During the 1930s, native Richmonder Theresa Pollak (1899-2002) founded both the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts and the University of Richmond arts programs. (Photo courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, James Branch Cabell Library, VCU Libraries)
During the 1930s, native Richmonder Theresa Pollak (1899-2002) founded both the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts and the University of Richmond arts programs. By extension, the students who’ve attended those schools and moved into the wider world have made incalculable contributions to their communities. This year’s Pollak Prize honorees, as with others over nearly two decades, are an enduring part of her legacy, and like her, many of them have challenged orthodoxies and altered perceptions. Still others entertain us and inspire us to get up and dance. That’s all part of the cultural life that Pollak and her artistic descendants made possible. Starting in 2014, the categories were split in two groups and their recognition became biennial. This year’s awards are for applied arts, dance, film, photography, emerging artist and lifetime achievement.
Selectors: Nominations for the Pollak Prizes are generated by an online survey, and honorees are chosen by a panel of community members and past recipients. Our 2015 panel included Jerry Williams (critic, writer); BJ Kocen (musician, gallerist); Lea Marshall (writer, co-founder Ground Zero Dance and Dogtown Dance Theatre, member of Steve’s House Dance Collective and 1998 Pollak Prize recipient); Ram Bhagat (educator, musician, 2012 Pollak recipient) and Jeff Roll (James River Film Society).
Photography: Terry Brown
Photographer Terry Brown is the 2015 winner of the Pollak Prize in the photography category. (Photo by Chris Smith)
The selectors said: “Terry is an amazing and natural collaborator who worked with Gordon Stettinius for eight years on their ‘Mangini Studio’ project. Her other undertakings include photography for the Valentine’s ‘History, Ink: The Tattoo’among numerous documenting efforts with galleries and museums. She is a friend to all artists.”
Terry Brown once made a pinhole camera out of a salted fish box, which impressed her waterman father. She earned the money for her first camera, a Canon AT-1, at age 16 by catching eels in pots and selling them. Her daughter, Elizabeth, owns that Canon today.
Taking pictures was reflexive for Brown. “Somebody’s got to fry the chicken,
somebody’s got to make the doughnuts, somebody’s got to make the picture,” she says, laughing. But photography as a profession seemed like a remote possibility back in the mid-1980s, when she was a new mother attending night school and working as a pipefitter at Newport News Shipbuilding. Brown wouldn’t have thought that she’d one day collaborate with Gordon Stettinius on the “Mangini Studio Series” of mock-portraits, some of which are in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; or be a part of Candela Books + Gallery, where she’s met inspiring artists such as Shelby Lee Adams; or travel to a workshop in Arles, France.
While studying engineering and business at Thomas Nelson Community College, Brown took a history of photography class that prompted her to pursue making pictures as a career. She was also influenced by an exhibition that featured Sally Mann’s Wet Bed. The picture showed one of Mann’s daughters amid, as the New York Times Magazine described it, “circles of urine that stain the sheet with the permanence of tree rings.” Brown realized that the ordinary can possess a beauty typically expected from more exotic subjects. After a decade at the shipyard, she left for the darkroom. She entered Virginia Commonwealth University via the Art Foundation Program. A stint at Richmond Camera led to overseeing studio photography at Dementi.
Brown took most of the images in the catalog for VCU Anderson Gallery’s Myron Helfgott retrospective and is coordinating images for a history of the gallery, which closed this year. She also teaches a documenting class at VCU, and her work is included in the inaugural show at Diversity Thrift’s new Iridian Gallery through Nov. 21.. She says, “I feel like I’m part of the community now. That’s my greatest pride.”
Of capturing images she says, “When you’re doing events, it’s 30 percent photography and 70 percent interacting with people. The camera is a small part of it.”
Applied Arts: Michael-Birch Pierce
Michael Birch-Pierce is the 2015 Pollak Prize winner in the Applied Arts category. (Photo by Adam Ewing)
The selectors said: “Michael-Birch’s work defies categorization. His stunning and sensitive sequin embroideries shimmer elusively between painting, ornamentation, fashion and craft traditions.”
Attending high school in Fredericksburg, Michael-Birch Pierce drew pictures of the Spice Girls in his notebook margins. For the record, Baby was his favorite. “I was always designing costumes for them,” he says.
His mother, Mary Anne Pierce, studied fine art at the College of William & Mary, but that became applied to the craft projects and bulletin boards of teaching preschool and raising three boys, with Michael-Birch in the middle. As a gay teen in a Southern Baptist community, “I had to construct an identity to survive in that environment,” he says. “The learning of how I was supposed to be true to myself came over time.” Back then, art for Pierce meant Van Gogh or Picasso. Fashion was Anthropologie.
He enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2003 with a portfolio of figure drawings, paintings and commercial-style fashion illustrations. “I wasn’t thinking about anything deeper than making beautiful dresses for beautiful women,”
he recalls. He embraced the city. For artistic inspiration, he looked to drag queens and beauty pageants.
In his senior year, Pierce took a digital printing class that inspired him to design his own fabric. “I found my voice as a print-focused designer,” he says. After graduating into the 2008 recession, he went to New York City, where he took freelance jobs and waited tables (“until I got sick of it”) before heading to graduate school at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).
He returned to Richmond, planning to wait six months for his then-boyfriend to finish a teaching contract before going back to New York. Instead, he rediscovered his affection for the city. He kept a studio on Mayo Island — “a magical, inspiring place” — and worked at Quirk Gallery.
Pierce can sit at a sewing machine conversing with a person across from him and use the device to make a portrait. This ability and its demonstration of connection was the subject of a TEDx talk he gave in 2013. Meanwhile, he also created elaborate, layered exhibition pieces. Amid uncertainty about the future of the Mayo Island studios, Pierce co-founded Anchor Studios downtown in 2013 and began teaching at VCU. Through SCAD, he spent the past summer in Lacoste, France, experimenting with new work and picking up vintage textiles at flea markets, and he previously visited Hong Kong to embellish a large elephant for the conservation organization Elephant Parade. On Memorial Day weekend next year, he’ll marry Richmond theater musician Anthony Smith.
Though fashion is where Pierce’s art sprang from, it isn’t his direction. He explains, “My work is about the over-arching concept of artifice and the artifices that we create in our lives when interacting with people.”
Dance: Martha Curtis
Martha Curtis is the 2015 winner of the Pollak Prize in the Dance category. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
The selectors said: “Martha Curtis works tirelessly for the promotion and development of contemporary dance in Richmond and beyond. She is a leading voice for dance in higher education, and a stellar artist in her own right as a choreographer and creator of video dance works.”
In the first dance Martha Curtis choreographed, at age 5, she portrayed a cat emerging from a curled-up position. “I’ve made much better dances since then,” she says, laughing. She considers her recent works to be her best. Staying in the Race (2013), inspired by a precarious donkey ride down the mountainous coast of Santorini, Greece, addresses issues of daily struggle and mortality. Adventures Portside (2014) follows strangers on a routine flight that develops into a death-defying adventure.
Curtis’ late mother, Laura, was a preschool teacher who encouraged Martha’s enjoyment of movement. “My mother was really interested in modern dance — Isadora Duncan,” she recalls. “She didn’t want me locked into the fifth position at age 4.” Laura Curtis arranged for lessons; a formative instructor was Helga Schulz, who’d studied in Germany with modern dance pioneer Mary Wigman.
When Martha Curtis was 15, the family moved to Jackson, Michigan, after her father, an engineer and civil rights activist, lost his job — because of his political activities, she believes. There, her mother worked to bring the Alvin Ailey dance troupe to the high school auditorium for two nights. “The performance affected me immensely,” she remembers. “They were dancing from the inside out. This is what I wanted to learn to do.”
She attended the North Carolina School of the Arts, where she connected with Pauline Koner, who had been a principal dancer with the José Limón Dance Co. “My first class with her she yelled at us the whole time,” Curtis says. But things got better; she followed Koner to New York City, and became her assistant and a dancer in Koner’s company, formed in 1976. She also taught performance with Koner at Brooklyn College and creative movement for children. “It was a wonderful gig,” she says, until the company folded in 1982.
After teaching at universities in Mississippi, Michigan and Ohio, Curtis moved west for a position at the University of California Santa Cruz. While looking for an apartment, she met filmmaker Bruce Berryhill. When Curtis showed Berryhill a video of work she’d done, he seemed unimpressed. He told her, “I can’t see it.” The badly lit back-of-the-house production didn’t present Curtis well. They became collaborators, then husband and wife.
In 1988, they moved to Richmond when Curtis took a position at Virginia Commonwealth University, which, unlike UC Santa Cruz, offered a dance major program. She established a bachelor of fine arts program in cooperation with the Richmond Ballet. Her Three Dances by Martha Curtis, filmed by Berryhill, first aired on PBS in 1991 and received international broadcast.
