The ten Puerto Rican students MassArt is hosting this semester, with Commissioner of Higher Education for Massachusetts Carlos E. Santiago and MassArt President David Nelson (photo by Kimberly Nelson, courtesy MassArt)

During Hurricane Maria, Ashley Martinez Rivera, a student at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Diseño de Puerto Rico in San Juan, locked herself in her bathroom with a work she’d painted, an attempt to protect one of her favorite creations from destruction. Now, Martinez Rivera and nine other Puerto Rican art students find themselves in Boston, part of a special program at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) that covers all of their expenses for the spring semester as a kind of emergency exchange program.

Ashley Martinez Rivera, “Self Portrait” (2017) (image courtesy the artist)

“The driving force behind the program was a sense of urgency,” Lyssa Palu-ay, Interim Provost at MassArt told Hyperallergic in a phone interview. “The situation in Puerto Rico was so clearly a humanitarian crisis, and it was getting little response from the federal government.” Palu-ay said she and many fellow members of the MassArt community were trying to figure out a way to help, when Saúl Nava, Associate Professor of Biology and Life Sciences, volunteered to tap into his network in Puerto Rico and invite students to Boston to continue their studies while their own art school was still rebuilding itself.

Martinez Rivera, 21, a humanities-turned-art student, told Hyperallergic in a phone interview that although she’s “never consistent with themes,” she most likes to paint portraits and landscapes. And she’s extremely dedicated. “I’m the only student in the relief group that painted during the storm,” she said. “There was nothing else for me to do except work.”

Fellow relief student Katelyn Diana Rios, 23, a sculptor who works in wood and ceramics, told Hyperallergic in a phone interview that for her, it was exactly the opposite. For a long time after the hurricane, she was feeling uninspired and too depressed to work. “I was going through an existential crisis even before the hurricane,” she said. “The storm was terrible, and seeing your home — not just your house, but your home — destroyed takes a really big emotional toll on you. 2017 was a weird year, with the election and all. The hurricane was like the cherry on top of it.”

Initially, Palu-ay thought the Boston art school could take on five students, but within a couple weeks of unofficial talks between MassArt and the Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Diseño de Puerto Rico, more than 40 Puerto Rican students had already emailed Nava about it. MassArt settled on ten students, while also sending a “warm nudge” to its peer institutions in the Association of Independent Colleges of Art & Design to consider similar programs at their own schools. (The Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore has welcomed five Puerto Rican students this semester; Palu-ay encourages other institutions to also step forward, saying she and Nava are happy to help with coordination.)

Katelyn Diana Rios, “Nudos,” 2017. Wood, plaster, twine, 4 x 2 1/2 ft (image courtesy the artist)

Both Martinez Rivera and Rois said they appreciated that the MassArt applications were short and straightforward, just personal information and a statement. (Many of the relief students now in Boston lost their entire portfolios in the storm.) But even then, it was hard to find a cell phone signal to actually send the application, or even know that this program was an option. “We got an email saying there’s this opportunity,” Rios said. “And if you had access to email, you could apply.”

“I spent two days rewriting my personal statement,” Martinez Rivera said. “I had no signal at home, so I had to go to the highway.” Rios explained that there were always cars lined up by the highway, full of people checking their phones. Although most of the cell towers were destroyed by the hurricane, there were a few still standing, with small pockets of reception along the highways.

Put together in a matter of only a few months, MassArt’s program covers tuition, transportation, housing, food, supplies (including coats and hats for the cold Boston climate), and stipends for its 10 emergency exchange students. “We wanted to make it as easy as we could on the students,” Palu-ay said, noting that many of the Puerto Rican students are roommates in the dorms and Nava is teaching a bioaesthetics class that all 10 of them are taking together, further nurturing a support network in the classroom. “We all relate in a very special way,” Rios affirmed. “We even have a group chat.”

Ashley Martinez Rivera locked herself in her bathroom during Hurricane Maria with this painting to save it from the elements (image courtesy the artist)

Neither Rios nor Martinez Rivera had ever been to Boston before, but they both said they’re enjoying their time there and at MassArt. They like the interdisciplinary nature of their classes and the nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic at MassArt. But they’re maybe most excited about how much there is to do, both on campus and off, and all the opportunities they have to exhibit work. They said Bostonians are a lot nicer than everyone says, and they’re already obsessed with the T subway system and the easy access it gives them to the whole city.

Back in Puerto Rico, Martinez Rivera said her family still doesn’t have running water or electricity; they’ve been siphoning water from an unoccupied house next door via a hose through the kitchen window. Rios said her family got water back about a month and a half after the hurricane and they only got their power back last month. “My mom still doesn’t use the lights,” she said. “You get used to it.”

This isn’t the first time MassArt has offered art students a relief semester. Palu-ay said that in the past, the school has hosted art students displaced by Hurricane Katrina as well as the fire at Glasgow’s Mackintosh School Of Art. Because the Puerto Rico program was put together in only a few months, all of the funding comes from the university, although there is also a public crowdfunding campaign to support the students.

MassArt’s crowdfunding campaign runs through the end of February.

Elena Goukassian is an arts writer based in Brooklyn. Originally from Bulgaria, she grew up in Washington state and lived in Washington, DC before moving to New York in 2017. Her writing has also appeared...

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