Tucked away in downtown New Haven amidst financial centers, Arabic hookah joints and organic food delis, there lies a small gallery called Artspace. Each year, through the City-Wide Open Studios initiative, that one venue expands how much work it can spotlight by helping turn the studios of hundreds of local artists into mini-galleries in their own right.

CWOS has been a New Haven staple for 15 years. That makes this year, festival organizers reminded me, its “crystal” anniversary. In a fitting tribute to that milestone, CWOS is focusing on the “literal and symbolic manifestations” of crystal. Arming visitors with specially-made, crystal-themed passports to New Haven, the initiative encourages guests to find the hidden gems throughout Greater New Haven. I like mine; it caters to my vanity. “You are beautiful,” it tells me. “Explore your city.”

I obey.

First stop: the Main Exhibition at Artspace, aka 50 Orange Street. Wait. Orange Street? I mean … that’s across the Green.

But my passport pulls me forward.

As I walk in, I note that crystal walls and crystal glasses reflect the last rays of sunlight, and paintings of the summer remind me of warmer days. I’m acutely aware of how much exploration awaits. Subtle crystal motifs adorn the walls and a range of works lies ready for my perusal. Here, the exhibit offers a little bit of everything: multimedia and performance art, paintings, prints and photographs. Pieces are clustered on the basis of the neighborhoods that are home to New Haven’s artists, with each participant showcasing only one work in the exhibit.

Despite the variety, though, a clear theme arises. Margaret Mead told us to “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world.” Many of our local artists seem to have taken that message to heart. The pieces at the Main Exhibition together represent a form of collective art activism which questions modernity and consumption by focusing on issues pertinent to American lifestyles. While some installations explicitly comment on capitalism, others have messages that are open to interpretation. Earrings made out of condoms hang next to installations made up of old storage units. Gaudy pink hats stay perched on their stools and videos play in loop. Bizarre installments consisting of everyday consumer goods are placed next to photographs of New Haven and paintings range from the abstract to the detailed.

The political aspect doesn’t rule out emotional pulls. Watching a video of a solitary man wandering around town, a symbolic comforter on his shoulders but no solace in his heart, I can almost feel his yearning for conversation and his all-consuming loneliness. But, thinking back to my own rather happy Indian childhood, I find that it’s the other video, in which a rainbow-hued kite fails to catch the wind and almost mocks the dark expression of the young man who just wants to see it fly, that makes me even sadder. Beyond the immediate pathos I recognize, I also begin to ask myself questions about the daily grind and the fruitfulness of modern society.

These issues surrounding individuality in American culture are further scrutinized in the “Play House” segment of the exhibit. Keliy Anderson-Staley’s work, a series of tintype photographs featuring unsmiling faces staring back at the viewer, fights back against the digital snapshot age that we live in, focusing instead on the process of using wet plate collodium plates and a different interpretation of an artist’s subject. She further problematizes how we view those depicted in art by placing portraits of homeless New Haveners adjacent to shots of Americans from various walks of life. Trying to identify those who were homeless, I found myself unable to tell the difference. Anderson-Staley, meanwhile, made her point. No one knows, and nor should it matter. Each subject asserts his/her individuality and resists stereotypes. Classic in form and modern in thought, the photographs interrogate the state of “becoming” a subject and freeing oneself of societal categorizations.

All those feelings and I haven’t even reached the most dynamic, explosive part of the Main Exhibition’s display: Darwin Nix’s contribution to the “Play House.” Nix plays on the double entendre behind words by toying with the names of commercial consumption brands — names that also function as aliases for brands of drugs. Nike, Titanic, Godfather, Gatorade and the rest aren’t just cultural touchstones; they’re also lethal killers, and we really don’t treat them that differently when it comes to marketing.

All in all, the exhibition lets New Haven artists ask us to take a deeper look into the issues that surround us. Before I walked all the way to the other side of the Green, I was just a skeptical, clueless Yale student who didn’t know too much about New Haven or its arts scene. Walking out, I’d like to think that I’m a lot more informed, a hell of a lot more impressed and very, very glad that I dared.

“There are 130,000 people living in New Haven. There are many great people doing many great things – running non-profits, art studios and the like,” said photographer Chris Randall. “There is undiscovered talent in every pool, and CWOS helps foster their talent is see it to some level of completion.”

City-Wide Open Studios consists of a lot more than the Main Exhibition pieces. The festival had its first weekend of open artist studios this past week. The coming weekend will be in Erector Square and the next in the historical, abandoned site of a now-vacant New Haven Register Building. I know that I’ll be bursting my Yale bubble with relish, and I hope you will too, as you enter your own quest to discover the hidden gems in this city.