Watch Our Talk at MVNU: “An Introduction to Socially Engaged Art”

by Hillary Wagner

On a sunny day last September, my former professor John Donnelly surprised me by showing up in Bethel! John has been a formative voice in my development as an artist. He was my professor for four years at Mount Vernon Nazarene University (MVNU), and now he is an essential member of my art family.

John could only stay for a few hours, so we crammed in as much catching up as we could. I gave him a full tour of the Empower Youth Ranch, focusing especially on the renovation of the Barn Studio and our successes in the Community Studio Program. I can always count on John for his wise and encouraging words, and that fall day was no different.

The photo above shows where we ended up before parting ways – sorting through our calendars. John proposed a new partnership between SOIL SERIES and the MVNU art and design department, suggesting that Francesca and I come to MVNU as visiting artists to share our work and introduce students to the field of social practice (see the video of our talk later in this post). Of course, I immediately agreed! The thought of returning to my alma mater to speak with the current undergraduate art students made me so happy.

We headed to Mount Vernon, Ohio, in mid-November only a few short weeks after our inaugural art exhibition at the Empower Youth Ranch.

Upon our arrival, one of the first things I wanted to do was give Francesca a tour of the MVNU Buchwald Center, which houses the art and design department. Some of the most important moments of my artistic and intellectual life occurred in that building, moments that prepared me for our current collaboration. Having heard many stories about this place, Francesca would finally be able to see it for herself.

In the photos below, I am standing in MVNU student Erin Phillips’s senior studio.

The building retains traces of my time there. Combing through the archive of senior portfolios, I reminisced about my last year as an undergraduate art student.

This whiteboard, however, took us by surprise. Francesca and I were amused by the phrase “required attendance.” We joked about whether anyone had ever previously been “required” to listen to us speak.

The next day, Francesca and I met John for an early breakfast at the North Main Cafe. We then made our way to the Buchwald for our visit with the Thursday morning class, designed for senior art majors to prepare for their thesis exhibition. We spent the first hour of the class sitting around a large table getting to know the students. We shared with them our experiences in the MFA program at Parsons School of Design, discussing both our personal experiences and our perceptions of MFA programs in New York and more broadly. We tried to answer the students’ questions and help them think about the potential next steps in their art educations.

Then our favorite part: We moved on to the studios. We were excited to spend time in each student’s studio, critiquing their work and offering suggestions that might expand their thinking.

Thank you to John Donnelly for the photos.

Our talk took place on Thursday, November 16th, in MVNU’s Hunter Hall. The official announcement read as follows:

An Introduction to Socially Engaged Art

You are invited by the Mount Vernon Nazarene University art and design department and artists Francesca Fiore and Hillary Wagner (MVNU Alumnus ’14) for an evening of thoughtful discussion around the topic of socially engaged art. Francesca and Hillary will retrace the paths that led them to their current collaborative project, SOIL SERIES: A Social Drawing, and to the contemporary field of art known as social practice.

The artists met in the MFA program at Parsons School of Design in New York City, and shortly after graduation, they moved to the rural village of Bethel in Appalachian Ohio. SOIL SERIES: A Social Drawing aims to reestablish networks of nourishment in Bethel, a village struggling with high unemployment, rising poverty levels, and a staggering opioid epidemic. Together with a local non-profit, Empower Youth, Francesca and Hillary are transforming a 15-acre farm into a site for expanded access to nutritious food, cultural programming, and mentorship at the intersection of art and agriculture.

Please join us to think about how artists can best work in collaboration with struggling communities and the non-profits at work within them.

The goal of our talk at MVNU was more pedagogical than scholarly. Our presentation was geared toward undergraduate art students who had not necessarily encountered the field of social practice before. Recalling our own struggles as undergraduates, we hoped to offer these students new possibilities by outlining our paths to social practice. The lecture began with an introduction to our own artistic interests and trajectories, which was followed by a crash course in socially engaged art from the 1970s to the present and an overview of our work in Bethel thus far. Somewhat frustratingly for us, we were only able to offer a cursory take on each topic, as we had just an hour to speak. As a remedy to this, we provided further scholarly resources for the faculty at MVNU to offer to students looking for deeper engagement with the subject of socially engaged art.

It is important to mention that our very own Community Studio artist Emma Dahlheimer and her family traveled the three hours from Bethel to Mount Vernon to be a part of this very special evening! Emma was one of our most loyal Community Studio artists last year, and she offered to share her experience as a part of our lecture (she speaks at minute 41:00 of the video below). Since June 2016, we have watched Emma’s thinking about art and her future expand, and it has been an absolute privilege. Thanks to Emma and family for your constant support!

We were thrilled by the turnout at the talk. The room was packed, and we estimate more than a hundred students, professors, and community members were in attendance. We are grateful to all who took the time to participate in this important evening.

After the talk, we lingered for several hours in earnest conversation with students and professors about art’s role in their lives and in the world during this turbulent time. For many of the students present, this was their first exposure to this kind of artistic engagement. I shared that as a student at MVNU, I often wrestled with what I felt was a conflictual relationship between my love for making and my love for working toward positive social change in communities. I spent many years trying to sort through that tension, and I hope Francesca and I were able to offer students with similar feelings a clearer path toward resolution.

mvnu talk pic
Thank you to Elizabeth Dark for the photo.

I would be remiss if I did not also thank my dear friend Elizabeth Dark for her love and support. Liz is one of my favorite reasons to visit Mount Vernon. Every time I glanced toward the back of the room during the talk, I was reassured to see her there, nodding and smiling. She is one of my greatest friends and one of the most excellent examples of radical love and kindness that I have in my life. Her steadfast support of our work encourages us to keep pushing even when it is difficult. Below, you can see us in a familiar spot for us: a booth at Wiggins Street Coffee Shop on the Kenyon College campus.

As the current director of programs at the Kenyon Review, Liz offered us the grand tour of the Kenyon Review headquarters. I was disarmed by the abounding evidence of love and thought in every nook of that yellow house. I am so proud of the important work Liz is doing, especially because I have witnessed the incredible perseverance that led her to such a dream job. Now she gets to spend all day every day reading and thinking about words!

Before we left Mount Vernon, we had one last meeting with Matt Price, an MVNU professor of intercultural studies. We enjoyed a wonderful morning of coffee and conversation at the Happy Bean Coffee Shop on campus, discussing strategies for communication across cultural divides and the importance of grassroots organizing in Appalachia. Thanks, Matt, for your encouragement! We look forward to more rejuvenating talks of the same kind in the future.

Our deepest gratitude goes to the MVNU department of art and design, especially to John and the other faculty who organized our visit. You all made us feel so welcome and gave us such a generous platform to discuss things that matter. Thank you also to the students who shared their work with us and engaged us in thoughtful discussion. We look forward to returning in the future and continuing the conversation.

And finally, thank you to those who left these lovely notes on the board after the talk! They made us smile 🙂

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