Under layers of paint and primer hides a piece of personal history on the Chico State campus, a plaster memory.
The mural—a depiction of an elk with a tent wrapped in its antlers—was on display for just a week, sprawling the back wall of the student gallery in Ayres Hall. Part of senior Brett Day’s culminating exhibition, the image stood long enough for Day’s mother to see it. Like his entire exhibition, the elk represented a callback to the nature-oriented family camping trips of his youth, vignettes of those experiences and recollections of the stories that formed his childhood. The nostalgia was strong.
His mother protested, just briefly, as she helped him paint over it.
“Even though nobody will see it again, it’s still there, a little piece of me, here forever,” said Day, who graduates this month with his bachelor’s degree in fine arts. “I really think I extracted every last drop I could from this place, so it’s fitting that I leave something behind.”
It’s a bit of irony that he put down roots here, because Day has never been one to stay content in one place for long. An appetite for travel and an inextinguishable desire to see new things have fueled his motivation to keep moving. After graduating from high school in the San Diego area, he attended four different community colleges in pursuit of an art degree—a new school each semester—before he decided he wanted to see Europe. To fund his travel after a year and a half at San Diego State, he began tending bar full-time—and dropped out at 21. He liked the money he was making and he felt a sense of freedom.
Day was out of school for nearly four years, filling that time with journeys, as he’d done as a kid. Road-tripping to national parks is one of his most cherished pastimes—Utah’s offerings were always his favorites—and as an adult, he could travel in a more unstructured way than he did with his parents when he was young.
“There’s something deeply humbling and sensory about experiencing new places, new people, and seeing how others live,” Day said. “It’s fascinating and fun. But I have to do it without plans. I’d rather get to a place and ask the locals what’s best.”
That tactic is what brought him to Chico State in fall 2016. He visited the area with a friend and immediately was floored by what he saw: trees everywhere, the ability to ride his bike wherever he wanted, and a campus community that seemed interested in each other’s lives.
It was serendipity. Day applied for admission.
It wasn’t long until he began to stand out in the art and art history department. Professor and department chair Asa Mittman noticed that Day’s nontraditional route had given him life experience that was immediately noticeable.
“One of the reasons he’s been such an asset around here is that he came in as a full-fledged professional, ready to engage as a professional student from the start,” Mittman said. “His love and dedication to learning and especially to his art are apparent to everyone who sees it. Many young artists do art in a way that’s ‘journaling’—they do highly personal work that speaks to them. Brett does art with tendrils that reach out and connect to his audiences, and we’ve seen that in all of his exhibits. His work stops people.”
Needing to find a substitute when his first painting class was canceled, Day signed up for printmaking to fill out his course load. He immediately fell in love with its aspects that were so foreign from art he’d experienced before, as a drawer and painter. The social elements of often needing help to produce a print and the necessity of visiting the print shop for its equipment were a stark contrast—“a lot of hermits paint,” he cracked—and the technical physicality of the ancient process was wildly different than anything he’d done.
But more than any of that, he clicked with the people in the department, itself an interconnected subcommunity at Chico State. With hands-on help from faculty and consistent, constructive collaboration with other students, Day found his people. He may always identify as nomadic by nature, but he couldn’t deny a sense of belonging in the Chico State art department.
“The experience I’m getting is awesome. I’m learning a lot and developing skills that I know I’ll use in my life,” he said. “But it’s more about the connections I’ve been able to make. When you’re here, you develop this core group around you. I’ve learned to embrace it, and it’s always been there.”
And Day has taken advantage. He said he’s applied for every institute, scholarship, and apprenticeship opportunity he’s come across, was a frequent office-hours visitor, and made a point of establishing strong relationships with his professors. His degree matters to him, he said, but it was never more important than learning his craft or surrounding himself with other artists’ perspectives.
“I am pretty sure I milked every last ounce I could have from my time here,” he said.
Given Day’s relish for new things, he sees himself leaving his future options open. He wants to eventually go to graduate school, then teach art at the college level, long-term, to help pay forward the sense of community and learning he felt from his professors at Chico State. Where or when that will happen is uncertain—it won’t be immediately; he’s got road trips to Yellowstone and the Tetons planned in the coming months. But in the meantime, he will work in the Janet Turner Print Museum this summer and continue teaching grade-schoolers the fundamentals of printmaking at Chico Schoolhouse Art, a public program from within the University’s Ira Latour Visual Resources Collection.
“For the near future, I’m totally fine flying by the seat of my pants,” Day said through a smile, noting that he’s also signed up for various odd jobs in town, from assisting a local sculptor with plaster work to working for a catering company, all while continuing to hone his art skills. “The most valuable thing to me is time, and I want to use it in a way that fulfills me the most. For me, that’s the outdoors and my art.”
Naturally, those two things are represented in a symbolic example of Day’s growth and change during his time at Chico State. The beloved elk mural he buried under paint may be hidden from view, but Day stressed that its value to him was always in its impermanence.
“Nothing lasts forever,” Day said. “I don’t want my art to be remembered, per se, because memories evolve, and we twist them around in our own mind, and it transforms them into new experiences every time we retell the story. I came to Chico wanting something new, and I got it.”