The space between

The Cuba Consortium Agriculture and Food Roundtable was full of great moments.

The two-day event, held here at the Institute back in March, represented a partnership between the Institute, the Howard Baker Forum and Winrock International. It provided an opportunity for key leaders in the national conversation about normalizing relations with Cuba to share ideas, identify opportunities and map out the next steps that are needed to responsibly examine the issue of normalization.

The greatest moments didn’t come when Gov. Asa Hutchinson opened the meeting with a welcome address, in which he shared some of the things he learned about Cuba during his trip to the island nation last fall – though that certainly was a great moment.

They didn’t come when Minister Counselor Ruben Ramos Arrieta (pictured in the center above), a representative from the Cuban Embassy in Washington D.C., gave an impassioned, impromptu speech about the importance of understanding all sides of this issue and not simply assuming that the Cuban people have everything to learn and nothing to teach – though that was a particularly powerful moment.

They didn’t come when expert after expert illuminated the unique nuances of the issue so that all who attended left with a much better understanding – though those were important moments.

The greatest moments came in between sessions, when panelists mingled with attendees, when scholars, policymakers, farmers and government officials all shared their common interest in building a future that was good for Americans (particularly Arkansans) and Cubans alike.

And we’re beginning to see the fruits of those great moments.

Since attending the Cuba Consortium meeting, Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward has been named to the consortium’s board. Ward will accompany our very own Dr. Marta Loyd and Janet Harris on a trip to Cuba next week. The trip, sponsored by the Arkansas World Trade Center, is designed to explore opportunities in agriculture, biotechnology and economic development.

In one of those side conversations at the consortium meeting, Arrieta had the opportunity to meet with an official from the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope. UACC-Hope has the premier program in power plant management in the South, and since the March meeting, the school has engaged in an ongoing dialogue with Cuban officials about possibilities for partnering on education programs related to energy. It’s still to be determined what will come of these conversations, but the seeds have been planted.

So while it was a truly remarkable experience to hear people like Gov. Hutchinson, former Sen. Tom Daschle and a slew of trade and agriculture experts give their thoughts on the bright future we might have with our neighbors to the southeast, it was even more remarkable to see in action the power of convening the right people with a common purpose.

Stay tuned, because this assuredly won’t be the last time we report about our work on this issue.


The trees that stick in our memories

Growing up in Arkansas, it is easy to take trees for granted. No matter where you are in the state, chances are you aren’t too far from a towering pine, a sprawling magnolia or shady oak. And yet, few of us stop to see the trees for the forest. That’s a trait Linda Palmer invites you to change with a series of detailed colored pencil renderings of the Champion Trees of Arkansas.

Each of the Champion Trees are the largest of their species in Arkansas, cataloged by the Arkansas Forestry Commission. Of the 123 currently identified Champions, Palmer captured 18 for her first exhibit, traveling to each tree personally to take countless reference photos and get a feel for each tree’s unique traits and personality.

Palmer then takes her reference photos and experience back to her studio, where she begins the process of drawing each tree with colored pencils. Colored pencils were chosen as the medium for the work as they allow her to impart very precise details into each drawing. Palmer also tries to frame each tree in a way that conveys what stuck with her most about each tree she visited, such as the looming height and bark pattern of the former Champion shortleaf pine (which has unfortunately fallen in a storm since) or the many knees of the Champion cypress. The end results are masterfully detailed works that represent living pieces of history.

Each tree in the exhibit also tells a story, from a tree that has been part of a graveyard for decades to a tree that has grown with one family through the generations. Palmer traveled more than 7,000 miles across Arkansas to visit the trees and hear the stories surrounding them. Some trees are located in a family’s front yard or in the center of a town, while others are tucked away in the middle of some of Arkansas’ biggest forests, but all of the trees have a special meaning to someone.

Palmer’s journey even inspired an Arkansas Educational Television Network documentary titled Champion Trees.  The documentary tells about the exhibition, explores the landowner history for the champion trees and includes the perspective of the Arkansas Forestry Department. There’s even an accompanying educator’s guide full of classroom activities that encourage engagement with and study of the trees in the students’ lives.

