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Destler Dodge

College campuses are canvases for artistic expression of a wide variety. As students come and go, the artistic vision evolves, changing the campus culture and looking to follow suit with the times.

RIT's brutalist architecture, in its demeanor, presents ample opportunity for emerging approved and unapproved artistic practices. The quirky population traversing RIT is full of opinions and quips that take a few different physical forms. Many of these pieces go unnoticed by students and faculty trudging about their daily routines. 

Some of the art on campus flies under the radar, such as the spray-painted pineapples and blue gophers. On a larger scale, many have pondered the meaning behind The Sentinel and other statues that more blatantly adorn campus today.

The approved art pieces at RIT tend to be the the easiest to spot since they are properly archived and consciously marketed by the university. These pieces act as permanent fixtures and "focal points," as Director of Finance and Administration at University Galleries Wendy Marks phrased it.

"There are some nice pieces that are historic and original to when the campus was first built," said Marks. "But I like the fact that there's a continuation of that aesthetic — bringing in public art to help humanize this campus."

There has been an emerging movement toward occupying any sort of availability for expression, and not just at RIT. 

"This is the age of the pop-up shop: space is available, and it's yours for the taking," explained one Core77 article on the topic of artists inhabiting empty spaces around them for miscellaneous creative projects. 

"Continuing to introduce public art is important," noted Marks. "Then, each generation gets to make their mark on campus." 

"Each generation gets to make their mark on campus." 

RIT has actually adapted the concrete path outside the Vignelli Center into an outdoor curated space to mimic the so-called curb appeal commonly associated with art schools. Sculptures have been installed along one side of the building and will eventually be replaced by new pieces as part of a rotation.

Thriving on a similar sense of impermanence, street art is a common form of unabridged artistic expression. Provocative in subject matter, the pieces openly address current issues relevant to the local audience. Street artists bring to light what many others are afraid to say. These pieces can also be silly, enticing chuckles much in the same way that last year's impromptu finals week installation in the Infinity Quad did. The week before exams, students bearing varying degrees of stress found mannequins strewn on the ground with their notebooks and backpacks scattered beside their seemingly dead bodies. 

"I think it's a wonderful use of the space," chuckled Marks. "It's not altering or damaging the environment, and it's a great way to express yourself." The piece depicted how many students  felt at the time in the way of relatable comic relief. "Everything happens inside of the buildings," she added. "I think this external expression is very important, and also, it's really healthy." 

One particular form of unapproved art can be found in just about every restroom stall on campus. The dingy stall walls represent a medium for conversation on a whole slew of topics. It's a restroom and the artists had to be sitting on a toilet around the time they doodled their thoughts — shame isn't about to hold them back.

A Salem State University study analyzed several university restroom stalls, comparing the social differences depicted by latrine artists of various sexes. While the subject matter in this particular setting is often tainted by the surrounding inspiration, this same type of open dialogue can be found as etched frustrations on library tables or scribbled on the pipes lining the tunnels. It is in these nooks around campus where people may find themselves wandering into the raw thoughts and feelings anonymously shared by members of their local community, yet rarely exchanged in discourse. 

Sydney University has actually extended its artistic awareness and support efforts by designating and preserving an open space for students' street artwork. Projects like Rochester's Wall Therapy initiative embrace this form of art in a similar way. Efforts like these are beginning to lift the negative connotations associated with street art.

Here at RIT, there are two distinct spray-painted artworks peppered about campus: a blue stenciled gopher and similar pineapple. Spray paint is certainly a more permanent medium than chalk, but these pieces are primarily set on fairly innocuous surfaces.

Marks expressed strong reservations about defacing the brick in any way. "I think part of the beauty of the RIT campus is that it's so well kept," she remarked. "It's very clean and pristine."

RIT Archivist Becky Simmons noted that there are archived photographs of some graffiti from campus in the 1920s. 

"It's just very funny; it's old," she said. "One of them has got a little something written about one of the old faculty members, very light funny … they just look in on what students were thinking in the 1920s." 

"Art is supposed to be out in the culture. It doesn't just have to exist on a wall in a gallery somewhere."

"Art is supposed to be out in the culture," Simmons urged. "It doesn't just have to exist on a wall in a gallery somewhere." She has taken to pointing out this type of occasional "little guerrilla activity" to people on her campus tours.

"You want something to humanize a space," she said. "And even graffiti humanizes a space." 

"Graffiti humanizes a space."

"One of the things we say in the Archives," Simmons added, "is we're not just here to do an administrative history of who was president. I want to know about student life, and it's hard to document that because it's sort of ephemeral." 

By combining the permanent campus art collection with these informal works, observers can gather a detailed perspective on the transient personalities inhabiting campus at any given point in time. 

​"It's not meant to stay there forever," concluded Marks. "It impacts the environment for a prescribed period of time, and then it goes away. Maybe that's more of the way of looking at it."