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Arts Toolkit

Arts Toolkit: Visual

Kentuckians in Visual Arts

Artisan Center Information Specialist Gwen Heffner
Berea, Kentucky

Who Gwen Heffner has always been interested in art and the natural world. Having many diverse interests, she spent hours of her childhood making drawings of her horses and rural surroundings or creating things from found objects. Her college career initially focused on biology and veterinary science, but she changed to art after taking a class in painting. She received a BFA in printmaking and ceramics from Luther College in Iowa, then moved to Minneapolis to work in a production pottery to decide whether she could manage pots as a full-time career. She moved to Kentucky to accept a graduate assistantship with Tom Marsh at the University of Louisville, where she received her MA degree in ceramics. After graduate school, Heffner worked as a graphic designer and as an artist-in-residence for the Kentucky Arts Council, saving money to set up her studio. After finally settling and building a studio on Pen Gap Farm, outside Irvine, she began a full-time career selling her pottery at American Craft Council wholesale shows and retail shows around the country. In 1992, she opened Contemporary Artifacts Gallery in Berea, Kentucky. Setting up a throwing studio within the gallery, she sold her work in the gallery along with that of more than 80 other artists from around the country.

As a gallery owner, Heffner also began to develop her skills as a promoter and curator of exhibitions, putting together works from nationally recognized or sometimes unknown artists. “I love to showcase works that are either ignored by the arts community or have never been gathered together and exhibited,” she says. “Curating exhibitions is a very creative process that I really love because it pulls together all my accumulated knowledge and resources.

“I have recently noticed that my career is beginning to come full circle. I am asked to jury the same shows where I once retailed my own work, and I am asked to give lectures on porcelain, marketing, promotion, and all the other aspects of life one must master when making a living as an artist.”

After 13 years, Heffner sold her gallery and began working at the Kentucky Artisan Center as its information specialist and resource coordinator, lending her experiences as a professional artist, regional arts educator, and exhibition director to the job of promoting Kentucky artists. She has three main responsibilities: PR, programming, and curating exhibitions.

What “I have always been interested in developing my personal knowledge from as many different sources as possible. In this job I deal with all kinds of information, and my promotional skills, curatorial skills, and knowledge of the arts and artisans of the state are all brought into play. I handle the center’s PR, which means I do a lot of writing. (It’s a good thing I minored in English!) My job includes writing and distributing press releases, putting together press kits for writers, documenting and archiving photos of artisans, writing exhibition promotional materials, and writing and distributing our quarterly e-newsletter.

“I also direct the center’s artisan programming, which includes booking two weekly demonstrating artists as well as special events such as book signings, food tastings, musical performances, and readings. Demonstrating artists on site bring the creative process to life for visitors here at the center, and it is a natural way to promote and educate visitors about Kentucky and its artisans.

“As the center’s curator, I put together three to four major exhibitions per year in the center’s main gallery. I also create and install about three to four exhibits in the center’s lobby. Basically I try to keep a finger on the pulse of what hasn’t been seen from Kentucky’s large pool of talent.” [The center currently handles works from more than 650 artisans and vendors.]

“I keep a personal connection with artists and vendors throughout Kentucky and build on these relationships—I learned a long time ago that the world is all about relationships. I work with our sales staff to teach them sales techniques and people skills and give them information about the artists whose work we sell. It is the center’s goal to have all our staff be knowledgeable and, above all, helpful when it comes to sales and information about the exhibits, cultural heritage sites, travel information, and the artists whose works are sold and on display here. I have put together an art and craft compendium for staff that covers history, tools, terms, techniques, and general information about each medium so that they can learn and be knowledgeable about the work here.”

When “The Kentucky Artisan Center is open from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm every day of the week, but I spend a lot of extra hours on my own developing ideas for exhibitions at the center.”

How “Keeping up with the paperwork I deal with on a regular basis can sometimes become overwhelming. It is often difficult to balance the three areas I am responsible for, and I find it is getting harder to stay abreast of what is going on in the wider world of art and fine craft. To compensate, I try to get out into other parts of the state and beyond and network with my peers in other states as well as with regional arts organizations. I guess I have always been curious as well as being an information gatherer and sharer—so this job is a natural fit for me.”

Why “For me, the most rewarding aspect of this job is when an exhibition is a success—when the promotional effort matches the quality and spirit of the artwork and attracts the attention of the people viewing it. I love it when all of these elements come together with a great result. I’ve found that if you really believe in someone’s work, it is quite easy to promote it—tell others about it and sell it. It is also rewarding to teach staff about the works and artists we represent, then watch them make that connection with a customer buying the work. Putting the artist, object, creative process, and buyer together in a personal and knowledgeable way is absolutely wonderful.

“I have always believed that the person behind the work is the really important thing we get when we purchase and live with art and craft. It’s the best kind of human connection—and one that is maybe needed more than ever. Our weekly demonstrations give that connection as well, allowing staff and the public a clear view of many different artistic processes.”

Getting There “One of the most difficult things I had to do was write my master’s thesis, because I didn’t yet have the skills to analyze myself from the inside out. But I realized how easy it was when I started asking questions like ‘Why?’ and ‘What if?” to every new work. The skill of self-critique and examination is often overlooked in academia, but it is essential for your development as an artist throughout your entire life. Asking yourself questions about your work and why you do it helps you discover the personal connections and bridges that clarify why you do what you do—and it opens creative doors.

“You have to work hard at getting good, and you need to really love what you are doing, or it’s all just a sham or about ego. It doesn’t happen overnight, and only time and practice will allow you to get good at what you do. I have always worked in a series, and that has fed my porcelain work. I often tell people not to ask their art to earn their living too soon. If you avoid this pressure and diversify the way you receive income, both things will develop much more healthily.

“Looking back, I have been a student of art most of my life. By making a living as a producing potter all those years, then being a gallery owner and promoter, I have the benefit of having a perspective from both sides of the fence. This, I believe, keeps my view balanced and sympathetic to the artist, yet practical from a sales angle.

“For me, the more you can learn about art in general, the better equipped you will be to build the kind of professional perspective you need to handle artists and their work and present it to the public. See as much firsthand art as possible: Go to exhibits, read, meet and talk to artists, ask questions, apprentice with an artist whose work you admire, visit museums, and keep your curiosity sharp and eyes open so that your artistic progress and learning never end.”

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