Art in Greek spaces reflects house traditions, history and culture

by Sophie Huang | 5/3/18 2:25am

by Michael Lin and Sophie Huang / The Dartmouth

A group of freshmen walk into a fraternity basement on a Friday night in search of a game of pong or a dance party. They are successful in that pursuit, but they also stumble upon something surprising: art.

It’s difficult to miss — though we may not think of Greek houses as spaces for observing art, there are quirky murals on basement walls and elaborate paintings on pong tables. In Zeta Psi fraternity, a rendition of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” graces the table beneath puddles of Keystone and plastic cups arranged in a tree-shape. Though the significance of the table is not immediately clear to visitors, the thoughtfulness is apparent and attractive.

“Here we have God with the Keystone, bestowing pong upon Zeta Psi,” said member Nick Newman ’18 about the table.

This particular table is highly visible because it is centrally located in the fraternity basement, where that level of humor and reference to refinement seem out of place. “The Creation of Adam” pong table was painted after the fraternity won the annual Masters pong tournament the summer of 2016.

“That was our way of saying: we won, God gave us pong, we’re the best. That was a fun way to do that,” Newman said.

While the table is a boastful trophy, it also holds private meaning for the brothers of Zete. Though every little detail might not make sense to non-members, there are many hidden elements that are meaningful to the members in terms of the house’s culture, Newman said.

Art in Zete is also meaningful as an enduring marker of one’s time in the house. The fraternity has an artistic tradition in which every sophomore summer, brothers paint a new table to replace the oldest or worst one.

“I wanted to do a nice enough table that they wouldn’t be in a hurry to throw it away any time soon. Maybe in a decade or so when I come back they’ll still be playing on that table, which would be fun,” Newman said. “It’s nice to have a lasting impact on the house in that way.”

This desire for permanence can be seen in other Greek houses around campus. In Kappa Delta Epsilon sorority, each sister paints her name and class year on a wall. According to member Dorothy Qu ’19, sisters are not supposed to paint over names previously written on the basement walls, which allows sisters to literally see everyone before them that has written on it.

“It represents the feeling that you are part of something that is greater than yourself, and also that any contribution that you give will be there forever. It makes people feel more tied to the house in certain ways,” Qu said.

Epsilon Kappa Theta sorority has a similar tradition. Every sophomore summer, each sister paints an ivy leaf on a wall and adds her name to it.

“Probably the most important piece of direct history is all the names written all over the walls because you can look through, and people have written their years. That’s a very visual part of history,” Jiachen Jiang ’20 said.

EKT’s basement showcases striking visual history beyond its ivy leaves. Its basement walls are painted with murals depicting clear messages of female empowerment, including renditions of Rosie the Riveter and “The Birth of Venus.”

Though these paintings are visible representations of EKT’s history, there is a disconnect between the sorority’s origins and its existence today, according to Jiang. EKT’s culture rapidly evolved in recent decades, which caused the current sisters to lose touch with the house’s history and art. They maintain the annual tradition of painting a pong table, but no longer paint murals and are disconnected with the existing ones.

“Historically, Theta was a very different sorority in culture. It was only recently that Theta has existed as Theta. People don’t really know where the art came from, or the significance.”

According to Jiang, the nature of EKT makes it so that it could have only recently begun functioning the way it does today. The house is currently known for having many queer people and women of color, which would not have been possible given Dartmouth’s demographics just a few decades ago, she said.

“It started off as a ‘typical sorority,’ and slowly more and more women of color and gender non-conforming people [joined] the house. Now, Theta has a reputation that a lot of people here are queer, and a lot of people here are women of color, which marks a disconnect between earlier classes and now,” Jiang said.

Despite perhaps feeling removed from the house’s past, sisters of EKT are still careful to preserve its history.

“More than anything, the reason people haven’t really done art on the walls is because of a lack of space,” Jiang said. “It’s pretty much already covered up. People don’t really want to go ahead and paint over something old, even if it’s not necessarily the best kind of art.”

Current members of KDE, however, have a more active connection with the art in their house. Every possible nook in the basement seems to be painted with vibrant, inviting colors and up-to-date pop culture references, like the Minion characters from the movie “Despicable Me.” Last sophomore summer, the sisters of KDE painted a mural of a dragon surrounded by flowers. Qu said that it was refreshing to have something colorful and more “wholesome” than the vulgar art that is typically seen in fraternity basements.

Less abstractly, the walls also contain specific messages such as “Be nice or leave,” and “Two women on table at all times.” The messages painted on the KDE walls are an empowering play on traditional Greek spaces on campus, said Qu.

“If you’re in [a frat], it says some pretty questionable things. The bros love it, but as a woman, you don’t really feel like that is your space. We try to have things in the house that, even if they are a little bit vulgar, will make people feel empowered,” Qu said.

Qu is a member of The Dartmouth staff.