The Colors of Music

Danielle Dreilinger
September 24, 2009
The sax player's solo is so hot, it's melting her horn.
After students kept suggesting it, singer/songwriter (and painter) Stenquist finally put herself into the mural.
A hand percussionist represents Berklee's vibrant world music scene.
The mural brightens up the underground space.
Stenquist works on painting the DJ.
Photo by Erica Stenquist
Photo by Erica Stenquist
Photo by Erica Stenquist
Photo by Erica Stenquist

Many students dream of leaving a mark first on Berklee, then the world. This summer, Erica Stenquist got at least the first part accomplished—literally. The songwriting major and vocal principal covered the entire rear wall of the Berklee cafeteria with a colorful mural of musicians celebrating their craft.

As a resident assistant (RA) in the 150 Massachusetts Avenue dorm, the rising senior had eaten many a meal in the caf. While she liked the friendships and food, the physical environment of the windowless basement was . . . a little unexciting.

But Jessica MacKool, director of dining services, had an idea. She'd seen the funky banners Stenquist painted to promote dorm events and called her up out of nowhere to ask: Would she create a mural for the caf? Stenquist had painted theater set pieces with family. She jumped in.

Facilities staff spackled over old holes and moved the bench seats away from the wall. Cafeteria workers loaned her a food trolley to hold paint. With only 12 days for the project, Stenquist worked on the mural all day and RA'd in the evening, chronicling her progress online at

As she researched ideas, she "saw a lot of art about music that had lots of colors," she says. "I finally decided to paint something that would represent, I think, the vibe at Berklee: many different faces and kinds of music."

The task was challenging both creatively and physically (all that standing gave her a charley horse!), plus a little nerve-wracking once the critics—that is, summer students—arrived. With all those eyes on her, painting felt like performance. Fortunately, as an RA, Stenquist welcomed dialogue with students. "I'd ask what their opinion was and I'd put it right on the wall," she says. "This is their space."

She chose an instrument from each department, plus a DJ, conductor, acoustic guitarist, and hand percussionist to represent music synthesis, composition/film scoring, songwriting, and world music. She "let the paint take control . . . improvising. It was kind of like music."

The results thrum with energy. A guitarist thrashes, fat blond dreads flailing like sun rays. The saxophonist's instrument looks like it's melting with the heat of her solo—a touch Stenquist achieved with dripping paint. Signing the mural, she had butterflies in her stomach.

"It really, I think, changes the mood of the space," she says. "It's very humbling."

It has rapidly become the students' mural. Not only do they love how it brightens the room, she says, but many identify with a particular figure. (Only one depicts a real person.)

Now, Stenquist imagines future jobs in the art world. After MacKool shared the blog with other Aramark college canteens, a staff person from Pine Manor College contacted Stenquist requesting their own mural. Before she takes that on, she's extending the Berklee mural to another wall.

It's just part of the college's unexpected boost to her creativity. "I never thought that I would come here and start painting!" Stenquist says. "I just thought [Berklee] would stop with music, but it's turned out to be so much more."