Inspiring Aspiring Artists: CAMIT Undergraduate Mini-Grants

MIT students have continued to perform, compose, draw, dance, build, and make in every imaginable way throughout this past year. “They’ve been remarkably creative and resilient in the ways they’ve remained connected to the arts and to each other,” says Andrea Volpe, director of the Council for the Arts at MIT (CAMIT).  Several grants programs supported by CAMIT as well as other opportunities for students to engage with the arts through the Office of the Arts including Arts Scholars, the $15K Creative Arts Competition, and the Student Art Association, have enabled students to pursue their passions in art. 

On May 6, 2021, several undergraduate grant recipients gathered at the Council’s Annual Meeting to reflect on their projects in conversation with MIT Student Arts Programs Manager Shannon Rose McAuliffe and Niels Cosman ‘05, who chairs CAMIT’s Grants Committee. The panel brought together Cecilia Esterman ‘21, a Computer Science and Music double major, and two student groups: Chalk of the Day, represented by Mechanical Engineering majors Jessie Wang ‘21 and Jessica Xu ’21, and Shakespeare Ensemble, represented by Materials Science and Engineering majors Alex Evenchik ‘21 and Eryn Gillam ‘21. 

Taking an art practice to the next level

For Esterman, the past year was both a challenge and an opportunity: “I really wanted to work on art projects that I could still do remotely.” Since most of her arts involvement “tended to be more collaborative and in person,” she decided to shift her focus. “I had been passionate about film scoring for a while,” she explained, and a mini-grant from CAMIT gave her the opportunity to pursue it.

With funding from CAMIT Esterman purchased software for electronic composition and instrumentation, which allowed her to create and record a film score. In addition to submitting her score to the Berlin International Film Scoring Competition, she also hosted a virtual screening for the MIT community. The experience sparked her excitement for future collaborations; she is now working on a new score with a friend attending film school, and she hopes to incorporate composition into her life after MIT.

Chalk art for everyone

Wang and Xu were inspired to design remote chalk drawing workshops to present during Independent Activities Period (IAP) with the goal of capturing the spirit of togetherness and creativity that fuels Chalk of the Day’s in-person chalk drawing sessions in the Stata Center. 

The Zoom workshop format allowed them to connect with a new population of aspiring chalk artists in the MIT Community. Xu said, “Before IAP, Chalk of the Day was an informal group, and people didn’t really know how to join, but we had more than 50 unique participants spanning undergraduate, graduate, staff, faculty, and alumni.” Wang said they hope to repeat the IAP workshops to “keep the inclusivity going.” “We’re really excited to bring this forward,” Xu explained, “it’s really cool to see everyone feel like they can be part of the creative process.”

Image: Courtesy of Jessie Wang ’21 and Jessica Xu ’21.

 Keeping Up with Timon of Athens

For Shakespeare Ensemble, funding from CAMIT enabled them to explore new, remote ways to adapt the creative process of playmaking. Last fall, they produced a Macbeth radio play. This spring, they delved into the “wildly different” realm of video. 

Their virtual production of Timon of Athens was rehearsed via Zoom, pre-recorded, and screened on YouTube. The play was creatively staged as a reality show set during the pandemic and provided new opportunities to explore the potential of ensemble theater. “I had a lot of fun,” said Evenchik, who produced and acted in the show, “it was really one of our best shows; it forced us to try new things and go places that we hadn’t before.” 

Discovering the artist within

CAMIT’s mini-grant program provides seed funding of up to $500 to undergraduate students and student groups to launch a project or test an idea. For many students, applying for a mini-grant is their first experience seeking arts funding. For Esterman, the scale of the mini-grants program was especially approachable and the supportive application process showed her that “even if your idea seems small, you can still apply for a grant.” 

During IAP, Evenchik participated in a pilot arts communications workshop series offered by the Office of the Arts. These workshops introduced students to best practices for writing about their art projects, including the foundations of grant writing. He said it led to connections with other student artists, and ideas for how to turn his creative interests into tangible projects. “That’s the hardest part,” he said. “I like glassblowing but I don’t know what I would propose a grant for. Going from that step of ‘I like this practice’ to ‘let’s help you generate an idea’ is really beneficial for getting people into the process.”

Arts communities

Asked about the relationship between their art practice and academics, the students stressed how important making art was to their MIT experience, both socially and curricularly. “The theater work that I’ve done has made me a lot better at communicating within groups, and more confident in presenting and taking charge of things,” Gillam said, “because once you’ve had to manage 18 actors who all have different ideas of what they want to do, you get a sense of what you need to do to lead a group!” 

Xu highlighted the integral relationship between arts and community building at MIT: “when I came to MIT, I began to experience art very much as a part of communities, whether with Arts Scholars, or bouncing ideas off collaborators. The resources at MIT and the great people here have definitely helped me take art from something that was just personal to me to a more community level.” 

The Council for the Arts at MIT (CAMIT) is a group of alumni and friends with a strong commitment to the arts and serving the MIT community. 

Posted on June 29, 2021 by Danna Solomon