In 2016, it’s hard for many people to distinguish what exactly art is. Some people are purists– only the Fine Arts satisfy them. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are those who believe that anything and everything is, or can be, art. Personally I’ve always found the Fine Arts to be a bit elitist, and I’ve spent a long time consuming, producing, and appreciating public art in all its forms. Art for the public good is often forgotten or ignored, though we’ve all had moments of spontaneous bliss whilst walking through busy corridors, having our attention grabbed by a beautifully designed poster or aesthetically mesmerizing infographic.
Mei Reffsin ’17, the artist behind the recent Office of Sustainability poster campaign celebrating October as Sustainability Month, has a clear passion for her work. Reffsin, one of this campus’s few Graphic Design Majors, is aware that many designers don’t often enjoy the limelight that artists working in other mediums sometimes do. But, as the second youngest child of six, she seems familiar and completely content with not being the center of attention.
Growing up in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her two Jewish parents and five other siblings (her oldest sister is nearly twice her age!), Mei used art as a means to express herself and define her individuality in the busy household. Upon being asked when she feels most motivated to create, she responded with a smirk, “When I’m at home and don’t feel like talking to any of my siblings. Living in a household where all six siblings have their own issues, it’s sometimes nice to be like, ‘I have to do my artwork,’ and just kind of do my thing.”
After a semester abroad in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, the design capitals of the world, Mei’s infatuation with Nordic design exploded. Her influences include the prolific Danish furniture designer Arne Jacobsen and Dutch graphic designer Wim Crouwel. We both agreed that the simplicity and functionality of their works make them second to none.
I was shocked when I found out that graphic design still wasn’t an official major here at Conn; instead, students wishing to pursue it must opt to design their coursework personally, in conjunction with their adviser. “Honestly I think it should be a major,” Mei told me, “There are enough classes by my adviser, Andrea Wollensak, to produce a major and I think it’s just so separate from the typical art major, like, design doesn’t have to be just making art. You know, you can do community design, where you’re going out and actively doing a project in the community. Like now in one of my classes I’m doing a project with the homeless shelter here in New London, and that’s, like, obviously very different from, like, this kind of stuff [the formal productions in her studio].
Community design is highly instrumental in shaping public consciousness and opinion. Poster schemes such as the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s “See Something, Say Something” resulted in many New Yorkers turning against each other out of fear and suspicion.
Right now, Mei is working on a project with the New London Homeless Shelter where she hopes to foster a sense of inclusion and hope among those affected by homelessness in New London. She told me, “I’m going to be going in [to the shelter] and running an event where I’m going to have residents of the shelter write down alphabets in their own handwriting. Then they’ll produce an “I am” statement, and then I’ll bring their handwriting into Illustrator or something– digitize it– and then I’ll write their “I am” statements in their handwriting. It could be “I am beautiful,” “I am strong,” like literally anything. And then I’m taking a portrait of them, and that’s going to culminate into a book. The original prints will be set up for the Walk to End Homelessness in the spring, and then maybe sold? I’m not sure, we’ll see.”
After telling me about a project she has in the works, in partnership with the New London Homeless Shelter, I asked her about her career plans. “My dream, after college, is to work for a design firm and to be producing [poster] campaigns. Also, non-profits need a lot of help. I do a lot of freelance– like… free stuff.” “Is that what freelance means?” I asked her jokingly. “No,” she replied, “technically with freelance you can be paid a lot of money but design isn’t just about the money. You can do a lot of great things and make a lot of great change through the power of design.”
Mei Reffsin’s work could easily make art world critics who typically turn up their noses at poster design change their ways. She’s an artist for the best reason– she loves making art, and never intended on cashing in big. Her unique combination of themes such as sustainability, minimalism, and functionality collide in her works to create posters and logos that serve a dual function of informing the populous and making the world a prettier place.