The Kitao gallery is something of a Swarthmore secret. As the only student-run art gallery on campus, the trek to its physical building might need well-worded instructions. Behind the tennis courts and through some trees! No, not Olde Club, the other building.
In any other year, twenty or 30 people might cram inside for a show, talking endlessly about the art and cheese. There would be weekly events, from jewelry making to open mic nights. Open studio hours meant there was always a place to make art. Past exhibits included the annual first-year shows, the staff art show, and themed collections like “Lost-n-Found,” a showcase presenting only work left behind at Kitao.
For a student organization so entwined with its tangible meeting space, co-presidents Sarah Weinshel ’22 and Li Dong ’22 made it clear that Kitao would not fade under the pressures of virtual living.
“From very early on, we were like, ‘alright, this is what this year is going to look like. We’re going to keep Kitao going,’” Dong said.
During the Fall semester, when Swarthmore welcomed a portion of its freshman class to campus, members of the Kitao board were similarly strung across time zones. With only a few members on campus, most programming had to remain virtual. This meant that a new student’s first introduction to the gallery was through a completely online student fair held over several days, a far cry from the usual bustling stretch of sidewalk in front of Parrish. When traditionally a new student could stand in one spot and hear the 30-second spiel from three separate clubs, a student attending the virtual activities fair had to be more deliberate. Once, you could bump into a table for a club you’d never heard of, find yourself enticed into some small talk, and suddenly find yourself religiously attending weekly meetings. Now, freshmen and transfer students would read the description of a club in an email and maybe hope they didn’t forget the two-hour zoom meeting scheduled that night.
Nevertheless, Kitao found new members that fall. Freshmen Ben Sperber had a previous interest in art, but “Li and Sarah sold it really well too! They were super enthusiastic about Kitao and talking about all the lovely events and stuff that they do.”
Kitao member Olivia Marotte ’24 described the process of getting involved on a campus that was only at half of its normal capacity. “Getting involved on campus during a pandemic strangely felt a bit more overwhelming than it likely would’ve been during a normal year,” she wrote in an Instagram DM to an editor at The Phoenix. “There’s just something about gathering in-person that I longed for, so I decided to limit myself when choosing clubs to join […] mostly to avoid zoom fatigue.”
At first glance, it looks like Kitao only needed to shift their exhibits online, as they did with this year’s Class of 2024 Art Showcase. But periodically calling for submissions and posting them to the Kitao website is only a fraction of the programming the club has to offer.
“This year of virtual Kitao programming has actually been busier than normal years,” Dong said. Almost every weekend is booked with a unique event, from DIY tie-dye to constructing flower-crowns. “We really make an effort to make sure that on and off campus students can participate, so obviously if you’re on campus you sign up [for the event] and come get stuff, but we’ve sent many, many things to students off campus.”
For students off campus, Kitao has made sure that making art remains accessible, especially during a time when so many of us are isolated from the wider Swarthmore community. After receiving their packages full of the needed supplies, students are able to attend Zoom meetings dedicated to making something creative or simply enjoying another’s company.
Even more exciting has been the recent re-opening of Kitao as an art studio. Students currently on campus can take advantage of the massive amount of art supplies available or simply take their trusty sketchbook somewhere other than their dorm room.
In addition to their weekly programming and new studio hours, Kitao is also actively collaborating with several other groups, from Swarthmore’s oldest literary magazine Small Craft Warnings, to the school’s Art Department and List Gallery. Whatever art you end up making, Kitao has a place to showcase it. Some of the fast approaching deadlines are for the API/A Heratiges Gallery (Friday, April 23rd) and the Grieving & Growing Show (Friday, April 30th), the latter even welcoming written art.
For the most part, Kitao has hosted virtual shows, presenting submitted art through Zoom like a guided slideshow. With the promise that all the pieces would be later published on their website, Kitao has seen a smaller audience than usual. It became clear after a couple of these virtual exhibits that Kitao desperately needed some type of in-person component, and so twelve months after that fateful extended spring break, Kitao brought to Swarthmore College its first hybrid show. The theme is Hygge, a Danish word for that feeling of coziness and contentment that might spring up at any moment, no matter if one is alone or with family and friends. If you’re on campus and looking for something to do tonight (Saturday, April 17th) at anytime between 7 and 9pm, then look no further. A real-live art show is waiting.