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Open to the World: An Interview with New Vermont Studio Center Director Elyzabeth Holford
Vermont Studio Center’s new executive director has landed. Appointed to start July 17, Elyzabeth Holford comes to the Studio Center at a time of great change, with arts organizations across the country scrambling to survive the Covid-19 pandemic and respond to the movement for racial justice. Luckily for the Studio Center, Elyzabeth has quite a track record with change.
Elyzabeth has spent her life in pursuit of justice and inclusion, and won. As a trial attorney in Ohio, she fought for equal opportunity and affirmative action. As the executive director of Equality Ohio, she worked across 88 counties to win marriage equality for the swing state in 2015. In Denmark, as the founding senior executive of the Digital Living Research Commons, she helped artists, businesspeople, researchers, families, and more explore and interrogate what it means to live in a digital culture—a subject that only grows more pressing.
When we spoke by phone in late July, Elyzabeth was about halfway through the quarantine required of her—she had arrived in Johnson from Washington, D.C., and not long before that San Antonio, and not long before that Seattle. Over the phone, she gave the impression of a thoughtful traveler: curious, prepared, hospitable. She had researched me, too, and come with questions about my art. As we spoke, I could picture her at work, speaking with Studio Center residents over dinner, making them feel at home. Herself a musician and poet, I invited her to share something of her own. She chose the following, a haiku she wrote about a photographer, which I felt someone could have written about her:
In Plain Sight
Focusing her lens,
she can see something in me
that no one else can.—Elyzabeth Holford
This interview is a transcript of a conversation conducted via telephone between Elyzabeth Holford and Desmond Peeples. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Desmond Peeples: This is a very interesting time to take the lead of an international artist residency program. What excites you about the work?
Elyzabeth Holford: What I was truly first drawn to was the really strong sense of community, not just in Vermont, but specifically here at the Studio Center. And then, frankly, I was drawn to the commitment to finding and keeping a space for artists, and not just visual artists, but artists and writers and creatives together. I think there’s no more important time than right now for artists to have the space to develop work. We need those voices, and usually in any kind of crisis, these are some of the first voices that we lose.
Part of the draw of Vermont, and the Vermont Studio Center in particular, is the ability to have alone space and still a sense of community if and when you want it, while you concentrate solely on your work—and sometimes on finding your voice, sometimes perfecting your voice, sometimes finding a new direction for your voice. So, preserving the space for creativity and a sense of community for artists to grow and for creatives to be together, to work alone when they want to, to focus—that excites me, that draws me here.
Desmond: You are an artist as well. I’m told you’re a musician and poet, and I snuck on your Twitter and saw that you write haiku. I was wondering if you could speak a bit about your identity and practice as an artist?
Elyzabeth: Nobody’s asked me that because most people want to know how I do my work with organizations, and I think there’s some similarity there. Usually poetry comes to me more in the sense of writing songs, but haiku slip in and out of my brain, and so I share them with friends. Songs have always come to me. I’ve sung in some bands, and I’ve had some great opportunities. But I really think that I identify as an agent for change.
I think that I am on this earth to serve. I have a very curious mind, and it’s driven me to do a lot of different things in a lot of different places, but also to really to engage. I would say what drives me is a commitment to racial, social, and climate justice. I identify myself in this world as somebody aimed at being sure we are all able to be not only heard, but to be our best.
Desmond: You have a long history of activism and social justice work. Can you speak a bit about your start as a trial attorney in Ohio?
Elyzabeth: When I was in college, I was a voice and theater major. I had this interest in trying to make change, and I think a revolutionary probably would have just gone out and tried to make change. So, I don’t think I’m a revolutionary. I think I’m somebody who really wants to change the systems that we are in as best I can. I wanted to learn more about the law, so I changed my major to political science and went to law school. I did practice trial law for a while because I saw that as an avenue to change, and it is.
