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For Art Students, New Scholarship Fund Will Spark Possibilities

It takes only a brief tour of their art-filled home in Alexandria, Virginia to appreciate the way that art shapes the lives of George Mason supporters Gardner and Stevie Gillespie.

For the past decade, the couple has found an ideal way to pursue their passion through the School of Art at Mason. As chair of the advisory council, Gardner Gillespie drafted the School of Art’s vision statement. Along with other volunteers, the Gillespies support Off the Wall, a fundraising event and art auction that raises on average $40,000 annually for the School of Art. Advisory council members also raise the visibility of the school, spark partnerships, and act as community ambassadors.

Now the Gillespies are combining their passion with purpose by establishing a permanent scholarship fund for School of Art students in an amount of up to $1 million. With both a current use and endowed component, their gift will benefit deserving undergraduate and graduate students right away, as well as for the long term.

“A hallmark of Mason is that there are many students who are first-generation, or who themselves are immigrants,” said Gardner Gillespie, an attorney who comes from a family filled with artists. “Because many of them are so gifted and ambitious to make a mark, I think they are very grateful for the educational opportunities they’re given. It’s one of the reasons we are happy to be able to make a substantial contribution here, because it will be especially meaningful to students who are awarded the scholarships.”

While all students in the visual arts are eligible, the Gillespies especially want to encourage those who are multidisciplinary—an approach reflected in their own collection. “We want to support students who break down boundaries within media, and also the perceived boundaries between art and the sciences and other humanities,” said Gillespie.

Emily Fussner, a Master of Fine Arts candidate slated to graduate in spring 2019, is a good example of such a multidisciplinary artist. Her work spans printmaking, papermaking, and bookmaking, often taking a three-dimensional approach to these forms.

One example: when Fussner notices cracks in the asphalt parking lots outside her studio in the Art and Design Building at the Fairfax Campus, she sees an opportunity for art. Works like her “Map of Crevices” sculpture are created by packing a mix of paper pulp and wire into interesting-looking cracks, letting the mix harden, then extracting the piece and displaying it.

For Fussner, affording a master’s degree as a full-time student has taken a mix of student debt, part-time work, a partial teaching stipend, and a graduate professional fellowship (at the Fenwick Library gallery on campus). This year Fussner is receiving additional financial help as the recipient of the Victoria N. Salmon Outstanding Graduate Student Award through the College of Visual and Performing Arts.

That helps, but most awards and scholarships at Mason are relatively small, only a few thousand dollars per year. So, as the Gillespies realized, more scholarship assistance is greatly needed to attract top students and help them graduate without excessive debt.

“Stevie and I thought that this was a way we could make a meaningful contribution to the School of Art, something that can last beyond us,” said Gillespie. In recognition of the gift, the Fine Arts Gallery in the Art and Design Building will be named in the couple’s honor.

Emily Fussner’s prints and sculptures have been exhibited at Off the Wall, which she describes as “a chance for donors to see what we’re doing first hand, what they’re giving to. There’s also a silent auction where you can purchase the art ‘off the wall.’ I definitely encourage people to participate, because then you’re not just giving money, you’re also getting a piece of artwork from the students you’re supporting. And that’s really empowering to the students—that you appreciate the art they’re making.”

Graphic design student Lauren Lapid, a BFA ’19 candidate, is another artist whose experience sheds light on the need for more scholarship support. A Californian who chose Mason over art schools, she is president of Mason’s chapter of the American Institute of the Graphic Arts, also studies business, and hopes to go into the web design and user experience fields.

As an Honors College student, Lapid has benefited from a Mason Excellence Scholarship, which defrays the high tuition for out-of-state students. Even so, she is concerned about the student debt needed to finish her degree, and wishes that more scholarship support was available for arts students specifically.

“I think that Mason is phenomenal, and the School of Art is only growing, but growth can only happen if you have students who want to come,” said Lapid recently. “Being an out-of-state student is expensive, it’s an investment, and it’s a hustle. … Without the scholarship, I don’t think that I could afford to be here, especially with the student loans that I’m already taking out. It’s a commitment, and scholarships help make that happen.”

November 14, 2018 / RR