would be professors’ hands interacting with students. Some would be staff members’ hands cooking meals. Some would be people eating those meals. Some would be artists, scientists, friends. It would be a community — a place to belong and be known, to learn, grow and have fun. It would all be aimed at communicating, “We accept you,” Wendleton says.
Wendleton cut each pair of hands out separately. She kept a stack of them in her living room and painted them in the evening while her grade school–age son watched TV. Then she mounted them on the tables. After about 300 or 400 hours of work, she was done.
“When we got finished mounting it, it was nighttime,” Wendleton remembers. “It took all day. People wanted to go home.” But she asked them to turn on the small spotlights, position them on the artwork and take off the plastic.
She stood back and watched.
“Good art moves you. It makes you feel a certain way,” Wendleton says. When they tore off the plastic, she knew she had hit the mark.
“It glowed,” she says. It felt vibrant and lively. “I wanted to go with these people — they are home; they’re where they’re meant to be.”