Building Community at the Champlain College Art Gallery

Gallery Director Dana Heffern has a vision.

If you ask Champlain Art Gallery director Dana Heffern about the gallery, she’ll start drawing a diagram that looks like a lopsided target. 

“I have a dot in the center. The dot is the student. They’re the nucleus, they’re the center of everything,” she begins. 

“Then at the Gallery, the student gets to look at other students’ artwork, other professors’ artwork, and the work of local and global artists,” Heffern explains, pointing to each ring of her drawing. “The student gets an incredibly well-rounded experience by having an onion layer of things to look at and be inspired by.” 

Dana Heffern is the director of the Champlain College Art Gallery.

Established in 2015 when the Center for Communication and Creative Media first opened, the Champlain Art Gallery and Gallery Lounge feature works by students, faculty and staff, as well as local and international artists. A variety of mediums are represented through exhibitions, events, projects, and residencies offered throughout the school year and in the summer. Located on the second floor of the Center for Communication and Creative Media and wedged in between classrooms and faculty offices, the spacious gallery is hard to miss. 

Heffern and her team bring in formal art. But more often than not, and unlike a typical college gallery, the pieces in the Champlain Art Gallery are anything but formal. One exhibition featured 3-D drawings that spanned the length of a room and another held a giant mouth with a disco ball in it. 

“It’s really easy to just think, ‘I’m going to hang things on the wall,’” she says. “Instead, I look for things that engage the students, to make them interact. I want to make everything exciting.” 

To that end, Heffern is constantly looking for pieces that challenge how art is made and displayed.

She also works to make sure to emphasize all mediums, not one more than the other. The Gallery welcomes drawings, sculptures, carving, writing, video, music, spoken-word art, and more every year. 

“Just [representing] one type of artist is not what we’re trying to do,” Heffern says about the gallery exhibits. “We’re trying to connect everyone.” 

In addition to bringing dynamic, eye-catching art pieces to the college, Heffern and her team of student volunteers, interns, and employees are trying to change how students interact with and experience art on campus. 

“It’s been my goal to change this area and create a cultural vibe around this art, and make the Art Gallery and the Gallery Lounge into a place students will want to hang out in,” Heffern explains. “There has been a change. I’ve seen it.”

Portrait of John Killacky from Todd R. Lockwood’s Portraiture Reimagined exhibit, Summer 2016.

One of the most exciting prospects of the Gallery is how the art, and the resident artists in particular, can create opportunities for students to learn about current issues. It’s designed to be a place for students to stop and talk. One example during the 2018–2019 school year examined assault from a victim’s perspective. Heffern invited students taking psychology and social work courses, among others, to attend the show to encourage dialogue around the artwork, outside of the classroom.

“Having difficult conversations in front of art, and with an artist, can help change how you work through a challenging topic,” she says.

Senior Creative Media major and Heffern’s assistant, Amanda Duane from Amsterdam, New York, has witnessed that change happen in the Champlain community and the art they make and see. 

The Creative Media Exhibition is held in the Champlain College Art Gallery.

“Over the past four years, I’ve liked seeing people get more excited about the space and the art,” Duane says. 

Since coming to Champlain, she says she has seen two major shifts in the campus community: the crossover and the communication among students from different grades, and the collaboration among different majors and disciplines within Champlain through art. 

Duane says her favorite experience working for the Gallery was during a three-week open period in the fall of 2017, when Creative Media students took the space over. Work by first-year students was displayed side by side with work by junior and senior students. That’s not something you’d typically see in a college gallery. Seeing displays by younger students always helps get her excited about art in a way she might not otherwise, if she were viewing only work by students her own age, she says. 

“I remember seeing a first-year student who created an artery with some cardboard and liquid latex,” she says. “It was visceral, and it was so cool. It’s exciting to see what other people come up with, and then what you can come up with. No matter your grade, you push each other and ask how far can we go?” 

Heffern says it was that inclusive Creative Media show that showed her Champlain needed the Nook, the student-run gallery. Established in 2017 and located on the bottom floor of CCM, the Nook is curated and run by students for students. Heffern supports the Nook, and  she encourages students and professors to be the ones to take charge of the space. “It doesn’t have a set schedule or rotation,” she says. 

The Nook is what the students want it to be, and it encourages work by all students of all artistic interests and backgrounds. So far the space has been host to wooden sculptures, a dirty sink, and even fake news reports. 