At its heart, the Champion Trees Exhibit is an invitation to lose yourself in contemplation, both of the trees featured in the exhibit and the trees from your past. Just as the Champion Trees have countless decades of memories invested in them, I know I have personal memories of trees that I grew up with. And even if you don’t have memorable trees in your own life, there’s no better time to visit us on the mountain to see the exhibit in person. And if you can, come for the exhibit’s opening reception at 2 p.m. Friday, June 3. Palmer herself will be here to talk about the exhibit, as will State Forester Joe Fox of the Arkansas Forestry Commission. The reception is free to attend, but we ask that you register in advance.

After your visit you can spend some time on our grounds and in Petit Jean State Park and make all new tree memories.


Perry County – an uncommon undertaking

If you’ve driven through Perry County lately, you know how serene and beautiful it is. Nestled between the rapid growth of west Little Rock on one side and the continually developing Morrilton on the other, if you travel Highway 10, you might be surprised at the amount of activity in the county of slightly more than 10,000 people.

Perry County prides itself on its quality of life. Where some people might see the location as too far from the amenities of urban America, residents see it as just right. This mindset is what helped them develop their county tagline: A World Away, Right Next Door. Knowing that communities that sit on their laurels have their destiny decided for them, leaders in Perry County thought it wise to begin the strategic planning process. They reached out to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute and Uncommon Communities partner Dr. Mark Peterson and his Breakthrough Solutions program at the University of Arkansas’s Division of Agriculture Extension. Mark was working with us in planning Uncommon Communities, and Perry County was the perfect fit for our curriculum.

Since formally beginning participation in the Institute’s Uncommon Communities Initiative Perry County in late August 2015, the committed citizens of Perry County have not gotten much rest. They began with developing a logo to work with their tagline. Replacing a landmark tree at the “5-Way” in Perryville was an important task for a storied spot, and while it took longer than originally thought, its planting is celebrated. A $1,000 Blue & You grant kicked off the Farmers' Market. Improvements have been made to the Rosenwald Community Center, the local Methodist Church and the Hollis Community Center. A downtown mural has been painted. The local tennis courts have been refurbished via a grant received by an Uncommon Communities participant. A local event, Saturdays on the Square, is now well underway. The park in the City of Perry will soon see improvement thanks to an Uncommon Communities partnership with the Civic Improvement Association. Plans for a splash pad continue to evolve – and there is a budget for its implementation! Local ball field improvements are happening. There is a Yard of the Month prize being awarded. The Perryville Big Star now features a “Wall of Fame” highlighting good works of teachers and students. A local teacher is featured in a weekly newspaper column, cementing a new partnership with education professionals. Outreach and coursework is occurring to enhance local businesses’ online presence via Google Business, Yelp, Trip Advisor and other sources. There is a monthly community cleanup, which began in the Ouachita National Forest. A 3-on-3 basketball tournament is being planned. And there’s planning to participate in the national “One Question Campaign.”

You know, just a county of 10,000 doing what they can.


Got a Photograph, Picture Of. Passion Project

Some things happen on a whim. With a bit of luck and a pinch of magic, you never know what you can achieve.

I’ve lived in central Arkansas 44 of my 45 years (I spent a year in Seattle, which I lovingly refer to as both my Gap Year and “the taking of the plaid”). I’ve long been familiar with and an admirer of the Arkansas School for the Deaf. Driving along Markham in Little Rock, I’ve seen their scoreboard noting “Arkansas School for the Deaf Leopards.” I’ve been a fan of the English rock band Def Leppard since my brother Craig received Pyromania on vinyl shortly after its release in 1983. I saw the band at Barton Coliseum every time they came through the state and always wondered if the connection between the two was ever made by someone who could put the two together.  

Fast forward a few decades. I hear about Def Leppard’s show at Verizon Arena and I think “somebody’s got to get these two groups together.” All those years and it hadn’t happened! Why? Well, nobody had taken the initiative to get the word out. I thought, “well … why don’t I do that?” Isn’t that what the Internet is for?

First thing was to post a picture of the scoreboard and the band on my Facebook page and make a comment about this needing to happen. Hundreds of “likes” and “shares” later, I thought … “OK. There’s something here.”

