By Lauren Richards
Boston University News Service
The Howard Thurman Center was quiet on Nov. 5 as a group of students entered after hours Friday night. They came with supplies and a meticulous schedule for setting up what would become their first gallery showcase.
Jessica Zheng, the director of operations for Charcoal Magazine, a student-run publication at Boston University that aims to highlight BIPOC creatives, headed the planning. She wanted everything to run as smoothly as possible and created a schedule to help enable that.
She and members of the editorial staff stayed until 10:30 p.m. and returned at nine the next morning. They spent all morning and afternoon Saturday preparing for the evening that began at 7 p.m.
The idea for the showcase first surfaced at the beginning of the school year, when Zheng and the editorial team gathered to plan their mid-semester event. They wanted to do something that engaged the community both at BU and beyond.
While excited, Zheng said she was also intimidated. A political science major in her third year, she had no experience in planning a gallery showcase and didn’t know where to begin. She had done event planning before, but nothing to this degree.
Zheng said she reached out to mentors for help and engaged in research, yet she still felt lost.
In addition to troubles with initial planning, submissions were slow to come in and the deadline had to be extended. It was not until the final week before the deadline that a large outpouring of artwork came in.
“It was a really tough process,” Zheng said. “And, I’m not gonna lie, it took so much out of me that it’s kind of insane.”
When Saturday evening arrived, Zheng was still stressed.
She had spent weeks planning the event, and while the setup came together, it strayed from the original vision, Zheng said. She had invested time and energy, leaving her behind in some of her classes. She also invested a large sum of money after having to purchase frames out of pocket due to printing errors.
By the time Saturday rolled around and as people piled in, she said she was tense.
“Honestly, I was in a mindset of, ‘I just want this event to end,’” Zheng said. “Like I will feel relief and stop holding my breath after this. And I am really sad about that because I wanted to enjoy the moment.”
Yet, the event came together beautifully, photographer and BU student Maria Nino-Suastegui said.
“For me, it was really fulfilling,” Nino-Suastegui said. “This showcase gave me a safe space to put my work on display.”
The showcase featured 67 pieces by 26 artists, 17 of which were from the university. In addition to the traditional gallery, which included framed works ranging from photography to paintings, there was a hanging gallery where smaller prints of the works hung from the ceiling.
Nino-Suastegui submitted photographs from her time visiting family in Mexico. She took the photos throughout her stay depicting the laborsome work her family engaged in. She was inspired by their efforts and realized the ultimate impact it had on her.
“I really questioned, ‘What were they working towards?’ And [realized] they were working for us even though we were their family who immigrated to the US,” Nino-Suastegui said. “Because of their efforts there, we get to be here.”
Additionally, there was a live performance and a video reveal of the theme for the magazine’s upcoming issue. In total, nearly 250 people showed up, making it Charcoal’s largest event yet, according to Zheng.
The overall goal, Zheng said, was to engage the community and interact with local BIPOC creatives. They wanted the space to celebrate the identities and stories of the artists as well as the works themselves.
Becks Loo, a BU student who attended, said they accomplished that.
“I think it was very cool,” Loo said. “I think for myself, being trans and queer and Asian, seeing artists there who were also, for example, nonbinary and Asian, and other representations like that was really cool. I didn’t know that there were people like that, like me, who existed on this campus.”
After the evening ended, Zheng crashed. She slept most of Sunday before she had time to reflect on the event. While she said she was disappointed in some aspects, she also said she recognized she was particularly hard on herself.
She decided to accept the compliments and praise she heard from attendees and staffers, and while she said she’s having a hard time internalizing them, she’s coming around to the idea that the gallery showcase was “objectively a great event.”
“So I think now in the wake of everything, my mood is like, ‘I did the damn thing, I pulled off the impossible,’” Zheng said. “I’m trying to feel proud of myself.”