A master’s degree in any fine art, whether creative writing, music or studio art, can be a tricky thing. Students graduate with a valuable advanced education: polished technical skills and an in-depth understanding of theory, history and contemporary issues. But they don’t finish with the clear-cut career path of, say, a dentist or a lawyer.

Today’s artists are multifaceted creative professionals. They work as educators, organizers, gallerists and community activists. The requisite skills go far beyond the traditional talent for drafting or photography. But how does one teach community engagement? Hands-on experience certainly helps.

A decade ago, the graduate students in UNLV’s creative writing program bemoaned the lack of opportunities to share their work in front of an audience. So they created their own monthly reading event called Neon Lit.

Last fall, inspired by the successes of their artistic cousins and the now-defunct Nevada Institute for Contemporary Art (NICA), UNLV graduate art students Aaron Cowan, Fawn Douglas, Erin K. Drew, Laurence Myers Reese and John McVay founded V.I.C.E.—Vegas Institute for Contemporary Engagement. According to its website unlvmfa.art, V.I.C.E. is a “laboratory for artistic innovation.”

“It’s a way to do public outreach and have alternative exhibitions,” says Reese, who’s in his second year in the MFA program. “There are opportunities for students and the community for art.”

V.I.C.E. started innocuously enough, with the graduate students “doing some random stuff, helping with Artwalk, working on our MFA open studios,” Reese says. As the idea grew, Reese explains, “It became a way for us to create our own opportunities. A lot of us have experience in nonprofits, galleries, museums. We took that experience that we had outside of art school and brought that to the MFA program.”

Despite the restrictions of a pandemic, V.I.C.E. has stayed active. In May, the group presented virtual tours of the MFA studios. As opposed to a one-off in-person event, viewers can still go online to explore the artists’ latest art. Students posts a bio and explanation of their new work, along with images, videos, texts, poems and more.

V.I.C.E. members also participated in an online exhibition of works made before and during the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s called There But Not There, and it’s curated by artist and UNLV art professor Wendy Kveck. “The artworks reflect interiorities and externalities: anxieties about touch and safety, coping and intimacy, desire and freedom,” Kveck writes.

This summer, V.I.C.E. put out a call to the community for experimental video art. Then they screened the Experimental Video Shorts online.

As coronavirus restrictions ease, V.I.C.E. has returned to the physical sphere. On September 4, a V.I.C.E.-curated exhibition titled Unshelved opened at Sahara West Library. It “investigates the intersections of reading, research and archives,” according to a press statement.

Playing with the idea of research, Emily Sarten presents fantastical collages gleaned from scraps of historic casino menus found in the UNLV library’s special collections. In colorful, comic imagery, John McVay plays with the idea of book burning. Reese presents a novel take on historic queer dating practices with “New Hanky Code”: Disembodied jean pockets feature unlikely fabrics as hankies.

As the graduate coordinator, Kveck is something of a shepherd for these burgeoning talents. She says V.I.C.E. is really just beginning and that she’s excited for it to continue to blossom.

When he graduates, Reese hopes to apply his V.I.C.E. experience to a future career in teaching, nonprofits and/or running a gallery. He says that’s the point of V.I.C.E., “for us to have some professional development opportunities, for us to develop our skills as curators, as organizers, as artists.”

UNSHELVED Through November 29, Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.. The Studio at Sahara West Library, 702-507-3630.

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