So, I decided I’d try a petition encouraging people to sign as well as tweet at the band, post on their Facebook page, etc. 1,500 signatures later, innumerable retweets, shares and posts, and this thing had gone viral. I just thought I’d try and connect a matched pair and hopefully bring some publicity to an organization I really admire as well as a band I love. 

I posted updates to the petition signers with some frequency encouraging them to share, tweet or otherwise get the word out. Working in conjunction with ASD’s director of public relations, Stacey Tatera, we doubled our outreach. She is an unparalleled champion of the school and the students.

The last 10 days before the show I really ramped up the outreach, posting daily. The Friday before the Wednesday show I heard from Verizon Arena’s PR staff. They’d heard me on a radio interview I did promoting the petition with 102.9 KARN. I can’t thank KARN enough for putting Verizon in touch with us. Verizon Arena staff worked with the band’s management and public relations to make this happen. We’d originally wanted the band to take a photo in front of the scoreboard. Schedules didn’t allow for such a trip, but the band really wanted to make the connection with the school. They invited us to bring a replica scoreboard to pose for a photo before the show.

Visiting the school before the event was a remarkable experience. The students were beyond excited. In talking with the faculty before the show, they reminded me how much the school and the students want to be a part of the community. The nature of the campus, physically beautiful but almost remote owing to the nature of the park that welcomes visitors – as well as the added layer of communication challenges with civilians – can make the faculty and students feel disconnected. Having the spotlight shown upon them and their good work really seemed to go a long way in helping bridge the gap.

Arkansas Deaf Leopards

The band was extraordinarily nice and took a good deal of time with the students. They told us they’d heard of the connection and were thrilled to be making it official. But better than that, to me, was the spirit of the community that helped bring this event together. We’ve met some wonderful and nice people along the way. This was in evidence last night as those students were the real rock stars of the evening. They took pictures with as many people as the band did last night. Every time they threw up the “I Love You” sign – which doubles as the standard heavy metal hand gesture.

Matched pairs, I tell you.


Local theater is the way to go, Shakespeare actor says

Standing in front of a crowd and being the focus of hundreds of eyes and ears isn’t something most people are willing to do. Add singing and playing an instrument to the mix and you have the stuff of some people’s nightmares. Others, like Matt Duncan, can’t get enough.


A native Arkansan, Duncan, 25, will take center stage this summer as Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, one of the four plays that are part of the 2016 Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre (AST) season.

AST is enjoying its 10th season this year, and Duncan has been with them for half that time, performing in various productions for the past five years.

“It’s a family,” Duncan said, “and it’s where I grew up professionally.”

Duncan explained that part of the joy of working with AST for so long is the chance to see it expand and grow.

“The audiences have grown every year and the community is more involved. AST belongs to central Arkansas now,” he said.  


Though he might have grown up professionally with AST, Duncan’s been on stage all of his life. His first experience with theater was when he was 4 years old, performing children’s theater in Dardanelle, Ark.

Given his lifetime involvement with theater, it’s no wonder that Duncan also co-founded Paradise Explored Theatre Co., a theater company centered in Bentonville, Ark.

“We view it as a semi-pro halfway house for guerilla theatre,” he said. “We work in found spaces to bring texts to new light.”

Paradise Explored has performed at many unique venues in northwest Arkansas, including Fossil Cove Brewing Co., Backspace, and Two25 Gallery & Wine Bar. Duncan even recalls performing a radio play in a crowded condo for an enthusiastic audience in conjunction with Artinfusion at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

As Duncan explained, northwest Arkansas has several venues for community theater, children’s theater (like Trike Theatre), and even experimental theatre with the Artist Laboratory Theatre, but none that felt exactly right for him.

“We wanted to make an opportunity for people to learn and explore,” he said.  


Duncan is not alone in his desire to create new opportunities for theatre.

“It is a very exciting time to be a part of theatre in Arkansas,” Duncan explained. “New opportunities are popping up everywhere, and everyone is committed to building.”

Even Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is planning to create a space that could be used for live theatre.

