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Q&A: Jenni West and Emily Holtrop Discuss Inspiration Behind DRAW Exhibit

This summer, we’ve immersed ourselves in a conversation surrounding the issues of hunger. Inspired by DRAW: Here, There and Everywhere, the LPK-sponsored exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum that uses art to shed light on hunger-related issues, we’ve explored how creative and artistic approaches to the problem can affect positive social change.

The cause-based exhibition is a direct result of Museum Director Aaron Betsky’s challenge to the museum’s staff: extend creative responsibility to all museum employees regardless of role, position and previous creative experience. This shift in approach led to the first-of-its-kind exhibition at the museum, sparked by Senior Accountant Jennifer West and brought to life with the expertise of Director of Learning and Interpretation Emily Holtrop.

We spoke with both women about the inspiration, challenges and positive change that has come from their work.

LPK: What inspired DRAW: Here, There and Everywhere?

 

EMILY: Well, the inspiration for this exhibition really came from my co-curator Jenni West’s experience packing food boxes at the organization Kids Against Hunger (KAH). She was so impassioned by what she learned while there that she felt a deep need to act. I came into the picture very early as her co-curator and we took it from there. I think the real inspiration was our desire to do something new, different and impactful for the community and the Art Museum.

JENNI: After volunteering with KAH, I was inspired to give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. KAH Director Larry Bergeron uses the phrase “here, there and everywhere” to describe the universal existence of hunger, so with their permission, we used it to define a concept for the new DRAW exhibition.

LPK: How did the concept grow from an idea into a first-of-its-kind exhibit?

 

JENNI: The concept grew from my experience with the KAH organization. I was so taken back by the number of children dying each day from hunger that I felt a responsibility to do something. My first thought was to make a quilt of the painting in the KAH factory and sell the art to raise money. Instead, my husband suggested that I put the painting in the museum for the public to see, thereby generating awareness of the need to help fight hunger here, there and everywhere. The museum had never had an exhibition based around a social cause, so the DRAW exhibit that grew from our passion to fight hunger became the first of its kind.

EMILY: We knew we wanted to do something with our permanent collection and re-interpret works through the lens of hunger. We knew we wanted to take a stand and call people to action. When we proposed the exhibition internally, no one shot the idea down. We were all energized to do something new, something experimental. I don’t think we saw this as a first-of-its-kind exhibition when we proposed it, it just happens to be a first of its kind.

LPK: How did your participation in DRAW: Here, There and Everywhere challenge you in new ways?

 

JENNI: The exhibit challenged me to research a topic and put my thoughts and ideas to pen and paper. My natural creative style is to make things — quilts, dresses, cross-stitch and knitted pieces, items that have simple, tangible uses. In creating this exhibition, I was challenged to think in a different way. My accounting background helped bridge the gap. Focusing on numbers helped me translate the data into a concept for sharing information with our visitors. Also, thank goodness for Emily — she’s a fantastic writer!

EMILY: Part of my role as the Director of Learning and Interpretation at the Art Museum is to work with curators on manifesting special exhibitions and gallery re-interpretations. Working on this exhibition called on those already-acquired skills of research, editing and interpretation. However, this exhibition was different. I was challenged because this was not another person’s work I was critiquing and working on; it was mine, it was Jenni’s. We were the owners of this research, we were the ones wholly responsible for the outcome of the exhibition — this was great, but also a bit daunting at the same time.

LPK: How has the experience of creating this exhibit affected the perspective or approach in your day-to-day?

 

EMILY: The work that I did on this exhibition has affected the way that I look at the world and has really given me a great sense of perspective when it comes to dealing with stressful situations. When you are looking at issues of hunger and all the things that people are dealing with in the world that are so much bigger than the petty little things you may get stressed about, it really gives you perspective.

JENNI: My approach to the day-to-day is different. I have more focus for the “big picture” and my confidence is heightened with proof that it’s possible to attain even the largest of goals. I thrived on being part of the next big thing in what has become a milestone achievement in my life. If an organization truly wants to develop creative energy across departments, the freedom to be creative must be supported by all members — employees, management and beyond. When individual creativity is valued and encouraged, organizational creativity will flourish!

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