Shifting Focus After the Storm
Two art students from Puerto Rico are studying at RISD this semester as part of an AICAD exchange program initiated in the aftermath of Hurricane María.
Danick Rivera is majoring in Graphic Design at Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Diseño de Puerto Rico, but this spring he’s at RISD focusing on printmaking.
Late last September, Charlyne Ortiz and Danick Rivera were just beginning to ramp up their thesis work at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Diseño de Puerto Rico (EAP) in San Juan when Hurricane María changed everything. Today, while their school—still plagued by ongoing power outages—continues to recover from the worst natural disaster to hit the island, Ortiz, Rivera and a number of their fellow students are taking advantage of semester-long exchange programs being offered this spring by RISD and other members of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art & Design (AICAD).
While the change of scenery doesn’t alleviate the ongoing challenges and political turmoil in the wake of the storm, it is providing Ortiz and Rivera with a new frame of reference. Now studying in the Sculpture and Printmaking departments, respectively, both had been interested in RISD prior to their arrival in February.
Ortiz was drawn to the reputation students have on social media for “creating conceptual movements in art.” In San Juan, she has been focused on developing material acuity, mainly by working in traditional media like wood and stone. By applying for the exchange program at RISD, she hoped to broaden her approach by moving “to another level and learning how to manage different modes of working,” she explains. “I’m interested in mixing materials and fitting them into my process.”
Before the hurricane hit, Rivera had been researching RISD as a potential option for graduate study, so he figured that “coming here for a semester would be a great way to see what the programs are actually like.” He says he “had high expectations,” especially for the specialized equipment and facilities. The Graphic Design major at EAP is now enrolled in a full slate of courses geared towards expanding his skills in printmaking, including intros to silkscreen and letterpress, an independent study and a web design course in Graphic Design that involves developing a “rebuttal function” for YouTube.
For both Ortiz and Rivera, the scale and accessibility of RISD’s resources has made the biggest impression. “Here I feel like I don’t have to worry about anything but my work,” Rivera says. “It’s easy to get materials, to access the studios. It’s super convenient to make the most of your education…. It’s almost like there’s no excuse [for producing weak work].” Ortiz agrees, thinking of the day-to-day schlepping of work and materials in San Juan. “RISD offers so much just for artists,” she says. “At home there’s less space for making, we spend more time traveling to studios and it’s more difficult to find materials.”
On the flip side, in spending the semester far from home both Ortiz and Rivera miss certain things: The sun and warmth, for one—and the fact that “the community [in San Juan] is close. You feel you know everyone… even strangers hug you,” says Ortiz. But the multicultural aspects of RISD have been pleasantly “surprising,” she adds. “I didn’t realize I’d meet so many students from all over the world with such different ways of viewing creativity.” Rivera, for his part, finds the coffee in Rhode Island to be a poor substitute for what’s available in San Juan (though he’s making do). And interestingly, he notes that while he’s finding faculty members to be “incredibly organized and accessible,” he feels that “they could be a little harsher in crit.”
Now that the semester is coming to a close, an inevitable split focus is starting as they think about their future in San Juan along with everything they still hope to accomplish here in Providence. As Ortiz is experimenting with melted acrylic for a sculptural installation, she’s also thinking about the thesis and seminar work she’ll resume in the fall, hoping to infuse it with the same experimental edge she’s been honing the last few months. “To me RISD has been a place where I can question ideas,” she explains. “Here, even if you don’t have a skill yet, you can try new things and teachers guide you. They give you references.”
“I feel like I’ve been building up to this moment,” adds Rivera, who has found a new passion for printmaking. "I would love to open a studio back home someday.” Through his experiences at RISD this spring, he has also realized that he really wants to go on to teach. “I think of the way I feel when I learn something new in the studio,” he says. “I imagine it feels even better to see the look on a student’s face when you help them get there.”
—Lauren Maas / photos by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH
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