With all of the positive energy for theatre building in the northwest corner of the state, stepping out of that scene will be difficult. Duncan will spend three years taking part in Purdue University’s Professional Actor Training Program. But that doesn’t mean that he plans to leave his home state behind.

When speaking about last year’s AST performance of As You Like It here at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, Duncan remarked, “The most rewarding work is work featured where there isn’t much like this going on, especially when you’ve grown up there. Performing is the most exciting when you get to provide that service to the community.” 


Duncan hopes for a similar experience on June 25 when AST brings Twelfth Night to the Institute for a one-hour, family-friendly performance on the Institute’s front lawn.

“Performing these plays outdoors is always the best. They are planned to be outside.”

Duncan said the crowd is equally important.

“Last year there was a huge crowd that was extremely engaged. I remember a Shakespeare scholar in the audience mouthing along with the lines to Jacques’s ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech as I was giving it. … It’s a definite plus to have an involved audience.”

This year’s performance of Twelfth Night will feature actors singing original songs and playing instruments during the performance, something that is both entertaining and functional.

“Songs develop the story in Shakespeare plays, the same as in modern musical theater. They work magic on a character,” Duncan explained. 

We can’t wait to see it when we have Duncan and AST back on the mountain for another great performance this year. And if you want to follow in his footsteps and experience theatre firsthand, Duncan has some final words of advice: “Do it. Please. Take a class, audition for plays, get involved. Do it and stay local.”


Small-town inspiration served up with a side of Swamp Gravy

You think you live in a small town? Colquitt, Ga., stands at 1,929 people and yet they maintain a vibrant downtown, an active events calendar and inspire people from across the country.

Facing the challenges that plagued the rural South throughout the 1980s and beyond, one person sought to find a creative solution. Did she ever.

Joy Jinks calls herself a community organizer. She’s also a serial entrepreneur (likely what we’d call a social entrepreneur these days), having founded everything from a nursing school to a daycare. It’s Swamp Gravy, however, that she’s known for all across the world. And she’s coming to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute Friday, May 6, to speak about it and teach you how to reinvent your community.

As the one-time executive director of the Colquitt Miller Arts Council, Jinks help started five other theater projects or performances so that activities were offered year-round. She also helped start a learning center for children, a mini-mall downtown and recently a black box theater to expand performances.

“The economic factor is important but it’s what we’ve done to enliven the spirit that is most important. It’s the pride in spirit, pride in talent and being an inspiration to others that keeps us going,” Jinks told me.

They also host an annual conference that highlights the town & Swamp Gravy. The Building Creative Communities conference is entering its 10th year and brings in people from across the country.

When Clay County, Ky., was named The Hardest Place in the U.S. to Live, it was important to the citizens that they address what they felt were unfair criticisms. They turned to Swamp Gravy. Now Monkey Dumplings, Clay County and Eastern Kentucky’s version of Swamp Gravy, stands to answer those criticisms and has brought together a region and helped rebuild community pride. If the alleged “Hardest Place in the U.S. to Live” can address the challenges thrown at them by such weighty allegations, our towns in Arkansas can, too.

You don’t have to travel to Colquitt to get a taste of Swamp Gravy. We’re serving our version of it here when Joy speaks to our Uncommon Communities groups May 6 from 12:30-2:30. Free registration for our keynote session is available here.


Tapping into the wisdom of youth

For years, being named a 40 Under 40 honoree meant being profiled in a magazine column and attending a luncheon in your (and 39 others’) honor. Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, wondered aloud if there wasn’t an opportunity to bring together those 80 yearly honorees (40 from Arkansas Business and 40 from the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal) to put their heads together to discuss some of the issues facing our state. Fortunately, he wondered this aloud during a collaborative planning meeting with the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s executive director, Dr. Marta Loyd. Sometimes wondering aloud develops partnerships and programs, and that’s what happened here. The Under 40 Forum was born.

The inaugural Under 40 Forum was held at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute April 1-2. 32 of 78 honorees from across the state attended the event, which was kicked-off by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. The event’s conversations focused on talent recruitment and retention, as did the governor’s talk. He took questions from the group, many of whom were business owners. They asked thought-provoking questions on issues they have faced recruiting and retaining talent in their organizations. These questions and general subject areas became the broad focus of the rest of the event.