The Nook’s Summer 2018  installation Intersections, created by class of ‘18 Creative Media majors Maggie DeCapua and Pete Moore, combined poetry and graphic design. When the poems were layered on top of each other on the wall of the gallery, they created new poems.

Intersections was a 2018 installation in the Nook.

Intersections took Moore and his team more than 60 hours to install. It was his first time displaying his own work in the space, and his second time curating a show there. 

“The Nook is all about fostering a creative art community,” he says. Intersections was a student show. The curators were students, the artists were students, and everyone who helped with the install were students as well. There were a lot of valuable connections made through that process. That’s huge for our art community.”

Amanda Duane says that what’s most important to her in terms of Champlain’s art community is that she’s seen people start to rethink their definition of art through the gallery spaces on campus. To her, art isn’t just pen to paper, brush to canvas—art is something anyone can do with any material. 

“This summer we had a DIY installation in the gallery. The artist was a computer hacker,” she says. “It’s basically coding. They use a program, play with the data, and they were playing with the webcam and delaying it a second so it made a buffering effect.” 

“That’s the exciting thing about the ‘A’ being integrated into the STEM vernacular,” Duane notes. “Now it’s STEAM. I would get angry with the science nerds in high school because they would say things like, ‘You just do art.’ And I’d tell them, ‘But there’s art in your chemistry! You just don’t see it.’”

Heffern says that is one of the highlights of the Gallery and the Nook: the ability to make anyone in any major or field realize that there is creativity in everything they do.

“There’s art in everything,” Heffern says. “The creative-thinking mind has to be creative in every kind of way. That’s how new things get invented, by people thinking creatively around a problem. Art is about creating communication, and everyone needs to communicate.” 

Heffern says she’s seen that same level of engagement in the Juried Student Art Show. Students from every Champlain major are encouraged to submit any medium of art to the show, held every Spring in the Gallery space. Students have the chance to win multiple honors, including awards for President’s Choice, Provost’s Choice, Dean’s Choice, Juried Choice and multiple honorable mentions. 

In the spring of 2018, the student show saw record numbers of entries, many coming from students in and outside of the CCM Division. 

“We had somewhere around 150 or 160 entries, and out of those we picked 32 to be in the show,” Heffern says. “I think we’re exciting the students to want to be in the Gallery. It makes them feel pride in their work and to be part of the community.” 

CCM Dean Paula Willoquet-Maricondi selects a Dean’s Choice Award each year at the Juried Student Art Show.

CCM Dean Paula Willoquet-Maricondi, who selects the Dean’s Choice award every year, says April is one of her favorite months of the year “because that’s traditionally when the Juried Student Art Show is held. It’s always so inspiring to see the amazing work our students create, not just students in the so-called ‘creative fields’ like film, graphic design, or game art for example, but students from across a wide range of majors. After the 2018 show, we decided it was time to produce a Juried Student Art Show Catalogue, so this creative talent on display at the show could be seen for longer and by more people. We hired recent Graphic Design alumna Hannah Wood to design the Catalogue which was published in Fall 2018. Hannah did a beautiful job and designed the 2019 Catalogue as well.” 

Heffern hopes, in coming semesters to continue making the Gallery and the Nook into places of convergence on campus, and to see the enthusiasm for art at Champlain grow. Right now, her focus is on continuing to support the development of the Nook, and reaching out to professors and students to learn what kind of shows they want to put on. Heffern wants students knocking on her door with suggestions and ideas for the Nook. 

As  someone who worked closely with the Nook during his time at Champlain, Moore says now that he has graduated, he hopes current Champlain students use the Nook to its fullest potential. 

“I hope that students keep using the space after I’m gone. We’re closer to being connected to the larger Burlington art scene than most of us think; and if you’re looking to show off your art in the greater Vermont art scene, this is where you should start.”

Kirsten Potts won the 2019 Dean’s Choice Award at the Juried Student Art Show with this photograph of The Lone Tree in New Zealand.

This article was originally published in The Weathervane, the official digital magazine of the Division of Communication & Creative Media. The magazine is fully produced by students and faculty under the direction of Kim MacQueen, Managing Editor of the Champlain College Center for Publishing and CCM Dean Paula Willoquet-Maricondi.

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