Visual Artists Association at Ryerson bridges community with art

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By Abeer Khan

Jasmine Zhang remembers booking spaces around campus last year to host events for her art club. She would get to the booked rooms early with her team, set up the chairs and place art supplies around the tables, getting ready for her event. 

Once everything was set up, Zhang and her team would monitor the door, keeping track of the students who rolled into the room. Students from all faculties, years and walks of life would find a seat and socialize with each other, anticipating the start of the night. After everyone was settled in, the host would offer a brief introduction into the night’s planned activities and a new meeting of the Visual Artists Association (VAA) at Ryerson would commence.  

VAA is an art club at Ryerson founded by Zhang and her friends in 2018. They currently have 139 members on their Discord server and nine executive team members who all work together to host and participate in events.

Zhang started the club with other Ryerson students to make time for her hobbies and put energy into other projects outside of her nursing program. 

“We’re not just our program, we’re very individual, unique people,” said Zhang. “Having that opportunity to engage and have a space beyond your immediate programs and the people you interact with, that’s kind of the basis for having the art club.” 

Back when VAA was in-person, they would offer art workshops or drop-in sessions where students could come paint and draw while socializing. Online, VAA hosts virtual paint nights, workshops and game nights where community members can relax, socialize and take part in their love of art. 

“We focus so much on just being friendly and open and meeting new people and just having a space where people aren’t afraid to be themselves,” said Zhang. 

“We’re not just our program, we’re very individual, unique people”

“With Ryerson, it’s a very commuter-based school. There’s not the same kind of on-campus population that maybe other schools have,” said Sandra Feng, a fourth-year nursing student and former vice-president of finance for the club. “It’s hard to meet people [or] make friends with other people from other programs.” 

Although Feng stepped down this year, she still joins club events and meetings regularly. During the school year, as a commuter student herself, Feng said joining VAA allowed her to connect with more art lovers at Ryerson. 

“I appreciate the fact that the [VAA] is able to pull people with similar interests in and build that community,” she said. 

One of VAA’s goals is to make art accessible for students who want to learn and enjoy it, without the financial burden. Before the pandemic, the club would provide supplies to students at their events in an effort to be open and create a safe space for people to come and try new things.  

“We know that a lot of students who aren’t artists want to try art, but then they don’t, because they don’t want to spend money, or they’re afraid of making that commitment without being so-called ‘good’ at art,” said Zhang. 

Adapting online

With COVID-19 restrictions and the burden of online class, Zhang hopes the VAA can also become a place where students can turn to when they’re stressed or burnt out. “You need a space to escape and relax and usually art is our means of escape,” she said. 

The group tries to maintain their sense of community while pivoting to an online-only presence. Through Discord and Instagram, they’ve been able to engage students in their virtual events and workshops. 

Their Discord server hosts different channels students can join based on their interests, from painting to digital art, and connect with other Ryerson artists as well as get feedback on their work. 

“Discord helps get people engaged a lot more,” said Feng. Unlike events where an executive team member usually leads, the server provides a more laid back environment. “Conversation happens naturally in the Discord without anybody directing a topic to talk about,” she said. 

“You need a space to escape and relax and usually art is our means of escape”

The VAA also shares their members’ art on their social media channels like Instagram and Facebook to showcase Ryerson’s talent and encourage others to share their work and participate in the club as well. 

“I think the hardest part of being an artist is showing your art and taking the criticism that might come from it,” said Sabrina Kauk, director of marketing for VAA and a fourth-year media production student. She said showing people that are willing to have their art displayed on their platform creates space for others to join in. 

“Art is a great way to facilitate community because it’s a way of expressing yourself and to be creative in your own way and everyone has a unique way of expressing themselves,” said Zhang. 

A strong team

While Zhang founded the VAA, she said it was never a solo effort. “Everyone plays a little role and there’s a lot of people in the background organizing, getting funding, getting supplies, materials, setting up rooms, opening rooms, all of those things we might not see from the outside,” said Zhang. 

She said every executive team member has something distinct to offer—whether it’s organizing behind the scenes or hosting events. “We’re really unique in that sense where all of our execs are able to contribute something different.” 

While Zhang is set to graduate this year, she’s proud of what her team has been able to accomplish thus far. 

“Seeing this club built from the ground up and become what it is today has been one of the biggest accomplishments in all of my time at Ryerson,” said Zhang. 

In the future, she hopes the VAA can continue to solidify a greater presence within the community, run bigger events and create projects with a lasting impact on Ryerson as a whole. 

“I trust in the potential and passion of fellow artists in this community and knowing that we are passing the baton into a brighter future,” said Zhang.

“I can’t wait to see what we’ve got in store next.”

With files from Apurba Roy

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