Student group Unframes bureaucratic Vassar art culture

Unframed is a student-led art space that focuses on the intersection of art and activism. Its members seek to make Vassar’s art scene more accessible and community-oriented. Courtesy of Meghan Hayfield

As its name suggests, student-led art club Unframed refuses to be contained. With its all-encompassing tagline “where art meets activism,” it’s hard to pin the group down to a specific identity, as its purpose is constantly evolving. This year. as Unframed sinks into its new studio and gathering area in the basement of Blodgett, its missions are gaining ground.

Unframed is just one of many student-led art spaces on campus; others include the Ceramics Club’s studio in the basement of Noyes and the Bike Shop. The members of Unframed, whose three-room studio is located in the basement of Blodgett, fought a “long battle” for their own space, according to Unframed President Rachel Sipress ’21. The path to building and equipping art studios is laden with bureaucracy, they said, but these efforts are changing art culture on campus.

Unframed’s studio is marked by a paintsplotched door next to the Student Musician’s Studio. Members painted the space in bold turquoise, blue and green. Paintings are propped against the walls, or pop out of tiny alcoves in doors and corners. A bookshelf teems with books that past students have left to the club, or ones Sipress randomly selected. Everything here is student-selected, contributing to a homegrown and eclectic atmosphere.

This is fitting, as much of Unframed’s desire to form a physical studio stemmed from the lack of non-academic art spaces on campus. “The average Vassar student somehow likes the arts, but most of them won’t get involved in studio art. I think it creates a bit of a weird art hoe culture where art at Vassar becomes inaccessible and put into this box, which I’m not a huge fan of,” Sipress said.

Yet despite its love for visual culture, Unframed is not just about artmaking, but also establishing a community. Unframed member Elizabeth Ralston ’21 said, “Something that’s really cool about Vassar is that there’s so much community space. I think the idea of Unframed is [to] create that community space with a focused intent.”

This community emphasis is evident in the studio. The first two rooms serve as greeting areas, adorned with a couch and reading nook; Sipress expressed hopes of adding a tea kettle and fridge. Pipes along the ceiling and a mirrored window allude to the space’s past involvement in psychological experiments—there’s a definite creative energy looming.

Yet Unframed seeks to expand its impact far beyond the walls of its cozy studio. Projects that fuse art and activism are gaining momentum at Vassar and across the globe through youth-led movements such as March for Our Lives and, most recently, the Global Climate Strike; therefore, the club will hold an art show later this semester that showcases artist responses to the climate disaster.

Yet Unframed also supports the concept of art for art’s sake. Ralston said, “I’ve heard art described as a revolutionary act. Of course you can create revolutionary art, but I don’t think that’s necessary for art to say something … I think it’s important to have spaces that are not only activist spaces, [but] spaces that can be a refuge. I think that art is refuge.”

Another key aspect of Unframed is its emphasis on art accessibility. Sipress pointed out that materials can be a “barrier to entry.” Ralston echoed this sentiment, stating, “Even taking art classes here is expensive and can be a prohibitive cost. I think everyone on campus should have access to art supplies and a place to do art.”

Unframed seeks to mitigate this problem; its studios are equipped with materials for painting and drawing, as well as other art forms. The organization is also hoping to obtain a projector to showcase student film projects, and Sipress said they aspire to host a writer’s workshop this year. Evidently, their goals extend beyond the mere canvas.

Yet, navigating bureaucracy stands in the way of any organization on campus. Sipress said managing these tangential elements can be difficult. While the studio is not yet finished, they said, “At a certain point you have to be like, okay, here it is.” To their point, the organization held their first open house on Sunday, Oct. 6.

Constructed from blurred lines, Unframed is an organization up for interpretation, but tethered to the increasingly important relationship between art and activism. The group is part of a wave of student-led movements to activate art spaces and accessibility around campus, a trend that is already making its mark on Vassar’s culture.

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