Using Art to Amplify Voices

by | Aug 31, 2020 | ART

From producing face masks to highlighting local artists during coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement, Studio Two Three is uplifting their community as a resource on the ground. 

After celebrating their tenth anniversary late last year, Studio Two Three decided it was time to reevaluate their mission with an eye toward the future. 

“The primary goal has always been to be a space for artists to have access to resources, tools, and community,” said Kate Fowler, Development Director at Studio Two Three. “Our new mission and vision are to make art, and to make change — to use art as a tool for social, personal, and structural change.” 

In the face of unexpected challenges this year, Studio Two Three has been finding new and creative ways to live that mission. As the coronavirus pandemic hit Richmond, their 3,500 square-foot event space, a frequent host to community events, weddings, and workshops, went dark. The organization took a financial hit, but has stayed afloat thanks to faithful studio members and local funding. 

PHOTO: Studio Two Three

“It’s been a scary time,” said Fowler, “but we’ve always been driven by community support, and right now is no different. It’s really our community that stepped forward and made it possible for us to be here… This time has allowed us to be hyper-focused on what is essential to us, and to our community in this moment.” 

At the onset of the pandemic, Studio Two Three became aware that face masks were essential to the community in fighting the spread of COVID-19. With involvement from Virginia Commonwealth University educator and artist Jon-Philip Sheridan, along with the Richmond Arts and Cultural Workers Coalition, they converted their empty event space into a reusable face mask production center. Local businesses and organizations, including U-FAB, The Visual Arts Center of Richmond, Ledbury, and Blanchard’s Coffee, donated fabric and materials. 

From April through June, more than 100 volunteers came in five days a week to sew reusable face masks, which were then distributed to essential workers around Richmond. All told, they produced 10,000 masks for medical staff, home and public health care workers, behavioral health workers, bus drivers, and others working with homeless and at-risk individuals. 

“We physically had the space, and we have a ton of artists on staff and in our community of studio members who know how to sew and make stuff with their hands,” Fowler said. “It was a logical conclusion to employ that unique skillset to do something useful, and pragmatic, in this moment.” 

PHOTO: Studio Two Three

While their studio space remained closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, Studio Two Three partnered with the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU (ICA) to offer five artists micro-residencies and exhibitions. This project, called For as Long as Such Images are Needed, provided five artists — Sana Masud, Aimee Joyaux, Mark Strandquist, Guard n Flags, and Nontsikelelo Mutiti — the platform to respond to current events. 

“We don’t just want Studio Two Three ideas out in the world,” Fowler said. “There are people who wanted to make something responsive to this moment, and we wanted to make sure that they had the tools to do it.” 

Studio Two Three contributed socially distant space and resources for screen printing, letterpress, risography, monoprint, and black-and-white darkroom photography. The ICA then exhibited the work in the windows of their building in downtown Richmond. “One of our fundamental guiding beliefs is that artists have a unique capacity to support and contribute to their community, and to democracy,” Fowler said. 

The studio space has since reopened to its members. “A lot of people who are here run businesses on our equipment. We wanted to get the doors back open to people who are building their livelihoods here,” said Fowler.

Studio Two Three also resumed offering classes in screen printing, linoleum printing, sewing, risography, and more. “It’s been really positive,” Fowler said. “It feels like a healthy place where people can step out and leave their homes, be safe, be creative, and take care of their mental health.”

PHOTO: Studio Two Three

In addition to opening its doors to visitors, Studio Two Three has made an effort to get more involved in the community, particularly in terms of the anti-racism activism happening in Richmond. “As an organization, we’re not neutral,” Fowler said. “The people who work in this organization, and are on the board of this organization, deeply believe in the movement for Black lives, and to defend Black lives.” 

