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A new kind of gallery show

January 15, 2016

A seasoned teaching artist and writer; a whole new role.  Old and new meet again in our latest gallery show, Bullfinch: Memories and Fairytales, opening Saturday, January 16th!  In this multi-media and multi-disciplinary exhibition, explore the relationship between literature, visual arts, and making the old new again. To celebrate this collaboration, we interviewed Hannah Sternberg, the creative visionary and writer behind the exhibition, to get the lowdown on how this one-of-a-kind project came to be.

1. What inspired you to create this exhibit?
Well, I had this manuscript of my book lying around, and it was too sentimental to throw away, but I also didn’t want to feel like a clutterbug by keeping it. I love the idea of recycling and repurposing things–whether it’s fashion, kitchenware, furniture, or technology–so it just came to me that this artifact of existing art could be used to create new art.
I have a number of friends who are visual artists, and I always admired them and their skill, so I think I’ve always been drawn to doing a visual arts exhibit, but told myself I can’t because I’m just a writer. One of my biggest inspirations is my childhood friend Liz Goss, who grew up to be a very talented illustrator. She designed the cover of Bulfinch, so she was one of the first people I went to when I had the idea for this show (she contributed three pieces). From there, I was lucky to receive the help of many talented and enthusiastic participants!
2. Have you ever done anything like this before?  Tell us a little bit about how your experience–or lack of experience!–informed the process.
Heck no, I’ve never done anything like this before! It was all a big adventure. I think my lack of experience made me very open to breaking the mold and trying things a different way. But that was only possible because I had the support of some really fantastic and helpful people with a lot of experience, like the CHAW staff. I learned a lot from them, and from the experience of bumbling my way through it. A friend just said to me, “I always like doing things more the second time”–meaning, she always appreciates having the lessons of the first time under her belt. This experience has definitely left me with a taste for more!
3. What were the challenges, surprises, and/or unexpected joys of this process?
Trust was the biggest personal challenge for me. Writing is solitary, but curating an art exhibit is highly collaborative. I knew I trusted the people I recruited for it, because that’s why I recruited them, but it’s very hard for me to step back and simply wait while they do their creating. I learned a huge and valuable lesson from that experience. The unexpected joys were experiencing how willing and able so many people were to step in and help me, from the artists who really threw themselves into some fantastic works, to the staff at CHAW and my friends and family who all helped support the show. I really struggle with asking for help. It’s not easy for me. But this show introduced me to the joys of receiving help from a crew of positive and enthusiastic people.
4. Why did you choose CHAW as the home of this exhibit?  
I teach creative writing at CHAW, and my first CHAW experience was being teamed up with teaching artist Alicia Gleason to help develop a writing program with complementary classes taught by both of us, so I knew right away I’d learn a lot about collaboration here. Hosting the show at CHAW seemed like a natural fit, not just because I was already teaching here but because it’s such a friendly, warm, and supportive environment. I’m so grateful I’ve had a chance to learn what CHAWsome really means!
5. How (if at all) does location (CHAW, DC, and the many places from which the artists hail) play into this exhibition?  Community?
Community plays a big role in the show. Three of the six artists are from DC, but the sense of community goes beyond the neighborhood; I felt like we made our own international community of artists all working together to create something really cool. Each work is very well done individually, but I also felt like each artist was contributing with a mind to how their piece enhanced the exhibit overall–so the show itself is like one big collaboration. And I myself learned a lot about community and collaboration through working on this, and really getting outside my comfort zone both in terms of the type of work I do (going from being a writer to being a visual arts curator), and in the way I’m used to doing it (from writing alone in my home, to collaborating with six artists and the CHAW staff to create a show).
6. How was this experience of turning text into visual art both similar to and different from your writing process?
Well, I can’t speak for the artists in the show, and I’m sure they’d each have a highly unique answer to that. From my perspective, I think the differences are easier to spot, in all the ways I already listed–I had to break out of my solitary shell and collaborate with a lot of people, and learn to rely on them and ask for help when I needed it. But I think the similarity between writing and curating a show is that my focus in both was still storytelling: what can this show do to create an atmosphere or a world within itself that will take viewers on a journey from one part of the book to the next? (I tried to send book excerpts to each artist that I thought would be a good fit with their visual style.) And, what can the viewer learn from this story? How will they feel, walking through it?
7. Are there any other observations or particularly salient takeaways you’d like to share?
I think I learned not to limit myself. I went into this fairly meekly, almost apologizing to all the people I invited into it, by explaining to them that I’m “not a visual arts person” and that I’d never done this before, so I should say sorry in advance for anything I’m about to screw up. It turned out to be a big confidence-boosting experience. I learned that there are some things I tell myself I can’t do, just because I haven’t tried them yet. I put myself in a box, and while everyone has limitations, maybe I could make my box a little bigger. And I also learned that if I am going to grow, and overcome my self-imposed limitations, I have to learn how to collaborate, cooperate, and build a community.

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