The weeklong event features a series of lectures, workshops and a dance party
For art students, evaluations of their work by faculty can be a nerve-wracking experience.
Steffani Jemison, an associate professor with the Department of Art and Design at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, also noticed how students had limited time to connect with each other and their teachers: Some art classes run six hours long and many students either commute or are transfers adjusting to a new setting.
Jemison and fellow faculty members at Mason Gross saw an opportunity to hold a celebration that builds community while providing a warmer, less stressful approach to spring evaluations. So, they created the Art & Design Spring Festival, a weeklong series of workshops, lectures, panel discussions and other events.
“Junior reviews have often created stress for students,” said Jemison, adding that the language and framing of a review may make students feel as though “they are entering a pass-fail exam.”
During Spring Festival, art and design courses have shifted to an asynchronous schedule (something members of the department experimented with last year), allowing students and teachers the time and space to set up installations for evaluation as well as to participate in workshops, talks and other events.
The festival – which kicked off Monday, March 20, with an art supply giveaway and a graduate alumni panel – concludes with a dance party.
“In recent years, the department has been brainstorming ways to reframe the evaluative parts of our curriculum to better reflect our goal of celebrating and supporting students,” said Jemison, a recipient of the Rutgers University Board of Trustees Research Fellowship for Scholarly Excellence Award in 2021 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2020.
Marc Handelman, chair of the Department of Art and Design, said working on the festival has been inspiring on many levels.
“Steffani's vision has been so important in framing not just its structural possibilities, but in leading the spirit of what this festival aspires to be in terms of community building and centering our students’ own experiences and expansive interests as critical grounds for knowledge,” Handelman said.
In recent years, the department has been brainstorming ways to reframe the evaluative parts of our curriculum to better reflect our goal of celebrating and supporting students.
associate professor with the Department of Art and Design
He added: “Sometimes, these are intimately connected to curricular material in our programs, but in other cases these subjects and skills exist outside of them. Rather than seeing these merely as extracurricular activities, we recognize that what takes place in the classroom and studio has to be connected to our lives and passions and supported by our relationships, collaborations and the social life of our community.”
Handelman said at the core of Spring Festival are a series of skill-sharing workshops, or “Skillshares,” and larger events, including a panel featuring Black, indigenous and people of color alumni who will discuss life after art school, as well as lectures by visiting artists, a presentation about community-engaged public murals and a collaborative chalkboard wall drawing.
Gracelda Neri, a junior at Mason Gross and one of Jemison’s students, is leading a Wednesday workshop called “The Art of Being Terminally Online: A Discussion,” which focuses on balancing one’s digital, social and academic lives.
The workshops are a way that “everyone can share something knowledgeable that can benefit everyone,” said Neri, who added that her mentor, Jemison, “is the one that put this whole thing together.”
Sacha Vega, a visual arts graduate student and a project manager of the festival, said she’s looking forward to the peer-to-peer Skillshares.
“None of these Skillshares are about becoming a pro,” said Vega, a part-time lecturer who teaches media classes at Mason Gross. “It's so much more about being like, ‘I'm curious and excited about this topic, and I want to share with other people my knowledge.’”
Robbie Acklen, a graduate student and an interdisciplinary artist who works with photography, will lead a Friday workshop called “Water Works: Assembling a Human Fountain Sculpture,” an experiment in kinetic sculpture and collaboration. He and another photographer snapped professional headshots for students Tuesday morning as part of the festival.
Acklen, who has taught an analog photography course at Mason Gross and is one of the co-DJs for the dance party, said the festival is “an opportunity for faculty to demonstrate to the students that learning is a lifelong endeavor and that it never ends.”
Rather than seeing these merely as extracurricular activities, we recognize that what takes place in the classroom and studio has to be connected to our lives and passions and supported by our relationships, collaborations and the social life of our community.
chair of the Department of Art and Design
Jemison, whose art has been featured at the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum, said one of the challenges faculty “were thinking through had to deal with how we could connect students to artistic and intellectual resources that might best live outside of our traditional curriculum.”
She said faculty sought to “empower students to find connections between the creative work that they do and love and the work that is supported at school.”
Both Jemison and Handelman said they have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm from students, faculty and staff.
“It reflects the many different strengths, community spirit and the diversity of practice that are present in our department,” said Jemison.
“If the festival works as we envision it, students will have the simultaneous experience of giving, learning, exchanging and growing in all of these areas that are just beyond the periphery of their coursework, all the while feeling a sense of reprieve, of rest, of joy and inspiration,” Handelman said.