Member Spotlight: Rhea Vedro
Welcome to our brand-new Member Spotlight series, where we highlight some of the amazing work being done in ArtsBoston Member Organizations all over the Greater Boston area. Once a month, I’ll be choosing a staff member from one of our Member Orgs and chatting with them about why they do what they do and what being a part of the arts and culture community means to them. If you would like to nominate someone you know (or perhaps yourself) to be considered for a Member Spotlight in the coming months, please contact us.
This month, I had the pleasure of meeting Rhea Vedro, visual artist and Director of Community Engagement at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
As a visual artist, you work primarily with metal. I don’t think I’ve ever met a metalsmith before. What drew you to creating with metals?
As long as I can remember I have made jewelry and played with stones. I was a kid who was part of a Lapidary club and learned how to cut stones in the back of the science lab in junior high. As a teenager, my godmother in NYC used to let me use her wholesale card and buy beads and jewelry making findings from the garment district in bulk. I was blessed with a public school that actually had classes in metalsmithing. I continued to take metals classes in undergrad at NYU and had a small illegal set-up for soldering in my Brooklyn apartment. I graduated with a BA in Community-Based Arts and Youth Program Design and focused on arts as a tool for social justice, and worked through my 20’s as a consultant and teaching artist for different arts organizations in New York City, Oakland, Brazil, and Mexico.
To me, metal serves as a lens through which we can view the history of humanity.
I love the idea that my making is my connection to all blacksmiths through time.
I eventually felt that I needed to carve out and dedicate serious time and resources to my own practice as an artist. At 27, I was accepted into a competitive MFA program in Metals from the State University of New York at New Paltz. There I studied fine metals and was introduced to tool making and my true love, steel. Metal has always been my medium of choice. I studied under a master muralist Juana Alicia in Oakland, CA and I find that drawing is still my first step in starting a new project, but I crave the dimensionality, weight and undeniable materiality of metal.
To me, metal serves as a lens through which we can view the history of humanity. This could be said about many materials…paper, spices, clay, glass…but I am drawn to metals. I love the idea that my making is my connection to all blacksmiths through time.
How did the peregrine, both the falcon and the concept of being from another place, take center stage in your canon of work?
I have been exploring similar themes over the last few years, and I am still discovering new work I want to make within the “Peregrine”.
My work right now deals with the themes of transport systems, mystical birds and other symbols of movement and transition between worlds or emotional spaces. Vessels, animals, portals and ships to move us from one space to another: depression to light, trapped to free, life to death, pain to release, physical to spiritual.
I study bird skeletons, feather patterns, Viking ships, armor, mythical birds and deities like Horus, Lilith, and Ishtar, early cave art.
Metal has these amazing real and imagined lineages you can trace. We mark time and myth by how humanity has co-evolved with our metal technologies and our mythos — the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, The Iron Age. You can trace the stories of any of these formats and study history — the rise, the fall, trade routes and dissemination of culture across time.
What does it mean for you as a sculptor to work inside the historic Gardner Museum? Do you draw inspiration from the collection there?
My work at the Gardner is an amazing opportunity to collaborate with the local Boston community and learn about the creative landscape of the city. My job is to develop programming for the Museum that is born from cultivating mutually beneficial relationships with local culture-makers. I work to bring the community to the Museum and to bring the Museum outside of its walls and into the surrounding neighborhoods. Coming out of my past work grounded in community centers, public schools, non-profits, and prisons, it’s amazing for me to be working in a cultural institution with such beauty and resources, and to be charged with the responsibility and honor to leverage the resources of the Museum to highlight the great work happening in Boston.
I work to bring the community to the Museum and to bring the Museum outside of its walls and into the surrounding neighborhoods.
I am so inspired personally as a maker every day by the amazing stonework and craftsmanship in the art and objects in the historic collection. I think about what art endures time and the untold stories of the master craftspeople whose hands shaped the masterpieces at the Gardner and how for me the Museum’s sculpture possesses a resonance and presence that goes beyond its physical form.
Recently, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has been in the headlines with new partnerships that draw in other art genres. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day I was able to experience a Danza Organica show with poetry, a jazz trio, and a performative solo show. What has your role been in expanding ISGM’s audience base at this event and others, as well as the types of art patrons, can experience there?
That’s so great that you came undercover!
