The six faces staring back at you were sewn together with pieces of brightly colored fabric and divided into a quilt-like pattern. They have expressions of concern and apprehension, and the longer you stare at them, the more alive they become.
The piece entitled “Stitched Together” was created by first-year MIT students Allan and Danny Gelman as part of The OpenMind::OpenArt (OMOA) project. The brothers were selected along with eight other students to take part in the OMOA Art Studio during Independent Activities Period (IAP), during which they made artwork related to mental health and wellness. The studio culminated with a gallery opening on Feb. 16 in the Student Center.
OMOA was conceived of by Jessica Artiles '12 MS '15 who earned a bachelor's in mechanical engineering and dual master's degrees in mechanical engineering and technology and policy from MIT, as a way to raise awareness about mental health issues on campus. She applied for and was awarded a grant to spearhead the project through the MindHandHeart Innovation Fund.
“At MIT, we lean towards the side of quantifying things,” said Artiles. “We like to assign numbers and variables to solve tough problems. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there are so many challenges in the world that we’re far from understanding in a calculable way — like the complex mechanisms affecting mental health. Art is one way to express these intangible phenomena, and MIT and MindHandHeart understand it’s a valuable thing to pursue.”
Every Thursday night in January, Artiles, the 10 artists, two art instructors, and volunteers from MIT’s maker community met in the Student Art Association Art Studio to discuss the students’ projects, gather feedback, and consider the themes and meaning underlying their work.
“I originally saw my role in OMOA as an instigator,” said Artiles. “I wanted to guide, provoke, and facilitate the creative process, but I was really blown away by the students’ stories and motivation. They didn’t need me to guide them; they already had a reason for being there.”
“Our weekly sessions were really fun,” said Danny Gelman. “It was a great atmosphere where people talked, made art, and got feedback on their pieces.” The brothers drew inspiration from a fabric-based nature scene they saw in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and worked to portray similar facial expressions across their six portraits.
“We were looking for a twinge of sadness or empathy that the people were expressing,” said Allan Gelman. “The idea was that the viewer would see the piece and empathize with the faces or maybe feel like the faces were empathizing with them. Another concept was related to how we constructed it, and the idea that if you ever fall apart, you can stitch yourself back together.”
Larkin Sayre, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, created a series of three abstract paintings as part of OMOA. “I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to make,” Sayre explained. “But when it came time to create the piece, my process was very free-flowing and really about getting out of my head. When I look at my work, I see waves and veins and a heart beating, but each viewer will have a different, completely personal way of engaging with it.”
She enjoyed the gallery opening and invited classmates to see her work. “It was great to see my friends and the people I care about most coming to see what I created. When I make art, it’s usually just for myself, so it was nice to have a platform to share my piece with others.”
Sayre added: “The gallery opening was a really powerful way for MIT students and the administration to come together and say to the world, or whomever may be listening, that mental health is important; that it is a priority; and that our community is thinking about these issues.”
Adding to the excitement of the gallery opening was the presence of live musicians, a mural painting session, technology and media exhibits, a guided meditation exercise, and speeches by Artiles and MindHandHeart Executive Administrator Maryanne Kirkbride, who thanked Artiles, the artists, and the Campus Activities Complex for their hard work and ingenuity in putting the event together.
“Neither of us expected the gallery opening to take up the entire first floor of the Student Center,” said Danny Gelman. “But it was just amazing — everything from the beatboxers to the virtual reality displays, it was really cool and a lot of fun.”
Pictures of the students’ artwork and the gallery opening are available on the MindHandHeart Facebook page. The mural created as part of OMOA is available for viewing in the Student Center (next to LaVerde’s).
For more information on The OpenMind::OpenArt project, including a full list of the artists, makers, and performers who made the studio sessions and gallery opening a success, visit TheArtOfY.com.
The MindHandHeart Innovation Fund, which supported The OpenMind::OpenArt Project, is accepting applications through March 31. Grants of up to $10,000 are available to fund projects that aim to make MIT a healthier, stronger, or more welcoming community.