Disjointed Swat art scene causes problems

Photographed and pinned on the walls of Paces and Kitao, ringing through the patchy floorboards of Olde Club, tucked away inside InDesign files at the Media Center, and rattling around in the brains of many a GarageBand user: student art exists at Swarthmore, but it is hard to find. It’s hidden, peeking out from nooks and crannies, looking and sounding damn cool, and then receding into the background once again. Where does art get made at Swarthmore? What is used to make it, and where do we find and access these resources? How do we seek out others to collaborate and brainstorm with? And where do we get to showcase what we’ve dreamed up, worked on, and achieved?

Student venues like Olde Club and Kitao provide spaces for the making and showing of art, but a tangle of access and advertising issues keep the arts scene scattered and fractured, rather than existing in central spaces that facilitate creation and display. Olde Club and Kitao are (of course) not the only student-run artistic spaces at Swarthmore, but since they’re the ones I’ve had experience with, I’ll use them as examples here. Many a time I’ve tried to get the key to Olde Club to practice music with friends, and no one has been in the OSE to give me the key, or the students working there weren’t allowed to sign the key out for me because Mike Elias wasn’t in, or I successfully signed the key out and then got to Olde Club and somehow another student band had gotten a different key and were using the practice room for the next hour. Last year a few times I hung around Kitao at Friday night “art-ins” in hopes of finding some people to work on a project with, but not that many people knew that art-ins at Kitao even happened, and the small turnout resulted in people generally sticking with their own friends, drawing and talking together in secluded sections of the space. Though those art-ins were intended to bring people together in a communal, creative setting, the ones I attended didn’t end up fruitful for me because the low turnout tended to nurture shyness—everyone sticking to who and what was familiar to them—rather than outgoing collaboration.

I’ve been away from Swarthmore this semester, but one particular visit in late September made me realize it’s a place where people sometimes do come together to make things in spaces that can feel communal, welcoming, and, in those qualities, inspiring. I went in late September to a “Paint the Walls” party, where acrylic paints, brushes, and buckets of water were set out on a table in the middle of the room for all to use freely, and people wandered in and out. Some left a brief mark on the walls and then just hung out and looked around at what others were making; some spent a long time delineating flowers and faces and scripted quotes, taking the time to blend colors, to create the textures of oceans and clouds. I felt like whatever I painted, big or small or detailed or plain, nobody would belittle or judge what I was choosing to do; they wouldn’t take it too seriously either, and felt comfortable adding their own splashes of color onto whatever I made. It was a space where people, in a spirit of lightness and fun and community, were coming together to manifest a little part of themselves on the walls of this room. I spent only about half an hour there, but so many people who I knew came by at some point and painted something, and stopped to talk and hug and catch up. The event had been well-advertised, everyone had equal and easy access to the materials, and nobody was hesitant to speak up, to compliment others, to be engaged with what was going on.

The fact that Paint the Walls was co-sponsored by SGO makes me think that advertising arts events through a centralized student organization like SGO could be helpful in improving turnout at these events. I think, though, that we’d also have to use that kind of centralized space to incorporate the voices of students who work and plan arts events at locations that aren’t central. To create widespread student dialogue around planning arts events, it’s crucial to bring together students in SGO’s Committee of Visual and Performing Arts with students involved at the peripheral arts venues around campus (like Olde Club and Kitao), plus students involved at sites whose primary function isn’t to showcase art but which often do (like the WRC and the IC). If students from these varying positions and sites of leadership met up in an organized way every so often to discuss arts on campus, the interests of the student body, and what kind of events might be needed or appreciated, we could move Swarthmore’s arts scene from the disjointed fringes of campus into a central space of conversation and absorb it into the culture of the school. Instead of looming in the background, it could exist prevalently and accessibly.

I am so into the idea of creating more places and events like the Paint the Walls party on Swarthmore’s campus, where people feel like they can make things and learn from each other. It’s going to require more widespread advertising, facilitated student communication about the arts, devising better systems of accessing spaces of production, and fostering, within those spaces, an attitude of uninhibited collaboration. When I get back to Swarthmore next semester, I’m going to try to help make these things happen. Let me know if you’re in, too!

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