Her decade as chairwoman of VCU Dance (1996 to 2006) involved
establishing a strong guest artist program and getting the Grace Street Theater
running; the university also became accredited in dance. Curtis, who continues to teach dance and choreography full time, also started a Dance on Camera Festival here and added a video/choreography workshop to the curriculum. Looking back, Curtis sees a full career and life. “I teach from the moment I walk in the door, in that we have exchanges in which we’re learning from one another every day. And [asking] that question, ‘What did you think of my dance last night?’ ”
Emerging Artist: Eva Rocha
Eva Rocha won the 2015 Pollak Prize in the Emerging Artist category. (Photo by Spencer Turner)
The selectors said: “Her work confronts issues of human trafficking and the preservation of identity and individual dignity. The truth is, though she’s prepared her whole life to make her present work, she’ll likely be amazing us for a long time to come.”
Eva Rocha’s sense of art evolved from her youth as the middle of three sisters in a remote three-street town called Itacolomy in the state of Paraná, Brazil. Her mother, Daliria, played the organ and father José worked as a surveyor and mapmaker. “I’d see art in the way women decorate the streets for processions and festivities and how my grandfather created niches for the saints,” she recalls.
“I didn’t yet know the word ‘art’ as an outside activity.”
While a college student visiting the São Paulo Museum of Art, she witnessed art outside of its original context. “A fascinating but strange experience,” she says, “to see objects representative of culture venerated in a kind of cage.” And still later, as a Virginia Museum of Fine Arts guide, she sought not to present a linear scheme of art. “I don’t know if I believe in an artist as being one thing,” she says. “An artist is everywhere at the same time and expresses himself in absolutely everything.”
This view has been nurtured though her participation in different cultures and by varied pursuits: journalism and literature, theater and anthropology, trapeze acrobatics and kung fu,
writing and performance. She met her husband, Spencer Turner, while he was an exchange student in Brazil. He introduced her in 1998 to Virginia Commonwealth University, where she enrolled in interdisciplinary studies involving religion, filmmaking, theater and anthropology. After her 2002 magna cum laude graduation, she returned to South America to study and teach students in the Peruvian Andes. Here, she witnessed painting in the old style using dyes and egg yolks, and ceramics made in the traditional manner of the Inca. For her, the Andean people’s work demonstrated a unity between spirituality and creativity.
Back in Richmond, Rocha and Turner created the Virginia Center for Latin American Art (VACLAA), using a former school bus as a rolling exhibition and education center. Wanting to further her education and artistic reach, Rocha returned to VCU as a kinetic imaging student. Her multimedia Object Orientalis made an impression at this past spring’s MFA candidacy show. Rocha credits professors Semi Ryu and Gregory Volk with pushing her toward making work that addressed her concerns about human trafficking — a huge black market business throughout the world — and showcased Rocha’s cross-disciplinary artistic endeavors.
She used installation, theatrical settings and video to confront and unsettle the audience. In one video, Rocha curled nude in a bathtub and glared over her shoulder at the viewer in an expression both challenging and vulnerable as a woman transitioning into an object. A title, “I Am Not In the Business I Am the Business,” drove home the point.
You’ll see more of her work on Nov. 13 on the VMFA grounds, as part of 1708 Gallery’s eighth annual curated “InLight” presentation.
Film: Anne Chapman
Anne Chapman is the 2015 Pollak Prize winner in the Film category. (Photo by Adam Ewing)
The selectors said: “Anne Chapman has been casting major films, commercials and other productions for more than 25 years. She’s a vocal supporter of the local production industry, and her casting skills help turn any project into better art.”
Anne Chapman’s first movie was a nuclear holocaust. The controversial 1983 end-of-the-world television movie The Day After filmed near the University of Kansas, where she majored in theater and film. Through an acquaintance, she got on the set as an extra. What interested Chapman were the lights, the bustling purposefulness of the production crew and the scenes of extras made up to look as though they were stricken by radiation sickness.
The group dynamic appealed to her. “From the first casting session for me, it’s been collaborative rather than adversarial,” she says. “I love that energy.”
Chapman grew up moving often. During her early youth, her father, former Virginia Commonwealth University president Eugene Trani, was a history professor at Indiana University. Her mother, Lois, was an anesthetist who used to take her out of school to see movies on her birthday. “I’ve just always been around stories,” she says. “I went to sleep with the sound of a typewriter. My dad was always writing books.”
She met her husband, Guy, in China while he was there on business. She had accompanied Susan Salt, assistant to director Alan Pakula, on a film project that was never completed. As an agency office assistant in New York, she worked down the hall from Star Wars casting agent Dianne Crittenden, who was working on Three Men and a Baby and The Mosquito Coast. “I watched that process and decided: That’s the direction I want to go.”
Chapman followed Guy to his hometown of Chicago, where, at the Getty Agency, she cast extras for the 1988 horror movie Child’s Play and worked on When Harry Met Sally and Uncle Buck.
