July 15, 2021

Dean Jo Ann Regan of the National Catholic School of Social Service (NCSSS) wants her students to have an updated lounge when they return to campus in the fall 2021 semester. “Especially after all the separation brought about by the COVID pandemic, I want them to have a welcoming place to gather and connect,” she says.

She had an idea. Could the “renovation” project include a large-scale mural on the wall outside of the lounge? She saw that wall, located on the basement level of the school’s home in Shahan Hall, as a blank canvas ready for the inspiration of an artist.

Joanie McMahon was about to graduate this past spring with a degree in studio art when the invitation came her way. “I had never tried a mural before. And I thought, why not try one more challenge before I leave campus,” she says.

McMahon’s senior thesis exhibition (“Mater Vulgaris”) was powerful. She created modern icons of mothers using family photographs as references and embellishing the candid scenes with gold leaf and symbolic flowers. Her paintings showed her gift for bringing people to life in a memorable, soulful way.

Jonathan Monaghan, chair of the Department of Art in the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, Drama, and Art, describes the exhibit as “a thoughtful series of paintings that were not only technically well-executed, but contained deep emotional and personal impact. It is rare to come across a student with both technical mastery and that special insight to create truly meaningful artworks.”

"Murals are not only aesthetic, but they can reflect a city’s identity and soul. They are increasingly becoming prominent features in cities throughout the country, and D.C. is no exception. Murals often have a relationship with social issues, and so the collaboration with the National Catholic School of Social Service is a clear fit."
– Jonathan Monaghan
Chair of the Department of Art

She could have left it at that. But instead of coasting through her last few weeks of senior year, McMahon began researching mural techniques.

Throughout her four years as an art student, McMahon found a home at CatholicU. “I love the campus and the D.C. experience,” she says. “And I love the small size of the art department. I got to know my professors as mentors, and that’s been so special and invaluable.”

As she developed ideas and sketches for the mural, she sought guidance from two of those mentors, Monaghan and Art Professor Delane Ingalls Vanada. “I found myself going back to so many of the concepts I learned in Dr. Delane’s course on creativity and critical thinking,” says McMahon. “Sometimes it can be frustrating to not have a lightbulb idea right away. That class really helps you with the process of brainstorming.”

McMahon also talked with social work students as she was planning her concept. And she worked on sketches,which she shared with Monaghan, Ingalls Vanada, and Regan, refining them based on feedback.

She started with a firm assertion. “It was important to me that the people in need of help were not portrayed as victims. I wanted to show social work in action and in a way that elevates the people being served,” says McMahon.

After graduating, she began spending her days in late May and early June in the basement of Shahan Hall. With music playing in the background, McMahon started sketching out the mural in chalk. That took several days, and a lot of stepping back and looking at the chalk sketch on the wall, and making adjustments. Then she dipped her brushes in the acrylic paint and got to work.

“I got the challenging bits done first — the people’s faces. I wanted them to stand out. And then I began working on the details around them,” she says.

About four weeks after she started sketching in chalk, McMahon had a finished mural that shows three different scenes on the themes of housing, education, and everyday service set under the D.C. skyline. Tying the images together are hands sharing a bowl at the center of the mural with the words “Putting Mercy into Action.”  

“It’s cool to be able to literally leave a mark on the campus,” she says. “It’s kind of like leaving your initials on a dorm room wall. But this is so much better, and I’m leaving something that I hope will have a positive impact on students.”

Now that it’s finished, McMahon says it’s time to step away. “At this point, it belongs to the school.”