Students organize non-profit, create art to empower youth

Swasti Singhai, Final Focus Editor

Gavin Jin (11) paints a cardboard box for the art supply fundraiser the Unconfined Project organized in collaboration with Solutions for Change. The art drive was meant to provide low-income elementary students with access to creative outlets. Photo courtesy of Shining Lu.

When the four co-founders of the Unconfined Project met in the same art studio three years ago, they would have never foreseen the heights their art and creativity would take them and their community. 

Gavin and Mason Jin (11), two of the co-founders, started the student-led nonprofit organization in the summer of 2020 to aid COVID-19 efforts by selling original designs on t-shirts. All profits were donated to the San Diego Foundation and other organizations involved with community-based pandemic responses. 

The name Unconfined, Gavin said, came from their core beliefs and motivation to make an impact. 

“We don’t want to confine and restrict people’s creativity,” he said. “We want to explore different art media by creating various works to inspire [others].”

The organization focuses on a different theme each month, largely based on current issues or what the month celebrates. For example, the month of May is AAPI Heritage Month. Hence, the Unconfined Project’s artwork and events were centered around bringing awareness to AAPI representation and struggles. The art project team lead, Shining Lu (11), said she specifically felt a personal connection to her favorite piece of artwork depicting an Asian woman demonstrating the “fox-eye” trend, a gesture historically used to mock Asians. 

“I wanted to create a piece that would attract the attention of others, but at the same time, be able to spread a message about what the Asian community has gone through,” Lu said. “This isn’t another hashtag Instagram trend, so I think I also really wanted to touch on the normalization of Asian hate and how that’s something that should not be happening.” 

Esther Kang (12) joined the project as a photographer after their first product launch. She too wanted to take her passion for photography and the fine arts to the next level by sparking change through fundraising and greater awareness. 

The club’s board members have also been involved in collaborations with local nonprofits. One organization, Solutions for Change, gave the Unconfined Project boxes to paint, decorate and fill with art supplies. They were then sent out to under-privileged and homeless elementary school students. Connie Zhu (11) said she felt as though the volunteer opportunities provided her a way to express her creativity in a meaningful way. “I didn’t feel pressured to make the most magnificent piece of art [on the boxes]. I knew the art was simply to bring joy to whoever received it, so it felt like if I enjoyed what I was doing, the person in need would be happy receiving it as well.” 

To take the organization a step further, the students wanted to make a more direct impact on their community, which led them to their second collaboration: workshops geared towards elementary- and middle-schoolers. The workshops are split into two categories: fundamentals, such as perspective, color theory, and anatomy; and art studies, such as abstract art or certain artists like Van Gogh or Picasso. Teachers are able to choose their topic, which is then approved by a board member. Unconfined has conducted two rounds of workshops – one in the winter and the other in summer. Due to COVID-19, they have been held over Zoom. 

Like many other volunteers, Zhu wanted to get involved to spread her years of experience into the community. 

“These days, especially with COVID, it’s really hard to go to an in-person art class,” she said. “So I thought I would be able to make an impact in that way, because I want other kids to still be able to have that experience and still be able to learn art from a young age despite the current circumstances.”

Due to Unconfined’s recent expansions, they decided to pursue official non-profit, or 501(c)3 status to streamline volunteer hours and gain eligibility for tax and fundraising benefits. After 11 months of filing paperwork, patiently handling delays, and dealing with novel legal terminology, the Unconfined Project has been certified as a 501(c)3 by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). They plan on applying for government grants, in particular those related to art non-profits. With the funding from grants, the board members hope to relaunch their production line, which was momentarily paused due to financial difficulties with COVID, and pursue new collaborations. 

While the Unconfined Project branches out to new heights of activism, pursues workshops and new collaborations, Mason says they’ll always continue to “impact, innovate, and inspire.”