The Mystery of the Commons Cowgirl Painting

Photo Courtesy of David Hall

Article Written by: Mackay Pierce

If you were to make a list of places that every Roanoke College student has visited within their tenure, it may be a list quite smaller than you would expect. The chemistry labs at the top of Trexler may seem like a foreign land to members of the English department, just as the hallways of Olin may seem strange to the denizens of West. Indeed, I know many seniors who haven’t made it to any sporting events during their time here.

Abraham Maslow once theorized of a “hierarchy of needs.” A pyramid from bottom to top of those things most vital to a person’s capability of becoming their best self. Naturally, at the bottom of the pyramid are those immediate physiological needs for our survival: air, water, shelter, and food. One immutable truth remains about us college students – We all have to eat food. This is an extended way of saying that, as Roanoke College students, we have all spent some serious time in the Commons.

At this point you may be wondering, just what this article is all about. Ultimately this is an article about the nature of truth. An inquiry into who and what we are as Roanoke College students. What are the forces that bind us together? What shared experiences do we carry that make us members of this community? And, seriously, just what the hell is that giant cowgirl painting in the Commons?

Y’all know what I am talking about. At one point or another it has happened to all of us. There you are enjoying a nice chicken and tendees dinner with your pals. Perhaps you are all sharing a laugh over the crippling existential dread of post collegiate life. Maybe you are discussing the merits of the different dessert options. And then, suddenly, a chill runs down your spine. You hear a scream in the distance and you are not sure why (it’s your mother’s voice.) You have that unmistakable feeling that occurs when you are alone in the middle of the woods of being watched.

As you cast about in confusion you finally look up and there she is. You cannot help but meet her gaze. Don’t fight it. Your limbs are suddenly frozen. You become lost in the flanks of her mighty steed and the impossible, truly impossible, breadth of her mare’s neck. You are bewildered, baffled even, and left questioning all that you once knew about the world.

Once you recover from your stupor you are left with many questions. It occurs to you that the decorations in the Commons have never made much sense. But, you cannot help but wonder: Seriously, just what the hell is that giant cowgirl painting doing in the Commons?

This was the true heart of my inquiry. And, after four years embedded among the indigenous populations of Roanoke College, I have ultimately been left with more questions than answers. The wry observer may notice that there is a plaque next to the painting itself. And there are some interesting clues here. But I wanted more.

The story begins, as it often does on college campuses, with the board of trustees. The painting itself comes with a plaque explaining its origins. It was commissioned by Board of Trustee member Joanne Casullo. The name of the artist is almost as mysterious as the piece itself: Bob “Daddy-O” Wade. The painting was commissioned by Casullo in honor of a one Anne Weinstein, who is the very likeness of the cowgirl herself. Described as an art lover, Weinstein’s mark on campus extends farther than the corner of our campus, reaching as far as the famous solar sculptures in the science quad. These contributions to the artistic aesthetic of campus led to the painting, and her likeness, to be commissioned.

As I dug deeper and asked around it became clear there were forces at work who wanted this mystery to remain unsolved; perhaps it was the specter of the cowgirl herself. But I pressed on.

“Her eyes definitely follow you,” said Vivian Wing, one of the Commons staffers.

Ms. Dale went on to expand further as to the broader design scheme in the cafeteria.

“I think she mostly chose stuff that she liked when she was out and about,” Ms. Dale said. “She” here refers to the former manager of the cafeteria Virginia Dooley, whose mark remains unmistakably on the space. From the African masks that flank the cowgirl, to the various other impressionist paintings of fruit and food in other parts of the space, Dooley’s vision still remains very much in place for the majority of the decorations in commons.

However there did seem to remain some controversy surrounding the location. Some high level staff members of commons, who chose to remain anonymous, referred to the placement of the piece as “awkward.”

Talia Logan, who is the director of Olin Gallery, corroborated the original story as recorded on the plaque next to the painting itself. The cowgirl is part of the collection of Roanoke College, so, she is definitely here to say. When asked how best to describe the general decoration scheme in commons, Logan’s word was “eclectic.”

So she is here to stay. And, as perhaps all of the different cogs involved in her presence in the Commons would indicate, they may be just exactly how she wants it. One of the other staffers in the Commons, a 30-year veteran, William, captured the mystique of the cowgirl best. When asked about his feelings about the painting, he had to be reminded which we were referring to. Perhaps this is the enduring lesson of the cowgirl – She is always watching… and perhaps waiting.