When History Is Illuminating contacted them about a project involving plaques and zines, Studio Two Three jumped at the chance to collaborate. History Is Illuminating is an anonymous group of historians dedicated to educating people on the history of the Monument Avenue statues, as well as that of important Black figures in Richmond. Speaking on why they selected Studio Two Three as a collaborator, an anonymous History Is Illuminating representative said, “Studio Two Three is a seal of approval. It’s a sign-off that there’s integrity and positivity behind a project — that it’s worth paying attention to.” 

History Is Illuminating installed recontextualization signs along Monument Avenue, while Studio Two Three produced and disseminated zines corresponding to the signs. “Studio Two Three has been involved in every step of the process. I don’t know if this project would have happened without them,” said the representative. The City of Richmond recently removed the signs, but the zines can still be acquired for free from the Studio Two Three website

“Even when the signs are gone, what’s most important to us is that we still have zines going up across the city that are accessible for people to pick up,” Fowler said. 

PHOTO: Studio Two Three

The project has led to other collaborations for Studio Two Three, focusing on anti-racism efforts and education. “The History Is Illuminating project has really opened the door for us to better understand the public history work that’s being done in Richmond. It has led to some powerful partnerships for us,” Fowler said. “What we’re committed to now is both seeing that history continue to be spread, and to invest in resources and projects like Untold RVA or Friends of East End, who are doing work that will be around for a long time in different parts of the city, other than just Monument Avenue.” 

To that end, Studio Two Three launched Community Print Days, in which they bring their mobile print studio to a location in the city and offer the opportunity for people to print t-shirts, banners, and other items with designs and messaging that support activism. So far, they’ve been to Marcus-David Peters Circle and Chimborazo Park, with plans to widen their reach. 

“We’re trying to reflect back what’s happening on the ground by collaborating more responsibly with artists, and using our own hands in the process,” Fowler said. “We are going into other parts of the city very intentionally, and not for profit. We are finding creative ways to take things outside, and to meet people where they’re at in their neighborhoods.” 

One Community Print Days event focused on Friends of East End. The non-profit organization works to restore East End Cemetery, a historic Black burial ground, and to preserve an oral history from the descendants of the individuals buried there. 

PHOTO: Studio Two Three

“The event itself was fabulous,” said Erin Hollaway Palmer, a Friends of East End founding member. “We’ve been fighting so hard just to continue our work at East End — Enrichmond is blocking our access — that an evening of pure positivity really lifted our spirits and helped remind us why we do what we do. These cemeteries, and these people, matter. Studio Two Three has helped us reach a lot more people, and with precisely the message we want to convey.” 

Studio Two Three has made other efforts to reach broader audiences with their work. As images of ongoing demonstrations and activism came to light, they felt compelled to preserve and publicize them. They collaborated with artists and activists to offer risograph prints for free to the public. 

“The historical root of a community print shop is fast, cheap dissemination of information. We realized that we had underutilized resources, and that was the best way to step forward into the community,” Fowler said. “The commemorative prints are not images created by us, they’re created by photographers and activists who are out there every day documenting what’s happening. We wanted to put them in people’s homes, and let people see what was happening in Richmond. The first image we did, we disseminated over 1,000 prints for free.” Studio Two Three also offers high-quality versions of the prints for sale in their online shop, with funds going back to the original artists. 

In fulfillment of their mission, Studio Two Three plans to continue more events in and of the community moving forward. 

“It’s not only our duty, but our responsibility to reflect, share, and participate in this moment. Looking forward, we know that we’re going to stand up for organizing in Richmond in the long term with anti-racism, but also at other intersections like LGBTQIA or women’s rights,” Fowler said. “I hope that people who are organizing, and who are leading the movement, see us as a resource. I hope that people see the role of artists in an engaged democracy. I hope they see that art and culture have the power to transform societies, and to imagine more equitable societies.” 

Top Photo via Studio Two Three

Laura Drummond

Laura Drummond

Laura Drummond is a freelance writer based in Charlottesville, VA. She has a B.A. in English from the University of Virginia. Her favorite things are taking pictures of flowers, experiencing live music, going on road trips, and spending time with her husband and two cats.

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