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Portrait of a Muralist

Ryan Du Val painted himself into a corner with his version of the Sistine Chapel on his dorm room ceiling, but he escaped with a new career.

After making his roommate sleep under a giant tarp for a week, Ryan Du Val (Mu02), fresh from a trip to Italy, had finally finished his masterpiece: a rendition of the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of his Bobb-McCulloch Hall dorm room.

By the time word got around during that fall quarter of 1998, Du Val's room had become a tourist attraction. Then the University told the sophomore music major from Los Altos, Calif., that they would be painting over his creation during winter break. (See "Holy Smokes!" News on Campus, spring 1999).

What happened next was the stuff of made-for-TV movies, Du Val says. With the media in tow, Du Val scrambled to find a lawyer to help him protect his work. Then, in the hours before winter break, he and an attorney from Lawyers for the Creative Arts ran to an emergency judge (the two judges Du Val was assigned to had left for the day) at the Federal District Court in Chicago to obtain a temporary restraining order to prevent the University from painting his ceiling. The whole event unfolded with the TV news cameras rolling.

"I was in way over my head," recalls Du Val, who turned 20 years old that memorable week.

Finally, in the out-of-court settlement of Du Val's federal lawsuit against Northwestern, the University agreed to let him keep his work up until the end of the academic year. On the last day of school Du Val stayed behind as long as he could, staring upward and reflecting.

Almost 10 years later, Du Val still remembers how he felt at that moment: sad. "I never went back in there," he says. "I kind of steered clear of campus housing after that. I moved off campus the next year."

By the time Du Val was a fifth-year senior, he had a fellow classmate tell him that the dorm room Sistine Chapel was the stuff of urban legend.

But it was no myth. After Du Val's Sistine Chapel made the press, Du Val started getting commissions, including one from a church in Minnesota for a mural of Jesus. His junior year he moved into the Mosaic Co-Op, a cooperative living community dedicated to conscious living, and happily went back to painting his living spaces, this time duplicating Frederic Church's Mountains of Ecuador. He painted it for the same reasons he did the Sistine Chapel: "You know," he says, "Chicago winters can be quite bleak, especially for a West Coast boy."

Du Val has been drawing and painting his entire life, but the music, religion and computer science triple major never expected to make a career out of it. After graduating from Northwestern, Du Val planned to go into the special effects industry, putting his computer skills to use. He'd landed a job interview with the Orphanage, a special effects company. But he received an invitation to meet muralist John Pugh on the exact day and time of his interview.

"It was a crossroads — go for that job or toss it to the wind," Du Val says. He chose to meet Pugh. "I haven't regretted it since."

Du Val got an apprenticeship with Pugh at his studio in Los Gatos, Calif., where he studied Pugh's trompe l'oeil (French for "trick the eye") style, which creates an illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional plane.

Last March, Du Val finished his biggest commission yet: two murals on a commercial building in El Cerrito, Calif. They focus on the interaction between modern Chinese people and Tibetan monks.

He's worked on eight murals to date. "The exciting thing is that I know this is something I can do now," says Du Val, who lives in Los Altos. "It's funny when you realize you can do something you enjoy for a living. It took me a while to realize that it is not necessarily a paradox."

Du Val says he's learned two things since painting his rendition of the Sistine Chapel: first, to paint his masterpieces on a thin fabric that can be adhered to walls and also removed, and second, "Always check the housing contract," he says with a laugh.

Steph Yiu (J08)

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Du Val with Sistine Chapel mural
In this 1998 photo, Ryan Du Val poses beneath his masterpiece, a rendition of the Sistine Chapel, in his Bobb-McCulloch Hall dorm room.none © 1998, Chicago Sun-Times/Reprinted with permission
Inner Temple mural
A portion of Ryan Du Val's Inner Temple. The mural, painted on two walls of a commercial building in El Cerrito, Calif., focuses on the peaceful co-existence of cultures.Courtesy of Ryan Du Val (Mu02)