In the same breath, it felt like it was not enough. I’m always in search of the ways that I can have the most impact and make the most change in a way that is collaborative and co-creating with others. That’s led me to doing everything from art glassblowing to organizational development, to political activism and social change across various organizations. I’m extremely interested in all of us being able to fully bring ourselves to what we do. That is what has driven my work in organizational change, and not just with nonprofits, but with educational institutions and corporations.
Desmond: Can you speak a bit about your work in the marriage equality movement in Ohio?
Elyzabeth: I ran Equality Ohio as executive director from 2012 to 2015. It was just before the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality, and what was interesting about that time is that states were trying so many different ways to achieve equality. We started a learning and listening campaign. We went from an organization of about three people to being a statewide activist-organization with organizing work happening in all 88 counties across Ohio.
It all started as listening and learning and having the hard conversations, and out of that we grew a very strong movement. That was an exciting time, but side by side with that all across the country, we were and still are fighting for non-discrimination legislation both at the state and federal level.
So there are big steps forward, but all of us being able to fully bring ourselves to what we do every day, wherever we are, is still not a reality.
Desmond: Racial justice, social justice, climate justice. In your new role at the Vermont Studio Center, how do you see yourself continuing to participate in these different movements?
Elyzabeth: I am committed to these issues, so I bring them to whatever I do. For instance, there are things that are absolutely uplifting about what happens here at the Studio Center, and there are still things that we can lift up together. That is how I’m designed I think, with a desire to bring my best, but also to make sure we create a diverse and inclusive environment that is open to everybody.
This organization is also highly aware and committed. One of the really interesting stances that I encountered at the Studio Center, and that drew me here, is that this is an organization that knows from whence it comes. It is rooted in Vermont in a very positive way, but it is open to the world.
This is a place that strives for a diverse and inclusive sense of community. Do we run into conflicts? Absolutely. But that is part of the story of growth. If you really are open, that means you do what it takes and build reflexivity into everything. And while you do that work, you continue to stay open to actual growth and change.
We have a strong record of invitation and acceptance of so many artists from around the world. I think that speaks well. Can we do better? Will we have to change how we do that as the environment around us is changing? Absolutely. We’re examining everything around COVID-19. We are also reexamining internally to make sure that our policies, practices, and everything that we do is an invitation to create the widest, broadest, and most diverse sense of community. It’s our commitment. It’s been our commitment in the past, but my experience is that if you ever just sit back and think, “Oh, we’ve got it. Build it and they will come,” then you’re not staying astute, and you’re not really staying attuned. That’s not the attitude here.
We are in the process right now of looking at everything that we do, asking ourselves if the systems we have put in place are fair and equitable and inclusive at every level.
I think the answer for some people is like, “Oh, change things as needed.” We can change things as we find them, yes, but we can also maintain a keen awareness around self-examination and planning for the future. You can’t really be an open community if you’re not willing to continually do the work.
Desmond: In Denmark, at the Digital Living Research Commons, you worked at the intersection of art, storytelling, and digital literacy. Can you speak a bit about that work, and how those subjects might fit into the future of your work?
Elyzabeth: The digital world is a large part of our everyday lives, whether we want it to be or not, right? We could probably talk for hours about digital literacy, and the role of technology in art. Just one project that came out of the Digital Living Center was the Museum of Random Memory.
It grew out of an idea from a professor at the Center, a longtime friend of mine, Dr. Annette Markham, who initially pulled together a diverse, international group with interests bridging art, science, education, technology, and entrepreneurship. After a two-day workshop, the Museum of Random Memory was born and eventually grew into a pop-up installation that has traveled internationally. A year or two ago, we were in Montreal in the Black Box Theater at Concordia University.
