Last year, Parvaneh Jefferson ’21 visited her friend at Wesleyan. She came back to Vassar raving about the student art scene she had witnessed that weekend and discouraged by the one to which she returned. Jefferson felt that there wasn’t enough space at Vassar for artists to showcase their talents. She wrote in an email interview, “I just want art to be more of a thing at Vassar. Our school is filled with so many people that are stupidly talented and brilliant. Yet, we hardly ever, well maybe just not that publicly, have collaborations.” Here, Jefferson, a self-proclaimed non-artist, had identified an issue with which many artists were and are struggling on campus. Artist Mahilia Iwugo ’21 confirmed in an email correspondence, “There aren’t a lot of opportunities for visual artists [to display their work] if they aren’t involved in the Art Department.”
A few months after her trip to Wesleyan, in a seemingly unrelated move, Jefferson applied for a work-study position at the bike shop in the basement of Strong. There, she found a small, musty room filled with broken bike pieces and inexplicable odds and ends, such as a label maker and a coffee machine. The students running the shop at the time had just begun to stock the dusty shelves with spray paint, inviting every patron and friend who visited to add to the mismatched mural they were creating on the basement walls.
After she was hired as one of three mechanics (the only position that exists at the shop), Jefferson found that the job held more benefits than she had initially imagined. She wrote of this realization, “If you’re a mechanic you essentially hold a stake in the shop and you are free to do what you please with the space as long as the other mechanics are okay with it … I knew I wanted to use the shop as a platform to string together [Vassar students’ artistic] talent.”
Fast-forward to November of this year, when Jefferson began to put that ambition into practice. She contacted friends and friends of friends whose work she admired, pitching the idea of an Art Department–unaffiliated, collaborative gallery and performance space at the bike shop. The idea was to put on a show in the shop, which took place on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018.
This idea proved popular. Iwugo wrote, “[Jefferson] had asked me if I would be interested in displaying art in the bike shop sometime and I immediately jumped at the opportunity, and we were buzzing with ideas and excitement.” Together, Jefferson and Iwugo assembled a group of artists. Iwugo described the final collective: “It turned out to be an incredible group of people who I feel so lucky to have been able to get to know, and I have been super inspired by each of them.” The cohort consists of six artists from across all four classes (Iwugo, Miranda Amey ’20, Mollie Kather ’19, Camryn Casey ’21, Luka Carlsen ’19 and Rivers Liu ’22). On the night of the show, the visual art was accompanied by four student musical groups (Odds and Ends, Westerly Rd., Earth Dad and DJ CYBORGGF).
In collaboration with the artists, Jefferson started searching for a common theme to center the show. Iwugo explained the beginning of that process: “Our first meeting we got together and Parvaneh brought us paper and pens and asked us to play a drawing game, so we all sat at a table and passed around pieces of paper, adding to [each others’] drawings. Later, we cut them up and collaged them—and that is how our poster was created!”
After a few more sessions and conversations with the artists, Jefferson found that one concept in particular was consistently recurring in the artists’ work, and this would eventually supply the show with its name: “Coping Mechanisms.” She wrote, “I got caught on this one idea of coping mechanisms because we, well hopefully, use our passions to cope with hardship … I was like woah wouldn’t it be cool if you could track an artist’s progression through a rough time or weird period through their art?”
As Jefferson and her collaborators began to design the show around that central idea, another driving concept emerged simultaneously: the space of the bike shop itself. In the final show, paintings stood wedged between bike tools, suspended from wheel covers and hung from exposed pipes by rusty bike chains. Iwugo’s works mostly fell into the third category: “There was a certain set of works that I had done in succession, connected with a poem/ journal entry I had written—an exploration of space and my existence within it physically, perceptually, mentally, alone, and with other beings. I wanted the pieces to be seen both as one combined work as well as separate entities, in one order or another depending on where the viewer was standing. Hanging this set by bike chains allowed me to continue to explore these relations of space in a different medium and integrate it more fully into the environment.”
In this way, Iwugo and the other artists found intersections between coping mechanisms and the bike shop. Namely, the fact that the bike shop’s budget and training resources are limited necessitates creativity from the mechanics in their bike-fixing methods. Jefferson observed the links between those challenges and the art show: “I think this was reflected by the art and its placement … [It] was just natural [to install pieces the way we did] because it was just the easiest way for things to be and I think that really reflects the talent of the artists. They were just making art, not trying to be anything, just being authentic which is very much how the bike shop is.”
Attendee Milo Truppin ’21 observed this, as well: “I loved how they integrated the art seamlessly into the space.” Half by necessity and half by design, the show became, in one sense, an exploration of Vassar artistic spaces (or the lack thereof). Many students go through their years here filled with dreams about what they could do at this school if only the spaces existed for them to turn those creative dreams into reality. Jefferson, Iwugo and their collaborators took steps to change this on Saturday as they initiated a process both of using space to find themselves and using themselves to find space.