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Student advocacy organization uses art for the greater good

Senior Willow Hart throws clay on the pottery wheel in the Nielsen Center for Visual Arts with encouragement from fellow potter Autumn Reilly ’22. Photo: Michel Fougères

Sometimes, a door just opens. Eckerd College senior environmental studies student Willow Hart was working in the MADE art studio in their hometown of Mamaroneck, New York, five years ago when Artists for Impact held its first event to raise money for Futbol for Kids.

In the following two years, AFI founders Dasha Boswell and Ris Igrec began working at MADE. In late 2020 they opened applications for board members, and Willow excitedly applied.

The goal is to use art, whether it’s artwork itself or proceeds from an art event, to raise awareness and money for a variety of organizations. AFI also advocates for human rights, social justice, and mental health issues.

“I just thought it was so cool,” Willow says, “so in early 2021 I got onto the AFI Board, and we created their website, artistsforimpactusa.org. My first goal as a board member was to start AFI’s first collegiate chapter at Eckerd. So last fall I chartered AFI Eckerd with Elise Shapiro and Gillian Probert as co-presidents.”

The impact was immediate. Last semester, at AFI’s first on-campus event, the artists raised $1,080 for the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, a Tampa-based nonprofit that offers a range of services for people in crisis situations. And then on April 8, at the AFI-sponsored Artisan Fair, the group raised more than $1,505 for CASA (Community Action Stops Abuse), a St. Petersburg–based nonprofit that operates a domestic violence center and an emergency shelter.

“We took a vote as a club, and those were the nonprofits we chose,” Willow explains. “Next year we’ll do different groups.”

Willow says AFI Eckerd has around 153 people on its mailing list and 20 or 30 who regularly attend meetings. “We had about 45 artists and others who were helping or participating in some way at the Artisan Fair,” they say. Not yet a year old, AFI was recognized recently by ECOS, the Eckerd College Organization of Students, as the College’s Best Activism/Advocacy/Sustainability/Environmental Club.

“Making art into a medium for change is powerful, and Willow has done that incredibly effectively,” says Casey McDonough ’03, an adjunct professor of visual arts at Eckerd who has participated in artist residencies at the Morean Center for Clay, the Red Lodge Clay Center, and the Vendsyssel Kunstmuseum in Hjørring, Denmark. “Willow is one of my assistants in the ceramics lab this semester, and they are showing themself to be driven and attentive, and always willing to help all students regardless of experience. The way they [work] with students is positive and encouraging, and I’m very happy to have such good support in my classroom.”

So how does an environmental studies student become immersed in art? By stepping through a door. “I was told over and over that art can’t be a career, that I can’t make a living doing art,” Willow says. “So I was always looking for something else. I took environmental studies classes in high school and really liked it. But I’ve always been an artist, and when I found AFI, I jumped at the chance to be a part of it. Everything just sort of clicked.”

And people noticed. “Willow is one of the most passionate and talented students I’ve had the pleasure to teach,” says Joanna Huxster, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental studies and Willow’s mentor. “For a little while in the middle of Willow’s time at Eckerd, they were disheartened that they felt they couldn’t make a difference in the world. Artists for Impact has really allowed them to channel their passion and concern in a creative way that utilizes their skills and abilities to make change.”

Willow will graduate in May and plans to live and work in St. Petersburg. They will be teaching classes and helping build a kiln at The Hive, a community pottery studio.

“It was the art scene in St. Pete that drew me,” Willow explains. “I’m going to continue doing events off campus in the St. Petersburg community, working with St. Petersburg artists.”

Willow also will stay connected to AFI Eckerd in their role as an AFI board member. Elise, a senior visual arts student from Columbus, Ohio, who helped Willow establish AFI Eckerd and is a co-president, also is graduating. But Gillian, a senior management and visual arts student from San Diego, California, and the other co-president, will stay on.

“I really love trying to better my community,” Willow says. “When I found a way to use art to do that, it made it even better. Through AFI Eckerd we have been able to build a community of artists on campus, and we’re providing opportunities to try new mediums, work and trade with other artists, and sell their work—while also supporting causes we care about.”