Attendees largely focused their strategic conversations on:

  • Lack of widespread broadband access
  • Enhanced pre-K opportunities
  • Branding Arkansas for talent recruitment and retention efforts
  • Need for improved engagement with the public sector
  • Impact of recent proposed legislation on talent recruitment and retention

Examining challenges facing Arkansas was only a part of the reason for the Forum. Developing relationships, crossing geographical barriers and promoting long-term collaboration was the other half of the motivation behind hosting the Forum. If how late the conversations went is any indication of success, we are pleased.

Gov. Rockefeller strongly believed in and practiced the convening approach to problem solving. It’s an approach we are still echoing today. While these problems won’t be completely solved anytime soon, we believe that convening the Under 40 Forum was a good step in that direction, and we won’t be surprised if it’s the people who attended the Forum who are behind the solutions.

In addition to the Forum providing a spark of energy for the participants, another tangible outcome will be a report outlining the topics discussed and suggested actions that can be taken to make Arkansas a place where people want to come and stay. We plan to release that report in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.


Beyond technology, beyond art, Mini Maker Faire brings creators of all kinds together

Don’t let the name fool you. There is nothing “mini” about the Mini Maker Faire. The space in which it takes place may appear relatively small on a map, but the event is where big ideas and innovations come together as equals. Held at the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub in North Little Rock, this annual event unites all types of people to enjoy the ingenuity that is happening throughout the state. It’s a place of show-and-tell and a shared space to learn from one another.

Participant John Steward, physics lab manager at Hendrix College, succinctly describes the event.

“It’s not a ‘tech’ show, not quite an art show, but something in between and well beyond,” he said.

Warwick Sabin, Innovation Hub executive director, said he looks most forward to the diversity the Maker Faire showcases.

“The exhibits, activities and demonstrations are broad, and I look forward to the interactions among all of the different kinds of people who attend,” he said. “This is a special event because it brings together people of all ages and backgrounds to celebrate the innovation, creativity and ingenuity that is taking place all around Arkansas. It’s not only fun and educational, but it builds pride and confidence in our state.”

The Maker Faire, to be held Saturday, May 7, provides a good opportunity for artists and innovators to display their “different worlds,” said Errin Dean, director of programs and memberships. “The coolest thing about it is it’s the only event in Arkansas that brings local makers of all varieties together. From an artist and jewelry maker to a welder, if you make anything you can be on display at the Faire.” As an attendee, she added, “you might leave surprised, not realizing everything that people can make.”

Another aspect of the Faire that Dean particularly enjoys is “Education Row,” she said. It features students from various schools showcasing their specialties.

John, the physics lab manager, brought his 3D printer to the event last year along with a collection of 3D printed objects and plans to do the same this year. The objects ranged from creatures, signs and topographical maps to bracelets, household items and prosthetic hands. He tried to keep the printer running to show what it looks like when things are made.

“I love watching kids’ reactions when they see something on the 3D printer,” John said. “You can almost see in their faces that it answers a few questions, but generates a hundred more. Then I get to explain to them how to make something. The Faire is also the only place I know where so many folks can bring their own amazing creations and machines, and show them off to anyone interested.”

Megan Kessler of Fork in the Road said as the sole food vendor last year, “We had a blast. The staff was wonderful and patrons were amazing. I can’t wait to see what this year brings.”

Chris Campbell participated in the Faire last year with his R2-D2 – a full-size, movie-quality replica that a friend helped him build. The North Little Rock event was not his first, but Chris said it was much larger than some of the others he has attended. Of the artists in attendance, he said he enjoyed seeing their various works.

Campbell once again will grace the Faire with his R2-D2, but he’s also working with ArkLUG (the Arkansas Lego Users Group) to set up a city/train layout and some various other displays as well as a play brick area for people to build their own creations.

“In addition, I’ll have a table set up with my personal 3D printers running that will be printing parts throughout the day for the BB-8 that I’m currently working on,” he said. 

Catch him also in the Mini 3D Printed Diorama setup.

