The Mills Public Art Initiative

In early summer 2020, Mills students created and installed a sign at the front of the Mills campus demanding justice for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. This activism inspired the College to dedicate space at the campus entrance for public art that expresses our community’s ongoing commitment to gender and racial justice and our solidarity with the national Black Lives Matter Movement. We hope this installation created by our community members will bring awareness to and generate conversations about the meaning and importance of social justice.

The installation envelops the pillars at the entrance to Richards Road alongside a corresponding Black Lives Matter banner. This original artwork at the College’s entryway speaks to the current nationwide calls for justice and connects Mills with our East Oakland community.

The road leading into the Mills College campus is framed by a stone and stucco gateway, four pillars of which are encased with new artwork providing pops of vibrant color visible from across the street; a yellow Black Lives Matter banner is positioned before the pillars flanking the right side of the entrance.

A yellow Black Lives Matter banner is positioned before the Mills College entryway featuring black and white sketches of plant life that correspond with the designs of local flora displayed on the pillars behind the sign, overlaying a colorful tableau of purples, oranges, greens, and blues.

A yellow Black Lives Matter banner stands before the Mills College gateway; in the background two of the four pillars flanking the campus entrance are wrapped with new artwork depicting a collage of plant life with vibrant pops of color. To the right is a student created banner honoring the lives of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, the creation of which inspired the College's Public Art Initiative.

In the foreground a student-created sign that reads #BlackLivesMatter at the top, the names of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor listed underneath, stands alongside the College entryway, the gate of which features artwork from recent alums inspired by East Oakland and created to pay homage to the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Two of the pillars at the College's entrance flank a pedestrian pathway leading into campus. They are enveloped with public artwork featuring naturalist sketches of local plant life and eruptions of colors both bold and muted.

The top of one pillar is adorned with detailed sketches of local flora and a medley of colors—turquoise, orange, fuschia, pale green, and muted mauve—colors taken from signage, houses, and natural landscapes from the East Oakland neighborhoods of Seminary, Millsmont, Laurel, Frutivale, and Maxwell Park.

The Debut Artwork: Converging Flora

The first art piece launching the Mills Public Art Initiative in the fall of 2020 is entitled Converging Flora. The art is the shared creative work of Cristine Blanco and Yétundé Olagbaju, two graduates of the Mills MFA in Studio Art Program and members of the Class of 2020, which graduated amidst the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and just weeks prior to George Floyd’s death.

A committee convened by Mills President Elizabeth L. Hillman and spearheaded by Professors Catherine Wagner and Ajuan Mance commissioned these Oakland-based artists to create a piece for the front of campus. This new exhibit space and the debut artwork, Converging Flora, serve as a public statement of the College’s beliefs in social justice, equity, and the inherent value of Black lives.

Supported by gifts from alumnae and friends of the College and in collaboration with Mills College Art Museum Director Stephanie Hanor and Director of Facilities, Compliance, and Sustainability Karen Fiene, the artists created an eye-catching installation to greet campus-goers, visitors to the College, Oakland neighbors, and all who pass by Mills. Their work features a wallpaper-like design printed across two four-sided vinyl panels that wrap the pillars at the College’s front gate alongside a matching banner that reads Black Lives Matter.

The central motif of the artwork is the dance of local plant life, including both indigenous species native to the Oakland foothills in which Mills resides as well as introduced species, like the eucalyptus that grows abundantly on campus. Accenting the flora are pops of color, also sourced from the surrounding Seminary, Millsmont, Laurel, Maxwell Park, and Fruitvale neighborhoods. The interplay of indigenous and introduced plant life mixed with a color story inspired by the local neighborhoods offers a naturalist metaphor for viewers to consider the dynamics of native and non-native populations, historic residents and newcomers, gentrification, and land use. The mural serves as a commemoration for Black lives lost that invites reflection on the ways in which national conversations about racial justice find roots in the Oakland landscape.

Yétundé Olagbaju
I want our piece to make the gate an entryway for people to enter into conversation with us.

The intentionality behind the mural and the meaning is not necessarily right in your face. Coupled with the Black Lives Matter banner we’ve created, there may be an inkling though. Through color and composition, there will be a sense of something disrupting something else.

Yétundé Olagbaju, MFA ’20

Artists' Statement

As artists and recent graduates of Mills College, we began this collaborative piece by examining the ways we have processed the current global pandemic and civil rights movement. As a way to cope, we have been spending precious time outside, finding refuge and comfort in the colors and flora of our neighborhoods (Fruitvale and Laurel). In the same breath, we have also reflected on the location of Mills, its neighboring communities, and the flora that makes them. Specifically, we have considered how the campus is a nexus for many converging backgrounds and perspectives. For many, it is also a place that holds tension: barriers between the campus and surrounding neighborhoods, gender inequalities, grappling with police brutality, and so much more.

It is our belief that the relationship between indigenous and invasive plant species can mirror this tension, within Mills, the history of Oakland, and what we experience in our everyday lives.

Converging Flora presents portraits of that tension as it is: layered, detailed, but in an inextricable relationship. You will find no faces in this piece, but it is our hope that through color, composition, scale, and line that you will bear witness to that conflict.

Cristine Blanco and Yétundé Olagbaju

cristine blanco
For me, plants are a form of offering to those who have passed. In a time of grief, I wanted to honor and celebrate the passed lives.

We were thinking about how gentrification has changed the cultural landscape in Oakland. And that’s also in conversation, I think, with all of the social justice organizing that is happening.

Cristine Blanco, MFA '20


Thank you to the generous donors, including members of the Mills Board of Trustees and the Alumnae Association of Mills College, who provided funding for the Mills Public Art Initiative.

Black Lives Matter at Mills

Mills has long been committed to racial justice and has renewed our efforts to take the next step to become an antiracist institution. Visit our Black Lives Matter page to learn about the initiatives we are undertaking to support our students, faculty, staff, alumnae, and our East Oakland community.