When I first arrived at Wesleyan, the first thing I did on campus was set out on a search to make visual art. I was looking for something in the art department, an organization, a club, anything that would support my journey as a painter, drawer, printmaker, whatever. To my disappointment, Wesleyan has not lived up to what I thought it could supply.
Some background about me: I am a first-year first-generation, low-income (FGLI) artist from Washington D.C.. I focus on painting and filmmaking, but I also draw and do printmaking. I held a solo exhibition and got the funding for it from my high school, where I was able to acquire art supplies as well.
In a lot of ways, I feel as if Wesleyan presents a facade of creativity and artistic flourish, even though the arts are minimally supported by the administration. This is an odd strategy by Wesleyan, given that most of their notable alumni have careers in the arts. In my quest to make visual art, I started off at the Center for the Arts. I got lost, as it was my first week on campus. I knocked on the door of an art professor who had it wide open, hoping to use the excuse for directions to also introduce myself and ask about the art department. The interaction was brief, as the professor cut me off after I asked for their help.
“Where is your mask?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t have one.”
“Mmm-mmm, sorry, I can’t talk to you right now, please leave.”
I slowly shut the door to their room. That left a cold impression on me. I guess it was fair, though—I had forgotten about the mask policy that most of the campus didn’t seem to be following anyway.
Next, I looked for the Zilkha Gallery. I had thought it would be a gallery where students could display their work in a more professional setting. Although it is more centered on outside artists, I still enjoy it greatly. I think it’s amazing to have outside professional artists display their art, and to allow us to meet them and hear them talk about their progress. It’s a great gallery, but it should also be a place for students to display what they’ve made in and outside of class. Right now, the Zilkha Gallery is exclusively for students who have taken a studio art class or are doing a senior thesis in art. For the student artists who either have chosen not to or cannot major in art, there is nowhere to share our work. The visual arts scene on campus is nonexistent. Student bands and musical performances have a place at West College and Malcolm X House, where they participate in student-run events. Theatrical performances like One Day Plays and various plays and musicals have a place at the Patricelli ’92 Theater, in student-run events. From music to theater to visual art, students have had to take matters into their own hands, because the school won’t give them a platform to present their talent otherwise. For visual arts specifically, something needs to change. At minimum, there should be more student-run galleries where young artists can experience what it’s like to run an exhibition.
You might be wondering—why don’t I just take an art class or major in art? Like many students on campus, I am FGLI. Unfortunately, majoring in art is not stable or secure enough for me. As a first generation student, I need to be careful as to what classes I take and what my major is in order to support myself and my family in ways that they were not able to financially support me. By relegating the visual arts experience to art studio majors and those who take classes, the administration has been gatekeeping lower-income students from participating in the visual arts.
In addition to not being supported in creating visual arts, there is also no way to acquire tools or paints on campus. It is next to impossible. I am an avid fan of the store Michaels, where it’s easy to find good discounts on canvases and the paint brands with which I am familiar. But the nearest Michaels is a 16-minute drive away, which doesn’t sound too bad until you realize you have no car. The bus takes more than an hour, and an Uber round trip costs $40, which is an amount of money that I can’t spend regularly. Why don’t I just order from Amazon? Because Amazon art supplies are either terrible quality, expensive, or the wrong brands. As an artist, I am impatient, and I want the art supplies in my hands as soon as possible. It would be amazing if one of the stores on campus supplied paints, brushes, or canvases.
After I failed to find a way to make art on campus, I gave in and decided to take a drawing class. In my drawing class, I received a box full of pencils, erasers, and charcoal. It was the best thing to happen to me. I even got a free sketchbook. The drawing class itself was great, as I got to practice drawing and finally create something. But after a while, I couldn’t help but feel bored and kind of held back in class. The times I most enjoyed were the projects that challenged me, like when I had to draw a life-size self-portrait using charcoal.
After my drawing class ended, I still wanted to get supplies for painting, so I emailed some professors about access to supplies. The responses I got informed me that the supplies were reserved for the painting classes. Then I ran out of pages in my sketchbook. I wanted to take the chance to ask if I could have another sketchbook, but then got the sarcastic email response of: “You can easily buy an inexpensive one from Amazon?”
I’m sure a student-run organization will someday arrive to empower the visual arts scene on campus, and hopefully the funding will exist to support them. In the meantime, I will be stuck looking for funding and painting on cheap, grainy Amazon canvases. It is strange that a small college would not have the funds to support the young artists that attend their school. I might expect this from a much larger institution, where it may not be possible to provide for all the artists, but at Wesleyan, I am sure it can be done. Or maybe I’m just a dumb freshman who should stick to the Wesleyan administration’s plan and stop creating art.
Erick Buendia is a member of the class of 2026 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.