Sweet Briar College, VCCA select inaugural SBC-VCCA fellows

Courtney Balestier
Writer Courtney Balestier is one of three SBC-VCCA fellows selected to teach a section of the spring 2019 course.

Sweet Briar College and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts have announced the selection of the inaugural SBC-VCCA Fellowship. Created under the auspices of the College’s Center for Creativity, Design and the Arts, the fellowship will support a cross-genre team of three artists who will collaborate to teach a section of Expression and the Arts, the foundational arts course within the College’s new core curriculum. The course will take place during the spring 2019 three-week short session, an intensive and immersive experience when students take only course at a time.

“Our goal was to create an exciting environment where true interdisciplinary work in the arts could take place,” said Carrie Brown, professor of English and creative writing and director of the center, “and where students’ experience of art leads them to a deeper and more profound engagement with creativity and creative problem-solving, habits of mind that can be broadly applied in virtually any field.”

Artists from VCCA, one of the nation’s largest residential artists’ communities, have always played a role at the College, frequently speaking to classes and sharing their work with the community through a monthly evening salon, and through “Open Studio” afternoons at VCCA, when artists literally open the doors of their studios to visitors. The fellowship, however, which awards each artist a $5,000 honorarium as well as a four-week residency at VCCA, represents the first formal collaboration between the two institutions and a truly innovative and creative leap.

Aaron Wyanski
Aaron Wyanski

“Sweet Briar’s model in the arts is that students learn from practicing artists, whether those are writers, visual artists, composers, choreographers or theater directors and actors,” Brown said. “The fellowships allow us to open our doors and engage with artists from outside the immediate community, bringing the wider world to Sweet Briar and giving our students mentors across the country. We consider the international community of artists at VCCA one of Sweet Briar’s most unique and meaningful strengths. At virtually no other college in the country can students interact regularly with such an enormous array of artists.”

The selected fellowship proposal, entitled “A Multiplicity of Narratives: The Immersive Art of Identity,” will be taught by writer Courtney Balestier, conceptual artist Shea Hembrey and composer Aaron Wyanski. According to the artists’ description of the course, students will combine “the progressive sketching and design planning of visual artistry, the narrative development and world-building of the literary arts, and the emotional resonance and abstract thinking of sound art, each discipline supporting the others to create deeper, richer work. Students will be encouraged to expand beyond their own lived experiences and create work from a more imaginative place, where a multitude of voices reside.”

The response to a call for proposals drew responses from more than 100 artists from across the country and around the world, Brown said, and the proposals were uniformly excellent. “The review panel was very impressed with the high degree of intellectual and artistic rigor behind the course proposals. We’re grateful to every artistic team that submitted a proposal and for the time and thoughtfulness that went into designing the courses.”

In the case of “A Multiplicity of Narratives,” Brown said, “we were especially taken with the artists’ opening statement about the course: ‘At the heart of great art is empathy: the ability of the artist to imagine herself into another perspective, whether a piece of herself or someone else. This course will cultivate that skill through an immersive interdisciplinary exercise in narrative development, merging concepts of visual art, literature and sound art to explore voice, point of view and identity.’”

Shea Hembrey
Shea Hembrey

Especially intriguing, Brown said, is that students will be asked not only to “imagine large-scale, site-specific and immersive artworks,” but also the artists behind those works. “Students will be asked to use literary concepts to imagine the fictional artists behind these works,” according to the proposal, “and to understand these artists as a literary writer would understand her characters. Then, listening being fundamental to empathy, students will be asked to help these fictional artists collaborate on a work of sound art, in the form of a sound walk: a sonic construction that will also serve as a walking tour of the site-specific artworks (as imagined on the Sweet Briar campus). This will require them to explore identity from both individual and collective standpoints, using engagement with sound as a focal point.”

Brown said that the notion of empathy, a bridge between individuals or cultures, across time and distance, seems especially relevant at a time when the country — and indeed the world — is so polarized. “Students from every discipline understand that art is a way of understanding both the self and the other,” Brown said. “This proposal asks students to do both, which is part of its brilliance.”

VCCA, located a stone’s throw from the College’s main campus, hosts more than 400 fellows a year, artists with honors ranging from MacArthur Fellowships and National Book Awards to Pulitzer Prizes and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, among others. VCCA fellows, who include visual artists, writers and composers, come from around the world, and they bring to campus a vibrant and exciting creative presence.

“This new program is a wonderful enhancement to the long partnership between VCCA and Sweet Briar College,” said Joy Heyrman, executive director of VCCA. “We are thrilled to be a part of the transformation of the curriculum and look forward to welcoming the selected team to VCCA in the spring.”