Underground artists: Examining Josselyn House’s murals

Janet Song/The Miscellany News.

“Well, it’s kinda gross down there,” said Riley Kelly ’24. I had asked her about the basement in her house, Josselyn. As a first year living in Davison House, I had never ventured into the unknown realms of the other dorm basements. Was it really as bad as my friends had told me? Sneeze-inducing dust, unbearable heat and creepy hidden passageways—was it all true? James Nicholas ’23 recalled that the first time he went down there he was “scared as heck.” So when I was asked to write a piece on the beautiful murals in the Josselyn basement, I was thoroughly surprised. 

Much of the Joss basement was exactly what I expected. But after winding down a narrow staircase and shedding my jacket, I found myself staring down a dark hallway covered in colorful paint from the dusty cement floor all the way up to the low-hanging ceiling. 

The first thing I noticed? None of the artwork was signed. Although there were names and class years painted in some places (it was as if a group of friends wanted to leave their mark on the walls of Joss on their way out of Vassar), I had no way of tracking down the artists of the murals. After 16 emails, two conversations with House Advisors and a disappointing rejection from a private Facebook group, I felt defeated. Who were these mystery artists? Why were there murals here—hidden from most of campus—accumulating dust in what even Joss residents consider a dirty and scary cesspool? With nowhere else to turn, I decided to focus on the Joss residents themselves. 

Janet Song/The Miscellany News.

As I waited in front of Joss like a cow in a field of snakes (house mascot humor), I intercepted and interviewed Joss residents as they traveled in and out of their home. As I stood out there in the cold talking to the students, I realized that there is a house spirit that can be adequately defined by my experience in its basement. And while I was originally scared to stop random people as they were heading places in a hurry, one thing became glaringly apparent: Joss residents love talking about Joss. When asked about the basement, almost every resident brought up the murals before I mentioned them. My friend Lorelei Essman-Freeman ’24 told me that it’s impossible to evade the murals, unless you never wash your clothes, as the artwork lines the hallway to the laundry room. “I enjoy doing my laundry because I get to see all of it. The cute messages are actually inspiring,” she admitted.

Janet Song/The Miscellany News.

It’s true—the walls are flooded with reassuring quotes such as, “You belong here!” and “Love isn’t about what we did yesterday: it’s about what we do today and tomorrow and the day after that,” the latter from activist Grace Lee Boggs. Another reads, “Queer Femmes of Color: We see you. We hear you. We love you.” Malka Fleischman ’22 told me, “I don’t know when the murals started, but I have noticed that every year there’s new stuff.” She continued that those most striking to her are “the inspirational ones, the body positive ones and especially the ones that surround themes of femininity.” Fleischman and her friend Anastasia Koutavas ’22 have lived in Joss for the past three years. They said that they have Joss to thank for some of their greatest friends at Vassar.

“Every year, I do notice that people sometimes sign their names… Like maybe a group of friends who have lived in Joss for a while and now they’re either graduated or moved to the TH’s, they’ll put their names and class year which I think is pretty fun,” Fleischman told me. I asked the girls if they would consider leaving their marks on the walls of Joss before they move out, to which Koutavas enthusiastically replied, “Now that you mention it, yeah!”

While I was talking to James Nicholas ’23 outside of the dorm, he mentioned that a friend from his fellow group had begun painting murals in the basement last fall semester. Beatrice Vogelstein ’23 has lived in Joss for two years, and during the chilly final days before winter break last year she began decorating the basement walls whenever she had the “urge to paint.” Right before Vassar sent it’s students and staff home due to COVID-19 last March, she and her friend, Oz Turner ’22, created the beautiful orange, black and white mural that combines Turner’s eerie portraits and Vogelstein’s psychedelic patterns. If you were to notice just one mural in the Joss basement, this would be it.

“When I went to Joss basement I always loved seeing the murals down there and I always wondered if it was the college or a club or some group that was behind it,” Turner told me. So when Vogelstein asked them to join her for a collaboration, they enthusiastically accepted. The collaborative piece took Turner and Vogelstein around three or four sessions to complete, with friends joining them to sign their names and doodle on the walls. I wondered why artists like Turner and Vogelstein would want to put so much effort into a mural that would not likely be seen by very many people, especially in a place that is so uncomfortable. “The basement is a scary, gross, really hot and sort of cursed place,” said Vogelstein. Despite that, she said of the basement’s appeal as an art studio, “I just really like to make art and I wanted to create something and there was a free canvas there.”

“I think that because it is sort of a removed or run-down space it definitely gives people the liberty to just do what they want down there. I like the kind of homemade nature of the artwork on this super grungy wall and this poor lighting—it’s really cool art in an unexpected place,” Turner told me.

I wondered if the works of art, random doodles, and calls for social justice that adorn the basement walls serve to represent the people who live in Joss now. Koutavas told me that while she has never known where the murals come from, she feels that, “They are something that we all collectively see and experience, it contributes to the Joss environment.”

As a first year during “COVID-19 Semester,” I have only really become accustomed to my own house, Davison. I have grown to love its smell, its people, its bathrooms, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else. But visiting Joss made me understand why somebody would want and love to live there too. Every house at Vassar has its own beauty, quirks and charm. For Josselyn House, it’s the colorful and inspiring messages painted on the walls of the hot, dusty basement. Because deep within the house that is close enough to the edge of campus to hear the whizzing of cars passing by, past the left door held ajar by a stick, down a winding staircase and among the dust and dirt, there lies true beauty. The murals in the basement of Joss exhibit the colorful and vibrant community of the people who live there, despite the dust and heat. “It’s nice to leave your own little mark on a corner of Vassar,” Turner told me, “Joss basement kind of feels like a quilt of art throughout the years—you don’t find anything like it anywhere on campus and it’s nice to have contributed to it.”

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