Jessica Beeman Smith is “absolutely thrilled” to be part of the Maker Faire again this year. Last year she and her team built a large-scale mechanical diorama that featured a giant Kraken (legendary sea monster) and a pirate ship that moved and bounced with the waves at the turn of a crank.

“The response from Faire-goers was amazing,” she said. “Kids, especially, loved to turn the crank and set the scene in motion.”

Moving forward with what her team learned last year, this year’s project is going to be “bigger and better,” Smith said. “The folks at the Innovation Hub have been absolutely invaluable. They all bring to the table, not only their super cool equipment, but knowledge, skill and passion that is just incredible. I love being a part of this fantastic community of makers. I’m so excited to see what everyone brings to this year’s Maker Faire. It’s going to be amazing.”


Arkansas Artist Spotlight: Dawn Holder

This month’s Arkansas Artist Spotlight focuses on Dawn Holder. Holder is an instructor at the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville and is an accomplished ceramics artist. Just last year she was featured alongside a select group of artists from around the globe for the National Museum of Women in the Arts Women to Watch exhibition series.

We caught up with Holder at an exhibition of her work at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas and were able to find out a little more about her.

A Flower's Shade Exhibit

A Flower’s Shade exhibit at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas

How did you first become involved in the arts? Have you always been drawn to work with ceramics and porcelain?

My interest in art started in childhood. My siblings and I were not allowed to watch very much TV. Instead, we were encouraged to read, play, explore and be creative. At one point, I noticed some red clay in our yard and decided to dig it up and make pottery with it. I painted the pots with tempera paint and left them in the sun to dry. Finding a direct connection with the material was exciting, even if the pieces were pretty wonky. In high school, my interest started to become more serious. I took different art classes every year, and I began to take ceramics classes in the evening at a community art center. In both undergraduate and graduate school, I focused on ceramics and sculpture.

As a material, clay is very tactile and responsive. I have always been drawn to its humble origins, its rich history and its ability to morph into almost any form. Porcelain is more temperamental to work with than other types of clay, but I love its translucency, bright white color and highly responsive nature.

 Once Upon a Time in the Forest of I'm Not Sweet Enough

Once Upon a Time in the Forest of I'm Not Sweet Enough, 2008-2009, 14' x 16' x 6 ‘, porcelain, plaster, poly-fil, sugar, chocolate and butterscotch almond bark, homemade hard candy, homemade cotton candy. Photo courtesy of Dawn Holder.

What are some of the biggest influences and inspirations for your work?

I am always looking, noticing, reading and collecting. My interests and inspiration are all over the place:  formal garden design; minimalist sculpture; highly detailed craftwork, especially traditional women’s work, like embroidery; postapocalyptic narratives; the landscape around wherever I happen to be; aerial photography; the Necropastoral; ruins; fairytales; social and cultural practice that affect the environment; landscaping; multimedia installation art (Sarah Sze, Petah Coyne, Kim Dickey, Gregor Schneider, Claire Twomey); houses and other domestic structures; geology; art history; botanical drawings; ecofeminism; ecology; natural history collections and wunderkammer; etc.


Median, 2014, porcelain, concrete, 127" x 31" x 2.5". Photo courtesy of Dawn Holder.

It seems like a lot of your work (A Flower’s Shade, Monoculture, Once Upon a Time in the Forest of I’m Not Sweet Enough) draws the viewer’s eye to elements that are ground level. Is that significant to the themes of your work?

Yes, working on the ground is a very deliberate choice. Partly, it comes out of an influence and response to minimalist sculptors, like Carl Andre, who placed materials and sculptural objects directly on the gallery floor. I am drawn to the way this type of work displaces all of the empty space above it. In a sense, the entire gallery becomes a pedestal for the work. Since I work primarily with landscape-based imagery, it makes visual sense for the work to be directly on the ground, as this is the way we experience the landscape around us—directly springing from the same ground our feet rest on. I am interested in the viewer feeling as though they share the space with the work, rather than being artificially separated from it by a pedestal.

There is an element of danger of working directly on the floor, however, because my work is very fragile and vulnerable to breakage. I have had multiple experiences with people purposefully stepping on and breaking the porcelain grass (sadly, both children and adults have done this). Occasionally, people just aren’t paying attention and accidentally bump into and break pieces. I have to work closely with galleries and museums to create visual cues, like tape lines or signage, to help protect the work. When I participate in group exhibitions where I show smaller installations or sculptural groupings, I sometimes use low pedestals to give the work a buffer zone.


