Bowdoin Artist Activists Use the Community as Their Canvas

Haley Gewandter ’14

The Bowdoin Artist Activists are not, as the name may suggest, clandestinely throwing up political or social messages on campus walls in the dark of night.

“Originally I had this vision of being the rebels of the school, making public art or graffiti,” Haley Gewandter ’14 said wryly. “My idea was that a political or social issue would arise somewhere in the world, and we would respond with art.”

Gewandter, an art major, founded the club Bowdoin Artist Activists last year to bring her love of street art, or art “that has a purpose” to Bowdoin. But rather than engaging students in minor criminal acts, the club is using art more to enhance the local community.

Last spring, for example, they helped Community for Coffin, the school’s parent group, fix up an old playground at the Coffin Elementary School in Brunswick. They used some of their club’s funding as well as donations from parents and local stores to sand, prime and colorfully paint the doors of the school that open to the playground. A group of art activists and parents used stencils and paint to create games, such as an elaborate hopscotch with a pirate theme, on the blacktop.

Natasha Goldman, an adjunct lecturer in art history at Bowdoin, coordinated the playground project. She said, “As an art historian whose research is dedicated to art in public space, it was a true pleasure to get a project like this off the ground. Our work created a space for kindergartners to enjoy bright colors and physical activity — all with some stencils, paint and tree stumps. Such projects serve not only those who use them — the children at Coffin School — but also demonstrate how Bowdoin students, faculty and local schools can work together for the common good.”

The next step, in Gewandter’s vision, is to create a community mural on the playground wall, which is now just a dull expanse of brick. This summer, she interned for CITYarts, an organization that pairs professional artists with kids and volunteers to make murals and mosaics across New York City and beyond.

[Street art] makes a large statement; it has a purpose. It’s art that has a message, an accessibility and an in-your-faceness.”
—Haley Gewandter ’14

“I got a lot of great experience working there,” Gewandter said. She’d like to replicate CITYart’s process here, which would involve working with elementary students to develop a mural around a theme that excites them, such as “envisioning peace.” Gewandter said she will recruit artists from the club to collaborate on the mural design, and then have Bowdoin art professors critique and help finalize the blueprint. The children will help paint the wall with the college students.

This fall, B.A.A. member Molly Rider ’15 organized a screening on campus of a documentary produced by a film organization she worked for over the summer. The organization, BYkids, mentors children around the world in filmmaking. The documentary, Home is Where You Find It, was directed by a 16-year-old AIDS orphan from Mozambique to share his life story while bringing light to the AIDS problem in Mozambique.

Bowdoin Artist Activists also plans to work on an art installation with local students who have autism spectrum disorder. One of the club’s members has an autistic brother, and this student has expressed a desire to collaborate on a project to raise awareness of the condition, Gewandter explained.

“Students have joined the club with passions about certain causes and issues,” Gewandter said. “We have basically used B.A.A. as a forum, a means for them to make projects happen that they wouldn’t have a way to do otherwise.”

Gewandter, who grew up in Greenwich Village in New York City, said she’s always been passionate about “street art, public art, art that has a public or social-service twist.” She added that she appreciates the graphic element of a lot of street art, as well as its loudness. “It makes a large statement; it has a purpose. It’s art that has a message, an accessibility and an in-your-faceness.”

Bowdoin Artist Activists has about 40 members, with a dedicated group of about 10 students, according to Gewandter. Not all are artists; some just have an interest in public art or community service. The group is one of the student-led organizations in the McKeen Center’s Bowdoin Volunteer Corps.

Besides rallying students to artistic action, Gewandter said she formed Bowdoin Artists Activists to provide a space where students can discuss and share art. To help facilitate this, she’s created a shared blog where students can post photos or links of art and comment on them.

“Really, the only thing I lost was the potentiality of being illegal, the riot-esque aspect of it,” Gewandter said, with a smile.

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