The Gardner is home to one of the world’s best Renaissance and historical art collections, and home to internationally recognized conservators, educators, and curators. I am interested in this framing of the Gardner as a place visitors come to experience the “best” as a jumping off point. I invite top artists in our local communities, to collaborate and co-produce events.
It’s important for any cultural institution that has community engagement staff to be working on making the organization part of the neighborhood, part of the geographic and cultural landscapes they’re in. A lot of my focus is on this hyper-local idea, reaching out in a 45-minute walking perimeter around the Museum to local arts and community leaders.
It’s a very exciting job. We pay our collaborators, and that’s a consistent direct financial investment in the local arts ecosystem. Much of my role is in producing free days like Dr. MLK Jr. Day of Service where you have this very busy, public-facing programming bringing the museum to life through performance, dance, panels, art-making and spoken word, healing arts and more. In the summer, we utilize the outside of our building too. We want to offer people a multi-sensory, fun, and thought-provoking experience. The museum is such an amazing and quirky place, in the sense that it plays so much with the ideas of the past made present in unexpected ways.
What has been your most rewarding moment as a community builder in the arts, and how did it impact you?
It’s so hard to pick one moment. My first work in community-based arts was in the 90’s, when I founded an international teaching artists collective in New York City, AYE International, which stood for Artist Youth Educators International. We were all young teaching artists just starting out. We were videographers, musicians, dancers, theatre people, metalsmiths, etc. We pooled our resources to help each other: “oh, you need someone to film this show” or “oh, you’re looking for a visual arts teacher?” And that community foundation was a really special way to begin my career.
One of the projects we did with AYE International that really informed my thinking was the “Auntie & Grandma Caretaker Celebration”. One of the members of AYE worked with Hour Children, which serves kids whose mothers are incarcerated. The children are often taken care of by their grandmothers and their aunts, who are really unsung heroes. We were able to collaboratively put on this beautiful pampering day in the Bronx at a community center called The Point, where we honored these caretakers with spa services, food, music, dinner, and a ceremony and art projects from the kids. Public Allies and The Body Shop were involved, Reiki, hand massage, tarot, and pedicures. We worked with the mothers to send letters of appreciation to the caretakers, which were presented to them that night. It took us months to put together — and tons of people pitched in. That event that really set the tone for my work moving forward. I saw that if people rallied together to help, the experience itself could be transformative for all of us.
Fast-forward many years. Here at the Gardner when I started just under two years ago, I wanted to form a community advisory board but using a different model, something more fun, living, and specifically Gardner-esque.
What I came up with is called the Neighborhood Salon. For the last two years, we invited nine “Luminaries” from the community that we identify as the best of Boston’s up-and-coming artists. So dancers, theatre and visual artists, curators. This year, we have a chef and a healing artist, too. I brought on Shea Rose, a musician and music curator at the Gardner, as a consultant to help identify Luminaries and co-facilitate the gatherings. The Neighborhood Salon comes together quarterly at the Gardner as their own artist collective, much like the one that launched me. They share work and feedback with each other and inform our programming. Sometimes, it’s simply “we want to put a performance in this space on this day – what do you want to do?” And sometimes it’s much more in-depth, “let’s co-produce an event together.” Or “how can we support this project that you’re doing?”
Isabella Stewart Gardner hosted salons back in her day. She had the best writers, dancers, musicians, and artists gather at the Museum in the early 1900’s. I see Neighborhood Salon as both a continuation of my previous work and of Gardner’s. I have an abundance of resources to leverage here, and that’s a big responsibility and honor.
What’s coming up next at the Gardner that you are specifically excited about?
So much! On President’s Day we have some really fun programming for all ages. We are featuring Neighborhood Salon Luminary Josh Knowles solo album release performance in the historic courtyard, performances in Calderwood Hall with the high school BLA Step & Stroll Squad, the Gregory Groover, Jr. Jazz Trio, and a youth design-centered NuVu Studios. It’s a super family-friendly, fun day.
I’m also excited about the summer. We have three free Neighborhood Nights, June 28th, July 12th, and the last one on August 9th, which features our second annual Block Party. It’s kind of like Martin Luther King, Jr. Day expanded into the street — we’ll have fun music, art making, movement workshops, stilt dancers, food trucks, and more. As part of the summer series we’ve commissioned one of our Neighborhood Salon Luminaries, Marsha Parrilla of Danza Orgánica, to create an original dance piece for Calderwood Hall in response to our special exhibition Life, Death & Revelry. It is such an honor to be part of so much creative synergy.