A painting from the past: Student finds mysterious art on Unit 1 bed frame

hidden art
Shivani Patel/Courtesy

When students arrive at the UC Berkeley residence halls — buildings that have housed students since as early as the 1960s — there’s no telling what might be found under their bed. For freshman Meri Valimaki, it was the shocking reveal of a piece of vintage art.

In Unit 1’s Deutsch Hall, one of the original buildings in this unit, it isn’t uncommon for students to come across furniture and appliances in need of repairs. Since arriving at UC Berkeley, Valimaki has had especially bad luck with the building’s dysfunctionality during her time as a resident.

“Since day one, the elevator keeps breaking, the hot water is in and out, and the window above my room broke and the glass came inside my room,” Valimaki said.

Given the deteriorating condition of her building, it came as no surprise to Valimaki when her bed frame broke without much pressure.

Luckily, she was not alone when she discovered the hidden illustration. Her boyfriend, who was studying in her room at the time, was the first to see the painting. He was sitting on the bed when the middle plank in the frame broke and caused the bed to collapse inward.

This image features a large face shrouded by long, dark brown hair, furnished with yellow eyes and an open mouth with a glowing green orb inside.

When he lifted up the mattress to see what had happened, he was affronted with a ominous face. His initial reaction was to scream. Both were frightened by the sight of the haunting facade that was eerily placed on the wood of the frame right below where her head would lie.

“You don’t expect to see something like that,” Valimaki said. “It’s quite creepy.”

This image features a large face shrouded by long, dark brown hair, furnished with yellow eyes and an open mouth with a glowing green orb inside. After taking a closer look, they noticed that the painting also has words and phrases etched into it, most of which are illegible because of their intricate font. The art is dated Feb. 2, 1994, and begs the question — has it really been there that long without anyone noticing it?

While Valimaki was terrified by the art, her floormate and friend Shivani Patel was intrigued by the mysterious profile.

“The mouth was I think the most disturbing part. It was just like this vortex kind of thing,” Patel said.

Upon observing the painting, Danny Neece, instructor at the Berkeley Art Studio, also noted the provocative quality of the artwork.

“It was pretty surreal, with the mouth and the expression being open and the eyes having some discoloration. It could have just been a sense of floating or drowning,” Neece said.

The discovery of this art left Valimaki and Patel with a lot of questions about the origins and intentions behind the artwork. Perhaps most perplexing, both were left wondering why someone had created this piece only to leave it strategically hidden.

“I would really like to meet the person who painted it,” Valimaki said. “Why? How did he or she place it? When did they place it? What was their intention?”

Neece offered some theories about the artist’s intentions, including the possibility that the piece was an entry in a type of dream journal — an atypical way to portray images and scenes from their subconscious.

He also explained possible reasons for the artist’s decision to paint on a bed frame instead of a canvas or another more traditional surface in public view.

When you place (art) on something other than a canvas, … say, inanimate objects like a bed frame, it’s kind of taking it out of its context,” Neece said. “It’s not just a painting to be observed on a wall and admired.”

The peculiar placement of the painting in the bed frame could have an especially interesting significance in relation to Neece’s theory of the work as a possible dream journal entry. In addition to being the place associated with sleeping and dreams, bed frames are infrequently used as a medium for artwork. It is possible that the use of this object as an irregular canvas plays a part in constructing the meaning of the painting.

Neece offered some theories about the artist’s intentions, including the possibility that the piece was an entry in a type of dream journal — an atypical way to portray images and scenes from their subconscious.

“They wanted to make a painting on a bed frame that was really unique to maybe an experience they had. … Maybe they had a dream and they decided to paint that particular dream — maybe it was really powerful — on their bed post so they never forgot it,” Neece explained.

As the new owner of the painting, many questions were raised for Patel regarding the artist’s experience and inspirations as well as their life as a student who occupied the same residence hall space more than a decade ago.

“I want to know what that person was feeling at the time that (they) had to draw a demon on (their) bed frame,” Patel said. “I was questioning what was happening during this person’s time here at Berkeley that they needed to do this.”

For Neece, it was clear that the painting was embedded with the vivid thoughts and feelings of its artist.

“I get this idea that it had a lot of emotion attached to it. … It seemed like the emotion from the face really depicted that of somebody that had more of a stressful situation happening,” he said. “Sometimes emotion really comes out in artwork even though you don’t necessarily show it on your own face or to your peers.”

After the discovery, Patel asked Valimaki and the maintenance worker in Unit 1 — there to assess the situation and fix the bed — if she could keep the wood panel. She and her roommates inspected the painting and then drew over the face with chalk to make it less ominous. Now the painting can be seen covering the surface of her desk.

“We turned it into a pretty woman,” Patel said. “It’s really cool now.”

To further transform this once foreboding work into something more decorative, she also used her own casual art practice experience to create her own artwork on the other side of the panel. She is currently working on a drawing of an abstract elephant on the wood using Sharpie markers.

Although we may never know what inspired this interesting, albeit grim, artwork, it is intriguing to hypothesize about what it meant to the person who created it. The original artist most likely did not imagine that their artwork would be repurposed by another artist so long after it was completed. No matter what their intentions, this artist’s work has been creatively reimagined and will continue to carry its unique and mysterious history into another generation of artistry.

Contact Kate Winterbauer at [email protected]