Monoculture, 2013, porcelain, 8’ x 15’ x 2.5 ». Photo courtesy of Dawn Holder.

When talking about Monoculture and other works featuring ceramic grass, you mention the deliberately tedious creation process. Has that influenced or crossed over to some of your latest pieces?

Labor and tedium seem to be part of my creative process, no matter what the work is. Part of what I find visually attractive and exciting is the massing together and repetition of forms, so that means I have to make many, many little pieces for my installations. For Monoculture, I created over 75,000 blades of porcelain grass. Repetition, labor, time and process all add value and meaning to the finished work. My most recent installation, A Flower’s Shade, has a good deal of variety in the forms, but the process of collecting, sorting and dipping each piece of plant matter in liquid clay was the same. Repetition has a deep history in ceramics, from the potter who makes hundreds of bowls, to the factory that makes thousands of sinks. My installation work harnesses this tradition of multiplicity to create visual impact and metaphor.

 Once Upon a Time in the Forest of I'm Not Sweet Enough

Once Upon a Time in the Forest of I'm Not Sweet Enough, 2008-2009, 14' x 16' x 6 ‘, porcelain, plaster, poly-fil, sugar, chocolate and butterscotch almond bark, homemade hard candy, homemade cotton candy. Photo courtesy of Dawn Holder.

Speaking of A Flower’s Shade, many of the sculptures take on an active, flowing form. Is that a byproduct working with organic material, or were they deliberately shaped before firing?

A little of both. The organic materials that I used in the piece include things like hedge clippings, fallen leaves, weeds, seed pods, berries and dead flowers, so that many of them naturally have active, flowering forms. Depending on the particular item, some were trimmed or bundled together before being dipped in slip. Others were just taken in their natural, organic state. After being dipped in slip, the forms all have to drip-dry on a clothesline, which also affects the ultimate shape, as everything tends to be pulled downward by gravity. Also, many of the forms fall apart or break in the firing and glazing process, so I have to make many extra and cross fingers to get a few that have beautiful, complex shapes. I now have piles and piles of interesting shards and shrapnel that did not make the cut for these pieces, but that I imagine will also be “harvested” and transformed into some smaller works.

 A Flower's Shade

A Flower’s Shade exhibit at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas

How did you decide on the color palette and differing levels of slip and glaze for the “porcelain fossils” that make up A Flower’s Shade?

The color palette is inspired by the Necropastoral (a poetic theory described by Joyelle McSweeney that intertwines the idealized natural world and mankind’s degradation of the environment) and my love of postapocalyptic landscape as depicted in books and movies—the rubble and the grey, black, bleak quality of the landscape. I use several shades of gray and black to evoke a dead, charred or aberrant quality. The white is reminiscent of death, bones and lifeless things drained of color. The bright yellow was chosen for contrast and to create a sense of unease. It has a radioactive or poisonous quality, like bodily fluid or an infection. Overall, I wanted the colors to evoke a sense of loss, disruption and mystery.

Porcelain fossil

A Flower’s Shade exhibit at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas

Having grown up in the South, what makes this region unique for an artist? Has it had a specific influence on your work?

I would not say that living here has had a strong influence on what I make, although my work has always been, either directly or indirectly, a response to the culture and landscape around me. Living in several different areas of the country has given me perspective on various modes of being and interacting with the environment. There is, however, a little more space and freedom to develop and define your creative practice here. I don’t feel any pressure to adhere to a certain kind of making or thinking, as might happen in other more commercially driven places. Also, I have been surprised by the amount of opportunities and resources for artists here, as well as the supportive environment. Even the good old boys at the hardware store get interested in what I am making and regularly ask me about it.

On the other hand, the challenge of living in rural Arkansas is that life here can be personally and culturally isolating. I have had to search all over the state to find other creative people to connect to. I am part of a fairly recently formed female art collective called Culture Shock. We meet regularly to critique each other’s work, we support each other’s creative practice, and we organize group exhibitions and panel discussions. Having a critical discourse with this diverse and talented group of people has invigorated my creative practice.