After moving to London, where their two children were born, the family settled in Richmond in 1998. Chapman worked with Kevin Hershberger of LionHeart FilmWorks as a production assistant on Wicked Spring, and later cast several of his productions, including No Retreat from Destiny. An early feature she worked on was Hearts in Atlantis with Anthony Hopkins. She partnered with Erica Arvold to cast Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, filmed here in 2011. A total of 66 local actors had speaking parts — “Yays” and “Nays” in the Congress scenes, she says. “But involvement in that film meant something to them.”
So does the upcoming Loving, a feature film about the interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving, whose marriage changed history. Also on deck is a comedy about a church going into the film business, Shooting the Prodigal, and a George Washington documentary. Adriana Trigiani’s adaptation of her novel Big Stone Gap, for which Chapman did casting, is set for a general release this month. She also holds an adjunct professor position in the VCU Cinema department, where she has cast student films, and, last year, an independent production of Macbeth by actor Angus Macfadyen. “When you’re in a smaller pond,” she says, “you’re able to work on bigger projects.”
Lifetime Achievement: Beverly Reynolds
Beverly Reynolds is the 2015 Pollak Prize winner in the Lifetime Achievement category. (Photo Kip Dawkins)
The selectors said: “Her tireless efforts in spotlighting emerging artists from Virginia Commonwealth University to bolstering internationally established artists raised the bar for all of Richmond and made the nation take notice. This recognition is made for both her work to place Richmond’s artists at the forefront of culture and to acknowledge her legacy.”
Beverly Reynolds starting selling art during Friday socials at her house in the mid-1970s. Her clients were friends and neighbors. When her husband, David, expressed some hesitation about it, her characteristic reply was, “That’s OK, they’re getting good stuff.”
The late Reynolds’ commitment to introducing high quality contemporary art to people who would then place it in their homes ultimately led to a gallery where getting an exhibition signified a benchmark for an artist on the rise. The Reynolds Gallery also became known for presenting new work by active, established artists. Reynolds nurtured these relationships and remained fiercely loyal. (Through Oct. 30, the gallery is exhibiting work by two artists who had longtime relationships with her: photographer Sally Mann and painter Heide Trepanier.)
Before moving to Richmond in 1975 from New York City, Reynolds had been a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and assisted art dealer Jeanne Frank, who handled work by Pablo Picasso, among other notables, out of her own Manhattan residence. Reynolds opened her gallery across West Main Street from what was then the Texas-Wisconsin Border Café, founded by artists who included sculptor Joe Seipel, now dean of the VCU School of the Arts. In a Richmond magazine profile of Reynolds published after her death from ovarian cancer last November, Seipel said, “She was a good explainer. She could look at a piece of art, and because she can talk about the artist’s process and motivation, she can make the piece accessible.”
Her daughter, Alice Livingston, now co-director of Reynolds Gallery, recalls, “I think Mom had an incredible talent for connecting people and growing the appreciation for contemporary art. She had an amazing eye for talent and people.”
That Reynolds represented VCU School of the Arts founder Theresa Pollak in her later life holds an historical symmetry. Pollak pushed against considerable odds to make the school happen, and during more than 40 years of teaching, sparked the talents of many others who in turn, maintained a life of art as educators, administrators and working practitioners.
Likewise, Reynolds built her gallery in part by making art the centerpiece of a conversation. “It’s not just four walls. It’s a place where people belong and learn and grow and socialize,” Livingston says. The fidelity between the gallerist and the artists meant that the creators
chose to exhibit work they felt best represented them.
Reynolds is credited, too, with being a major force behind the creation of the VCU Institute for Contemporary Art, which in its conception is a blend of two factors: presentation of high-caliber work and making that work accessible. She was determined that VCU should have a dedicated space to show the world just what Richmond artists are capable of and to present work from artists elsewhere that might not get shown in the region otherwise. The ICA won’t have a permanent collection, but it will showcase the compelling and unexpected.
Reynolds’ legacy is several-fold. She guided a community of artists toward wider recognition and, in so doing, established a respected blue-chip gallery and pushed for a higher profile way to introduce Richmond’s artistic life to the world. She did all this with unfailing grace, style — and insistent persuasion. And great parties.
Maintaining a gallery with a reputation like that of Reynolds requires a quality of discernment. Gallery co-director Julia Monroe says, “Our strength is in the recommendations from people we’ve worked with for 37 years. When Richard Roth or Jack Wax say we might want to look at a certain artist, we listen to that.” Livingston adds, “Mom would say, ‘It’s our job to edit.’ Whether that means wading through the different trends or having to say ‘no’ to people when you don’t want to say ‘no.’ And that’s what made her great at this: a direct point of view.”
To view a list of the 2014 Pollak Prize recipients, click here.