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Ohio Valley Center for Collaborative Arts Story

James Pepper Kelly
June 6, 2020

Where artists and resources connect 

Sam Dodd leads a discussion with students in his 30 Mile Studio course at Passion Works Studio in Athens in fall 2018.
Sam Dodd leads a discussion with students in his 30 Mile Studio course at Passion Works Studio in Athens in fall 2018. Photo courtesy of Sam Dodd

Sam Dodd, director of the newly formed Ohio Valley Center for Collaborative Arts (CoArts), started his first day on the job working with maps. His goal? To bring into focus the locations of southeast Ohio’s cultural gems: local arts groups, cultural centers, nonprofit organizations, community hubs, ecological sites, and more. After sifting through these, Dodd created his own map, a bird’s-eye view of the region speckled with markers. Each marker designated a colleague and potential partner for CoArts. 

CoArts began with a map connecting the many grassroots, governmental, and multifunctional organizations in the Ohio Valley region
CoArts began with a map connecting the many grassroots, governmental, and multifunctional organizations in the Ohio Valley region.

Founded in January 2018, CoArts’ mission is to “marshal the resources of Ohio University to create collaborations through the arts—between the College of Fine Arts and other departments, and between the University and the wider community,” Dodd says. The result is service to the public good via growth in place-based knowledge and action through creative endeavors. 

CoArts projects are ambitious yet rooted in the belief that it exists to add to, not replace, what’s already thriving in the region, says Dodd. 

“The Ohio River Valley has deep historical, cultural, and ecological resonances,” he says. “It includes aspects of Appalachia, the American Heartland, the Rustbelt, and the Midwest. It’s historically linked to Native American mounds, the Underground Railroad, ceramic communities, mining and manufacturing centers … and so much more.”

One of CoArts’ most significant projects is the 30 Mile Studio, a network of regional artists, educators, students, events, and sites that creates community-based art and design projects. The 30 Mile Studio class invites students in to realize the power of engaged citizenship, understand what it means to be citizen-artists committed to strengthening their own communities, and connects them to professionals in the arts network. The student-centered nature of the program garnered CoArts support from OHIO’s 1804 Fund that supports innovative, transdisciplinary learning. 

Athens-based Passion Works Studio, a collaborative community arts center in Athens that supports practicing professional artists with developmental differences, is one of the 30 Mile Studio collaborators. Another is the Athens area’s National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Students learned about both the operational realities of community-based projects and how to employ pedagogical flexibility when working with diverse populations, says Angela Sprunger, CoArts’ assistant director and lecturer in the School of Art + Design.

COARTS connections to community organizations
Illustration by CoArts and Marilyn Krupa

The assignment for the NAMI project tasked students with reimagining and designing the informational display in the lobby of the Appalachian Behavioral Health Center in Athens, says Sprunger. 

“The class combined social practice, graphic design, interior architecture, and more. The question we tried to answer was what is a 30 Mile informational space? How can we effectively create that space for the public?” 

Students responded by using their own graphic design, animation, and socially engaged art backgrounds to create new NAMI posters, informational animations, and NAMI social media and sticker campaigns.  

Another CoArts project called The Healthy Village is a multimedia learning initiative based on the belief that effective health care requires cross-disciplinary collaboration. Using live theater, film, narrative medicine, visual thinking strategies, and other immersive arts techniques, the Healthy Village simulates real-time problem solving, communication, and social advocacy skills. In March 2019, The Healthy Village project collaborated with graduate students studying dietetics at OHIO’s College of Health Sciences and Professions for a workshop called “Consent and Communication.” For the workshop, students explored radical listening, eco-mapping, and other patient advocacy practices through a series of interactive sessions with health care patients across the region.  

Perhaps the most high-profile project for CoArts is with the Appalachian Recovery Project (ARP), which aims to repurpose the former Hocking Correctional Facility in nearby Nelsonville, Ohio, into a place where justice-involved women suffering from addiction can get access to addiction treatment and recovery support services. Invited by the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health (OAIPH), Sprunger and Dodd, members of OHIO’s Opioid Task Force, see CoArts contributing arts programming to provide residents with psychological, aesthetic, and creative outlets. 

Clearly, CoArts opens up the full range of what the region was, is, and, with a little collaboration, could yet become.