Hidden Gem: La Follette Black Light Mural Brought Joy to Physics Class
Scott Girard | The Cap Times
For the past 35 years, if you walked into room A24 at La Follette High School and looked up, you saw the plain, off-white ceiling tiles that were standard in 1960s buildings.
Unless, that is, you happened to have a black light with you. In that case, like thousands of La Follette students who have taken physics in that classroom over the past four decades, you’ve seen a brilliant mix of colors that highlights many of the concepts of the classes taught there.
In summer 1985, then-recent graduate Laurie Wanta spent more than 10 hours standing on the classroom’s tables, craning her neck toward the ceiling with an ultraviolet light aimed at the tiles. She created what she recalls as a representation of the compatibility between science and religion informed by the “little bit of existentialism” one has when they’re young.
The large castle at the center, for example, is “a representation of the Kingdom of God,” she said, with equations like “E=mc²” right next to it.
“Science is the structures built by God for the awe of humans and the glory of God,” she said. “I saw that tension, and that they don’t have to be incompatible.”
In the 37 years since, La Follette physics students have had a chance to take that message — or another of their own interpretation — as teachers would reveal the mural toward the end of a semester, surprising students who had no idea of the creativity hanging above them for months.
Jim Reichling, one of the few teachers who taught in that classroom, said he learned from his predecessor to “set up a demonstration that required a black light and not lead into it in any way or warn” the students.
“So (I’d) set up a demonstration with the black light on the front table that you wanted the students to focus on and just keep talking about that as if there was nothing going on in the ceiling,” Reichling said. “Then somebody would always happen to look up and see it and be surprised and say something, and then the lesson would just spin on its head at that point.
“There was just so much excitement about it.”
This year was the final time for that experience. As part of the construction following the successful 2020 capital referendum, La Follette is getting upgraded physics rooms, including the ceilings. The ceiling came down last week.
Staff had hoped to find a way to preserve the ceiling itself, but after considering the options, Reichling said they settled on capturing a digital image of the mural that will be set up elsewhere in the school to “preserve the history” in a different way.
“We could have put it somewhere and mounted it horizontally with a black light, but it’s just not the same experience as what it was,” he said. “There’s no way to really capture that piece in its original location, as unique as it was to have in that way.”
In talking with students about what would happen to the mural, Reichling said he hopes there’s an opportunity to find a student “inspired to do something similar” in the new physics spaces.
“I don’t know exactly what form it’ll take, but I really hope that not only does the digital image preserve what was there and preserve that memory for people that have seen it, but also that it will be a connection to the future for something that can be created that fits the new space, and that creates more history with students who are at La Follette right now,” he said.
Nearly four decades since it was created, Reichling was able to connect with the artist and the teacher who commissioned her.
In an email from Paul McIntosh, the then-La Follette physics teacher, to Reichling this week, McIntosh wrote that the idea was inspired by a visitation day at Wauwatosa West High School, where the school’s physics teacher had a student put an ultraviolet picture on the ceiling.
“I expressed an interest and he supplied the source of the chalk,” McIntosh wrote. “Visitation days were a great way to talk shop with others in the field.”
He recalled Wanta expressing an interest in “putting the ‘Wonderful World of Physics’” on the ceiling, inspired by the Walt Disney castle. Both the teacher and the artist remembered the amount of chalk dust that fell onto her as she worked.
“I was in the dark and then I would just be covered with it when I left, but then, of course, nobody knew,” she said, as no one carried around a black light to shine on her and illuminate the dust.
At one point, McIntosh wrote in his email, the head custodian unlocked the classroom so it could be used for interviews for job candidates. He found “Laurie, our Michelangelo, on the tables using the soft chalk drawing on the ceiling in the black lights with some tunes playing on the radio,” and found another place for the interviews.
“She looked like a tinker bell with the chalk dust in multicolors on her,” McIntosh wrote. “Was he surprised! I heard him make some exclamation and then I explained the situation. He eventually found another room for those assigned to A 24. In retrospect, pretty funny.”
The work provides a multitude of physics lessons, Reichling noted, from the prism splitting a beam of light into the colors of the rainbow, different equations and how the black light itself works.
“La Follette has a long tradition in the arts, and I think it’s been really nice to have that connect to science in this really meaningful way,” he said.
That the mural made it 37 years without being accidentally destroyed amid technological upgrades and renovations took some luck.
There’s one corner that didn’t make it. Reichling said former physics teacher Charles Chapin walked into the room the Monday after the end of a school year in the mid-2000s to find someone standing on a ladder “busting out ceiling tiles.”
“He got there right after the first two had broken out, and he said he screamed at the person to stop and the person had this confused look on his face,” Reichling said. “He went in the back room and got the black light and showed him and explained what was going on, so they stopped the project.”
Reichling said efforts like those to preserve “this precious piece of art over its long, long history” make it sad to say goodbye.
“It’s been shepherded by a lot of people over time,” he said. “It’s kind of a careful treasure, and that’s part of what makes it even harder to let go right now.”
It lasted long enough that Wanta had mostly forgotten about it herself. Reichling and Wanta connected last year, when the artist was able to come back to the school and see her work. She said last week “it had to be kind of pulled out of my memory that this even existed.”
“I thought, ‘Oh, it’s going to be small, it’s going to be simplistic,’” Wanta said.
Instead, she found something that “actually had dimension to it, it seemed to hang off the ceiling.” She credited that to the years it had been on the ceiling, whether it was dust or the chalk collecting some particles to give it that effect.
“I was just so shocked, I really forgot about it,” she said. “That was so amazing to just have that all come back in one moment and then to know that it has had an impact on people without you realizing it.”
'Inspiration and connections'
Wanta isn’t sure how many of her own classmates know the mural existed or that she did it, since the project happened after their graduation.
To know that thousands of others have seen it, though, is “unbelievable” and “delightful.”
“The fact that they’ve loved it all this time, I’m happy to say I contributed in that way to La Follette,” Wanta said. “I love La Follette, I loved it, I really did, and I know that it continues on.”
Reichling said the mural was “an important piece to showcase” at the school’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2013. Connecting with Wanta last year and sharing the mural’s ongoing significance was a special experience, he added.
“It was really meaningful to know we had a chance to validate to her just how important it had been,” he said. “It gave me a chance to share what it has been used for, how it’s been shared with literally thousands of students over the time that it was there.”
While it’s been a “hard transition” over the past year as they arrived at the reality that it would have to be removed, Reichling said the story of the artwork will continue to inspire.
“The inspiration and the connections that it’s provided may have gone far beyond what Laurie and Paul thought would happen when they created it,” he said. “That’s very exciting, and I think it speaks to how it hopefully will endure in the future if we do create something new.”
This content was originally published by The Cap Times on May 16, 2022. To view the full story on their website, please click here.