Wrapped around a wide and generous staircase connecting the third and fourth floors of the Elizabeth Huth Coates Library at Trinity University, visitors will find a collection of images making up the world’s largest collage mural.  

Among the more than 800 images in James Sicner’s 15-foot-by-80-foot Man’s Evolving Images, Printing and Writing, visitors can see Mickey Mouse and angels carrying heavenly tablets of text rubbing shoulders with the Statue of Liberty. Old currencies and hieroglyphics join hands as the mural winds around and around.  

This year, the mural turns 40 — and it remains pristine.

In the 1970s, Sicner was a young artist exhibiting in Colorado. San Antonio’s renowned architect O’Neil Ford, designer of Trinity University, was himself putting the finishing touches on the Coates library. The architect was so impressed by Sicner that he hired him, presenting to him a bland library stairwell that begged for life.

Sicner saw a place to tell a story, the great story of humankind. 

The Ewing Halsell Foundation commissioned Sicner in 1977, and he first took two years to research and select his icons. Then he sat at the library every day, painstakingly gluing on every piece, finishing the mural in 1983.

“It has hundreds and hundreds of images,” said Lisa Castro Endresen, manager of the Neidorff Gallery and director of the University Collection. “Superman and Corinthian columns! And when it was being created, it was as a work of art for Trinity but it has become the largest collage mural in the world. It encompasses as much as he could put on there, from all of humanity, from all times.”  

James Sicner with Mural
James Sicner with Mural Credit: Courtesy / Special Collections and Archives, Coates Library, Trinity University

And if anyone leaves behind a spot, you can bet that a  librarian will rush up to wipe it right off. 

“The only kind of wear and tear that we have ever observed was on the inside — when they put their hand on the banister,” said Jason Hardin, the library’s manager of access services.  

“I have been here 20 years and I still occasionally see some little thing that I have never seen before.”  Some “stories” are so tiny that they are undiscovered, tucked deep into corners.  

Jason Hardin dresses as artist James Sicner for Halloween.
Jason Hardin dresses as artist James Sicner for Halloween. Credit: Courtesy / Jason Hardin

Art conservators clean it and even the admissions office includes the mural in its prospectus. 

University Archivist Abra Schnur says that in the pre-digitized 1980s, Sicner used a photographic enlarger to amplify the historic, literary, and scientific images.  

The budget for the mural was $25,000 but its value today remains a matter for their risk management department. “That is hard for us in archives. Because we don’t appraise the material that we have,” said Schnur.  

Printed on thick, durable paper are over 800 pictures, from Alice in Wonderland’s White Rabbit to Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, to astronaut Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, to a black shadowed Stonehenge with our sun blazing through it. 

“One of the best, most fun things I have seen happen is when one of the faculty or someone on campus does a  treasure hunt and you have to find an astronaut, and how does anyone find an astronaut on campus? Or go to the mural and find three things from B.C.E or three things from Asia,” says Endresen.  

Endresen’s father taught at Trinity, so she watched as the mural came to life. 

“I was little and I did not realize it was the great artist at work,” she said.“It was a grownup, doing art and having fun.”  

And as life swirls by, the mural remains exactly as it was.  

“It is where he created it, it has always had eyes from librarians on it. It has always been climate controlled,  secure, and loved,” Endresen said.  

This story had been updated to reflect the correct size of the mural.

Berit Mason is a multi-media journalist with experience reporting for WOAI 1200 AM News Radio, freelancing for Texas Public Radio in San Antonio, writing articles and taking photos for San Antonio Woman,...