Each iteration comes together differently. In one installation, we gave participants an interactive opportunity to donate memories and talk about them. Participants donated photos, or objects they’ve found, talked about what they bring up, and were recorded if they so chose. These memories could be digitally donated to the “museum,” which was actually an online space. Participants then had the choice of, “Do you want to erase it? Or do you want it to stay there?” A whole conversation would ensue, often evolving around how we store things, who has our information, and who has access to our information. We store so many things digitally now, and many of us have no idea who or how many people have access to our information.
I’m not even talking about secure or preferably secure information. Photos, literature, things we’ve created. At one installation of the Museum, we asked people how many photos they had on their phone, and then we had them try to trace where all those photos were. For some people, it was stunning and sort of horrible.
That was just a small part of one of our installations, but all of us felt the pinch of it. Even people who considered themselves pretty tech savvy found themselves framing their digital lives, as well as their devices, a little bit differently.
Desmond: An important topic for artists right now, particularly during this pandemic. Everybody’s trying to grapple with this digital pivot, and with that questions of intellectual property rights come up. What advice would you have for artists trying to make this pivot, and particularly for artists who might be resistant to it?
Elyzabeth: I don’t feel like I can advise people about tech resistance. To be an artist, you don’t have to be in the digital world. Eventually, I think we don’t necessarily always find what is a comfortable level of engagement with technology, but it is possible to find what works best for each of us. There’s such a continuum. I don’t feel comfortable with my technology usage and engagement profile all the time. And I think that what constitutes tech resistance for you might be different than what tech resistance means to me.
So, with that caveat out in front, I think that people who “choose to use” have to find what is best for them, what is most comfortable for them. Whether it’s social media platforms, web presence, or any of the many different opportunities, all of them come with their own challenges. Once you’ve found what you like, what you’re comfortable with, then also find out as much information as you can about how that works.
On specific platforms, I might think I’m talking to one audience. In fact, I’m not. Some people say, “With social media, the audience is the world.” That’s possible, but at the same time, there are digital platforms, and specific channels of platforms, that are actually quite segmented. I don’t mean that negatively, but rather I mean that you can find your market. With enough research, you may be able to find the digital platform that is not only an appealing way for others to experience your art, but also provides the best or better control for you, or the best or better subscription structure, depending on what you need. I say this with caution. We all have to do our research.
Desmond: Any residencies that are occurring now are socially distanced. How much have you participated in the planning of that? And how have they gone?
Elyzabeth: We’re very close to the end of our first Vermont Artists Week since the pandemic began. Truly, the hard, thoughtful planning was put in motion before I got here.
The staff is attuned to the idea that safety is a shared responsibility. That’s also true of the Vermont artists that are in residence here. Social distancing is a way of life for right now. This has also been my first week, and it has been refreshing to witness the respect for social distancing locally, between our residents, our staff, and the community of Johnson. Everyone is working together. I’m in quarantine on campus right now, and that was my experience coming in. This is a place that was and is well prepared, ready.
Obviously the number of residents is different to make sure we provide enough distance, and there’s a different kind of community participation than in the past. There’s still that ability to come together in groups, but it is always socially distant and always masked. And we didn’t have an Open Studio opportunity for the public. We had a socially distanced studio walk, so residents could visit each other’s studios in small, time-staggered groups. People in each group went into the studios one at a time and then came out of studio they had discussions. Then each group moved on to another studio.
At first that was something we only thought about doing, but there was clear interest—residents wanted that interaction around and about each other’s work. We’ve also had public artist talks on Zoom in which the public could participate. It’s what we do.
Desmond: Soon you won’t be cooped up in quarantine. What do you like to do in your free time?
Elyzabeth: Cooped up in quarantine or not, I would be doing what I’ve been doing every night, which is playing some guitar. The other thing that keeps me fairly sane is Tai Chi. I do that every morning. I’m also a swimmer, and I can’t swim right now because I’m indoors. So, I am excited to explore the swimming holes. I’ve lived long enough to know what makes me feel and keeps me right, keeps me leveled. And it’s art, it’s work, it’s play, a good swim, and music.