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Returning to CVA, alum Hess brings vision of collaboration to packed program

Sydelle Sonkin and Herb Siegel Artistic Director of the Chautauqua Visual Arts Erika b Hess is entering her first summer in that role, with the return to a full arts program docket in 2024. EMILEE ARNOLD/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

After taking a pause last season amid a search for a new director, Chautauqua Visual Arts will see a return of comprehensive programming in the 2024 season.

The department put a hold on traditional programming last summer while looking to fill the position after the departure of former director Sharon Louden. While the Arts Quad was empty of students and the CVA Lecture Series was missing from the summer program, Judy Barie, Susan and John Turben Director of CVA Galleries, and Erika Diamond, associate director of CVA Galleries, curated nine exhibitions during the 2023 season, maintaining a full gallery presence during the School of Art’s break.

This summer, painter, podcaster, writer and curator Erika b Hess fills the role of Sydelle Sonkin and Herb Siegel Artistic Director of the Chautauqua Visual Arts as the season ushers in a robust itinerary of visual arts events.

Hess is an alum of CVA, having attended the program as a student in 2006. She cited her experience as a student as a pivotal time in her career as an artist and a driving factor for returning to the Institution.

“It starts to form lifelong relationships in your area in a really positive way. So, that was one of the biggest reasons I was excited to come back, was because it was such a formative experience for me,” Hess said about her time as a student. “I wanted to make sure other people could have access to that. … I just want to steward the program in a way that gives people that opportunity to see, you know, ‘This can be my life; these can be my people.’”

As a student in CVA, Hess found that there were artists like herself who were equally as driven to find a career and lifestyle that valued the arts. She believes this reverence of arts and culture is ingrained in Chautauquans — artists or not — and she recognized during her time as a student that she wanted to prioritize education and cultural events in a similar way in her own life.

In the years she was a School of Art student herself, Hess has gone on to form a studio practice in Columbus, Ohio, and Long Island City, New York. She’s the host of the popular podcast “I Like Your Work,” and her work has been exhibited in galleries across the country.

With a focus on oil painting, Hess believes her own artistic practice informs her directorial role. Her work explores psychology and emotions and aims to navigate these overarching feelings in a way that emphasizes unity and community, and she believes this transfers to her role in working with fellow artists and makers.

“When you’re a maker, you really need to be in a space together looking at the art, to be able to discuss what is happening, and so that is why I’m so excited about what I’m doing here, which is welcoming artists from across the U.S. to be able to work together and to have community and have dialogue about what they’re making and to create those relationships that will go forward into the world,” she said.

For Hess, the off-season has been integral in providing time and space to prepare for the renewed department and for approaching the direction of the department with intentionality and purpose. She aims to create a space that serves artists and fosters collaboration and community, in turn steering CVA forward, and the months since her hiring in September 2023 have given her ample time to do so.

“There’s been a lot of work on my end of thinking about the artists I know and then also broadening my knowledge of different artists in different areas to make sure that I can create a program that is supportive and that brings in really generous artists that want to be giving back to a cohort of residents,” she said.

Hess works with CVA Assistant Sam Kelly to prepare the new School of Art Gallery for an exhibition of alumni work titled “Continuum: Alums of CVA” Friday at the Arts Quad. The new gallery space will be used this season to show alumni and resident artists’ work. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

The School of Art took the opportunity presented by a hiatus of most programming last summer to add a fiber annex for artists to use,  as well as a gallery located in the Arts Quad to provide more space for exhibitions, specifically for alumni and current students. Extensive fundraising by the Friends of CVA and equally intensive renovations have also allowed for repairs to the roof of the studios on the Arts Quad, and the addition of a ramp to increase accessibility in the space.

One of Hess’ biggest goals is to enhance collaboration across mediums and to encourage dialogue not just between artists, but between Chautauquans of all areas of interest. She specifically values the interdisciplinary nature of the Institution and the unique community that it fosters as a result.

“It’s a really special moment to be able to not just connect with people who are doing what you do, but connecting with other people who are interested — on the side — with what you want in the world,” she said. “Bringing it all together, I think, is really important.”

In addition to the students who will be coming to Chautauqua this summer, CVA has also developed programming for Chautauquans to take part in and experience. This season’s calendar is host to a series of lectures from faculty and visiting artists, exhibitions curated by both Barie and Diamond, special events held periodically through the season and, of course, Friends of CVA’s annual Art in the Park and Party on the Arts Quad events.

This weekend will usher in many firsts for the season. Students are slated to arrive on the grounds, and CVA Galleries will open five exhibitions spanning Strohl Art Center and Fowler-Kellogg Art Center, in addition to the collection of work on view in the Melvin Johnson Sculpture Garden. Twenty-four students and seven faculty members will be in residence this summer.

Opening receptions for the gallery exhibitions are scheduled to take place from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday — celebrations for “Passion for Paper,” “The Art of Robert Villamagna” and “Off the Walls,” curated by Barie, will be held in Strohl Art Center and the reception for “Holding Space: Woven Works,” curated by Diamond, will be held in Fowler-Kellogg Art Center.

Monday brings the first of 13 CVA lectures this summer. Anina Major, an exhibiting artist in “Holding Spaces: Woven Works,” will present a lecture from 6 to 7 p.m. in Hultquist Center followed on Wednesday by Kevin Umaña, also from 6 to 7 p.m. in Hultquist Center.

Between the gallery exhibitions and the School of Art schedule, CVA is returning to its roots this season. Hess hopes that the summer will welcome a flourishing visual arts community and that Chautauquans will take advantage of the ample programming that CVA has developed.

“I want Chautauquans to know that I take a lot of pride in CVA and that I want to do it justice,” she said. “I want to steward the program in a way that continues to welcome artists from around the world and also to connect with Chautauquans — for them to know that there is a space here that they can meet artists in our exhibition space, that there are classes here that they can take and that we really want to be building bridges, and that we are so thrilled just to have a space here at Chautauqua because it’s such a unique and special place.”

Tags : Arts QuadChautauqua Visual ArtsCVA Lecture SeriesErika b HessHerb SiegelSydelle Sonkin
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The author Julia Weber

Julia Weber is a rising junior in Ohio University’s Honors Tutorial College where she is majoring in journalism and minoring in art history. Originally from Athens, Ohio, this is her first summer in Chautauqua and she is thrilled to cover the theater and dance performances. She serves as the features editor for Ohio University’s All-Campus Radio Network, a student-run radio station and media hub, and she is a former intern for Pittsburgh Magazine. Outside of her professional life, Julia has a newly adopted cat, Griffin, and she is an avid fan of live music and a dedicated ceramicist.