Artist behind Jester East drawings talks inspiration, care for students

Kate Williams

When students walk into Jester East, they are welcomed by a whiteboard adorned with flowers and an uplifting message: “Stop waiting for permission to be who you want to be.”

UT alumnus Kevin McCalla works the night shift at the front desk of Jester East, where he creates elaborate whiteboard illustrations that have become a staple of the dorm. These illustrations can take hours to complete, but McCalla said seeing students smile is all the motivation he needs.

“Everyone needs encouragement or just a stupid funny image, including me,” McCalla said. “Half the time I’m just like, ‘What would I need to hear?’”

McCalla spent a lot of his childhood in the hospital because of a genetic condition and said he used art as a way to escape the dreary environment.

“The art in hospitals is really bad,” McCalla said. “So I would be five years old staying in Washington, D.C., at the National Institutes of Health, looking at the bad hospital art in the ‘80s, like, ‘I don’t like the way that this thing flows with this.’”

McCalla needed a kidney transplant the year after he graduated from UT with an art degree so he started working night operations on campus because UT provides health insurance.

Not long after McCalla became a staff member in 2007, a UT student died by suicide.

“There’s been a few (suicides), but the first one hit me the hardest,” McCalla said. “I’m just the night guy. There’s nothing I can do to make people feel better.”

McCalla said this experience changed how he viewed his job. He began to realize the impact he could have on residents’ lives, finding he could brighten their days through art.

“I just want people to smile,” said McCalla. “I want them to be encouraged. College is hard enough. I don’t want anyone to feel hopeless.”

Since February 2018, students in the dorm have come to anticipate these whiteboard art pieces. On most days, it’s common to see a student or two pausing to take a picture of whatever joke or words of encouragement are on the board.

“I love them so much,” Rushale Krishan, psychology freshman and Jester East resident, said. “There’s so much thought and effort that goes into making them, and I just appreciate the positivity they bring into our lives.”

The whiteboards have helped to create a supportive community in Jester East. Krishan said McCalla’s drawings have built a sense of camaraderie for residents, even when she didn’t personally know he made them.

“I feel like they bring us together in a way because everybody can relate to liking those pictures and knowing that somebody put a lot of hard work and effort into them,” Krishan said.

McCalla’s work not only puts smiles on the faces of Jester East residents but inspires his coworkers.

“He does a fantastic job of representing UT faculty as a whole but especially here in Jester East,” Sean Tucker, communication and leadership junior and Jester East resident assistant, said. “(He’s) a perfect example of how every day and every moment that you have, you have a chance to do something really special to impact somebody else.”

At first, McCalla said he enjoyed people not recognizing that he is the artist behind the whiteboard, but he is happy for students to know.

“I appreciate the idea of people maybe knowing that I’m the one with these weird little whiteboard words of encouragement. Maybe they’ll be more okay with approaching a staff member,” he said. “If that happens once, that’s all that matters.”