Arts as an Archive: Exploring the Crafts Center

To say the Crafts Center’s walls are covered in art would be a tragic understatement. Walking into the center tucked in the basement of Lewis Hall, the front hallway contains just a fraction of what is displayed inside, from a mural of an alien to a feminist poster from the Obama era. The main room appears straight out of childhood memories of an art classroom. Just one section of the shelves contains a rainbow of glitter bottles, googly eyes, foam letters, toothpicks, clothespins, food coloring, pompoms, and more. Around the corner, the bathroom walls are covered in notes and sketches left by the center’s visitors over the years, including proclamations such as “TELL THEM YOU LOVE THEM!” and anti-fascist symbols. A box of Sharpies waits for whoever stops by next to leave their mark.

Since 1979, the Crafts Center has been a creative space entirely formed, run, and managed by undergraduate Tufts students. Gio Torres-Lorenzotti, a sophomore volunteer at the Crafts Center, said, “The Crafts Center has always been a really great space that is always completely filled with students. It is very much an empowering space to know that those who run it are students and those who manage it are students.” This empowerment is specifically shown through the ways the center makes art accessible to whoever may want to use the space and express themselves through art.

The center has continued to offer nearly every kind of arts and crafts supplies that one could imagine, and the entire space and its supplies are completely free of charge to all students. Junior Julia Gonzalez, a volunteer, said, “Whether you’ve never picked up a crayon in your life, or you are a master artist, you can do whatever you want.” She added, “Also, just the fact that it’s free for students is great because art supplies are so expensive… just having access to all of these supplies and to use what you need is super accessible.”

While providing a free-of-charge crafting space may not seem intrinsically political, to provide an independent space to create works of self-expression free of charge is in line with the recent political history of crafting. Abby Caldwell, a senior, took the ExCollege class Unraveling Craftivism in the fall of 2019. Caldwell explained how artistic expression through craft had been used in grassroots political movements such as the AIDS Memorial Quilt or yarn bombing, which is done in urban feminist art communities to challenge gender and sexual hegemony. By taking historically feminized skills of the home and bringing them into public and political spheres, activists have utilized crafts to both challenge heteropatriarchy and convey political messages. 

For communities traditionally written out of history books, Caldwell said, “having a physical object or physical craft to pass through generations is a really important part of intangible heritage.” Walking around the Crafts Center today, a Sunrise Tufts sign from the 2019 Climate Strike hangs in the window; stickers from the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign are littered throughout the center; in the bathroom, a scribbled note on the far corner says “I worked on the dining campaign for 4.5 years! And we won! We beat Tufts #fullcommunism2020 #fullemployment2019.”

Student activist groups have used the Crafts Center to create flyers, buttons, and protest signs to advocate for causes that matter to them. According to fourth-year BFA student and Student Manager Lex Morris-Wright, “[The Crafts Center] comes out of a time of student activism and organizing… Even in its founding, the Crafts Center was made with political intention and [was] meant to be a space for organizing and community.” Senior and volunteer GK, a member of Tufts Labor Coalition, Students for Justice in Palestine, and Alternative Jews (Alt-J), said that the Crafts Center is often utilized by student activists. They said “Every club that I’ve been in… has used the Crafts Center. Almost every protest that I have gone to in the Boston area, I feel that I have been to the [Crafts] Center beforehand.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Crafts Center was a space for large gatherings of student activists to prepare for protests and campaigns. From April 2018 to April 2019, Tufts dining workers, along with student and local activists, campaigned for Tufts to recognize a dining workers union and to approve a fair working contract. “Especially during the dining campaign, whenever we had to do a banner drop… it was so helpful to be able to just go to the Crafts Center and find a huge roll of paper and a bunch of paint so easily,” said Luca Rogoff, a senior and member of TLC. “It’s a sweet meeting space, because it feels so student-run and when you’re doing things that feel in opposition to administrators… we just want to feel like we’re in our own space.”

Independence from the Tufts administration’s influence is apparent across the center, as explicit, nude, and anarchist art can be found throughout. It is uncertain if such artwork would be displayed with as much pride and nonchalance if the Crafts Center was not entirely student-run. According to Torres-Lorenzotti, “It’s almost like a [system of] anarchy against Tufts… It’s so separate from any other institution.”

However, although the center is entirely student-run, the free space and supplies are funded by Tufts Community Union and are therefore under the jurisdiction of Tufts. Grappling with conflict, Morris-Wright said, “I think it’s something that a lot of community-based art organizations have to contend with, is this duality of wanting to have this space that is accessible to everyone and free and revolutionary, but also you need funding.” GK has also noticed this same contradiction, but framed taking advantage of Tufts’ resources as an act of resistance. They said, “Obviously, Tufts is complicit in a lot of the things that [student activists] are protesting, so it’s cool to use their resources in the process, you know?”

Because the center has been present in the Tufts community since 1979, the artwork on the walls is an accumulation of the uncensored expressions of student creatives over time. In this way, the Crafts Center acts as a visual archive. 

The image that comes to mind from the word “archive” is rarely colorful. One may think of the Tufts Digital Archives or the stacks, the rows of movable bookshelves in the basement of Tisch Library. Often, archives are maintained by academic institutions or museums led predominantly by white, wealthy academics, only including that which they deem historically significant. 

However, the Craft Center offers an archive of unique and personal stories and messages, rejecting the notion that academic archives must follow Western academic ideas of what is worth memorializing. According to Morris-Wright, there is a collection of queer magazines dating back to the 1980s that has been used for collages for years. “People are able to come and have conversations with these old, ephemeral archives, and then make it into art,” they said. 

Learning of others’ stories through their lasting art has tied the Tufts community together through decades. According to Gonzalez, “The ceiling panels have [even] been painted on by different volunteers… So if you look up, it’s just really special stories for alumni.” She added, “Volunteers are always leaving their little mark on the Crafts Center, even if it’s just writing a message on the bathroom [walls] or painting a ceiling panel.” Gonzalez noted that this history is unlikely to be erased as there are sign-in books that contain the names of thousands of Tufts students going back several years. Senior and volunteer Eliza Smith said, “What I think is so special is how it’s a visual archive that anyone can add to. Anyone can come in and add their own little piece of art.”