 A Flower's Shade

A Flower’s Shade exhibit at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas

What brought you to Arkansas?

I moved to Arkansas for a job. I am an assistant professor of art, and I teach ceramics, sculpture and art history at the University of the Ozarks. I had never been to Arkansas before my job interview, but full-time teaching jobs are pretty rare, so thought I would give it a try.


 A Flower's Shade

A Flower’s Shade exhibit at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas

What do you hope to see in the future for arts in Arkansas and the South?

I hope to see more funding and support for art, not only for mature artists, but also in the schools. I think teaching children how to think creatively is just as important as learning to how to read and write.

Another thing I hope to see continued emphasis on is more diversity in programming within art institutions, which serves to reflect the diverse experience and background of our population. The Arkansas Arts Center has had some fantastic shows lately of African-American and Latino art. I would love to see this trend continue and expand, not just through specific exhibitions, but also through regular programming, inclusion in permanent collections, etc. I think there is still a lot of entrenched racism and prejudice in the South, and art can serve to challenge the dominant paradigm by communicating empathetic perspectives that are diverse, divergent and other.


We appreciate Dawn sharing her thoughts with us and encourage you to check out her work in person. You can see A Flower’s Shade at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas through April 21, 2016. You can see Once Upon a Time in the Forest of I'm Not Sweet Enough as it travels the state as part of the 2016 Arkansas Women to Watch exhibit.


This post is part of a monthly series highlighting artists that call Arkansas home and make the arts community here one of the best in the South. Read on for a closer look at the people creating great art all across the Natural State.


Rethinking college

A new University of Arkansas System endeavor is tapping into its large pool of faculty across many institutions and reaching more Arkansans than ever. eVersity, the state’s first fully online education that launched last fall, ended its first term in February with a collective GPA of 3.47. The second six-week term starts this month to help more students complete their degrees and become workforce ready. With seven start dates throughout the year, back-to-school can happen anytime for people seeking this university path.

Why eVersity?

Arkansas ranks No. 49 nationally in the percentage of the population with college degrees. “And we’re falling fast,” said Michael K. Moore, chief academic and operating officer of eVersity and vice president of academic affairs for the UA System. “Something has to be done, whether it’s with us or another one of our many higher education institutions. It’ll take a great team effort from everyone across the state to improve that statistic. But being the state’s only 100 percent online institution allows us to offer a high-quality, affordable and workforce-relevant experience.” 

Michael K. Moore
Michael K. Moore, chief academic and operating officer of eVersity & vice president of academic affairs for the UA System

The need

The best thing about eVersity is it offers a second chance to those who gave up on their higher education dreams, Moore noted. “We know that there are 356,000-plus Arkansans who once saw the value in higher education and had a dream to earn a degree, but for whatever reason life got in the way and they didn’t complete what they set out to do. The goal of eVersity from the very beginning has been to identify as many of the barriers as possible that are preventing those people from returning to school and work really hard to remove the barriers and do whatever possible to get them across the finish line.”

The response

Faculty and students have been pleased at how engaging the online courses are, Moore said. UA System faculty works with an eVersity team of instructional designers to make classes as interactive, visually appealing and fulfilling as possible. “Our efforts to design very high-quality and interactive online classes are paying off, and our faculty has also commented about our students being among the most attentive and productive as any they’ve taught before.”

Areas of study

Courses last six weeks, and students generally take just one course at a time. Areas of study include information technology, criminal justice, business, health care management and university studies. Thoughtful analysis identified the needs of Arkansas employers and the current job market to choose eVersity’s fields of study, Moore said. “We’re happy with what we have to offer and feel like we are concentrating our efforts on what’s best for Arkansans and the state’s employers. With that being said, we are tapped into employers’ needs and ready and willing to meet those demands as things evolve.”

Quick facts

  • Cost per credit hour is $165.
  • Average applicant age is 35.
  • 73 percent of Arkansas counties are represented in the applicant pool.
  • 60 percent of the applicants are women.
  • Applicants bring an average of 67 transfer credits from prior institutions.