Creative Connections

The ways in which Memphis and Rhodes intertwine are especially evident in the arts. Memphis is a place where artists can thrive, and Rhodes students are connected in meaningful ways to arts organizations all over the city.

Rhodes’ art, music, and theater faculty find the deep pool of talent in Memphis enriching not only to their classrooms, but in many cases to their own work. Alumni making their careers in the local arts are grateful for the support they find both on and off campus. “The focus of art has shifted from being inward and institutional to outward—art is in the hands of our neighborhoods and communities,” says Lauren Boyer ’07, the media and marketing manager of ArtsMemphis. 

“More than ever, the arts are used as a tool to create social change, and that fits in very well with the Rhodes point of view.”

The Sound of Music

There is no shortage of opportunities at Rhodes to impact the musical arts in Memphis: jazz performances at Café Eclectic, annual choral concerts at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, blues gigs at the Levitt Shell—to name just a few. And Memphis impacts the arts at Rhodes in countless, profound ways as well, says alumna Phoebe Driscoll ’15. “Driving down Summer Avenue shows me the sidewalks where world-famous photographer William Eggleston honed his take on the Memphis aesthetic,” she says. “My junior year of college, a friend and I invited legendary blues musician Bobby Rush to our tiny college radio studio, where he played some tracks and shot the breeze with us for over an hour. That just doesn’t happen at every school.”

Dr. William Skoog, chair of the Department of Music, tends to agree: “Memphis is a part of the choice to come to Rhodes. It is a unique urban area and we are fortunate that so many artists in and from Memphis are willing and glad to share their resources and talents with our students.”

    A 2013 Mike Curb Institute of Music fellow, Driscoll admits she may be biased but feels the best example of how Rhodes and Memphis intertwine musically is through the Mike Curb Institute. Molly Whitehorn ’15 agrees: “Curb offers great opportunities to produce and perform great music, as well as see all aspects of the music industry.”

The focus of art has shifted from being inward and institutional to outward—art is in the hands of our neighborhoods and communities.—Lauren Boyer ’07, ArtsMemphis. 

Through the Curb auspices, Whitehorn gained internships with four prestigious Memphis music institutions during her time at Rhodes, but closest to her heart is the institute’s student-produced house concert series, An Evening at Elvis’. Cofounded by Whitehorn and Curb Director Dr. John Bass, the program allows students to create and film intimate concerts at the Memphis home that Elvis Presley purchased in 1956 from proceeds of his first huge hit record, “Heartbreak Hotel.”

One of Whitehorn’s favorite memories of An Evening at Elvis’ is the very first show featuring Star and Micey. Produced and filmed with no outside professional help, the show was probably the least aesthetically pleasing of all the productions, she says—but the excitement in the room was palpable. “I knew then that it was going to be something special, so that show has a special place in my heart. I’m amazed and pleased at how the series has grown and developed since then!”

Being a part of the experience was a central highlight of Driscoll’s time at Rhodes, also. “It provided one of the most surreal moments of my college career—filming Rosanne Cash (Johnny Cash’s daughter) as she played her guitar in Elvis Presley’s living room and talked about the importance of the place!” she says. “Through the CurbInstitute, students are able to foster a creative space where new music meets rich history.”

Located at 1034 Audubon Drive, Elvis’ first Memphis home provides an ideal spot for guest artists to perform and discuss their careers, especially in the context of the Memphis region.

“It’s a wonderful chance to activate young creativity,” says Bass. “The students learn to do everything—interview the artists, handle marketing and public relations, work the sound boards, and work with community partners.”

Ashley Dill ’17 is the current Rhodes Student Associate for the institute; she is responsible for booking bands, marketing, budgeting, managing student teams, and interviewing the artists. A native of Texas, Dill was drawn to Rhodes for the amazing opportunities it offers: “I wanted to play lacrosse, sing, get involved in service, intern, and live in a place that has culture and music! I’m not sure how many other colleges can boast of all these assets like Rhodes can.”

An urban studies major with a minor in music, Dill has performed and traveled with Rhodes Singers, as well as with a cappella groups from different parts of the country. “The simple fact that Mike Curb chose to put a Curb Institute at Rhodes was the cherry on top of it all,” she says. “The institute at Rhodes not only encourages those involved to understand the musical traditions of the South through preservation and research, but it also encourages students to think creatively for projects both at the college and in the professional world.”

The Play’s the Thing

In Cookie Ewing’s Children’s Lit: Page to Stage class, the play is the thing to catch the imagination of students from Humes Preparatory Academy. Inspired by performing artist Jazzy Miller ’08 and in collaboration with Crosstown Arts’ Story Booth, the class works with sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students in a weekly afterschool workshop. 

To apply for the workshop, Humes students were encouraged to write statements on why they wanted to participate. In fall 2015 seven Rhodes classmates mentored the 17 selected students, leading them in theater games, script writing, acting skills, and more. The class continued in spring 2016.

“We got very close to the kids,” says Lydia Podowitz ’19. “As they grew more comfortable with us, we were able to ask them more ‘thinky’ kinds of questions to get them to open up to us.”

Classmate Alexis Milligan ’19 says she found the experience rewarding as well as eye opening. “I really didn’t realize how smart, thoughtful, and complex the kids were going to be! I really enjoyed encouraging their unique artistic expressions.” 

The final result? I Am Who I Say, and I Say Who I Am, the premiere performance of the Super Actors of Humes Preparatory Academy! The Super Actors chose their own name, determined the rules for the class, and developed a great relationship with the Rhodes students, Ewing says.

The script for the play used the material gained from the workshops on identity, how the world perceives a person, and how that person perceives his or her own identity. With scenes such as “Sadness,” “Anger,” and “Happiness,” the young playwrights and performers were able to creatively communicate how they felt about themselves and others.

Classmate Brittany Threatt ’17 is a double major in English literature and theater, with a minor in Africana studies. She’s also an intern for Hattiloo Theatre, so she has a lot on her plate—sleep is a thing of the past, she says. “I took Children’s Lit because it is a requirement for theater majors, but it turned out to be so much more. It was a very happy experience.”

Internships and fellowships are another great example of how Rhodes contributes to Memphis in the arts—and how Rhodes students can learn as much as they teach. Clare Edgar ’19, Maddie Carwile ’16, and Isabel Wittman ’17 participated in a fellowship program that collaborated with Theatre Memphis on a drama class for students at Central High School.

“This project is truly unique in its nature,” Wittman says. “It really allows us to leave the ‘Rhodes bubble’ and spend time with the youth of Memphis, giving us a glimpse into lives that are very different from our own.”

The three originally planned to be facilitators in the classroom, guiding and encouraging discussions. They quickly found, however, that their students wanted more from them. “They wanted us to be as much a part of the experience as they were. In the end, we acted alongside our students, which I think really contributed to their feelings of safety around these three Rhodes students,” Wittman says. “It was difficult to gain their trust, but once we all took a step back and just let them tell their stories and also let them into our lives, a really beautiful relationship formed between us and the students that contributed to some really powerful theatrical pieces.”

The troupe debuted original performances on gender, race, and violence at Rhodes in December 2015.

A Canvas to Our Imagination 

“Memphis punches above its weight in the fine arts,” says Dr. David McCarthy, professor of art history. “With all the challenges the city faces, we have an amazing, thriving arts scene that we take pride in.” 

From inside our gates with the Clough-Hanson Gallery and innovative art classes, to outside exhibits at dynamic new spaces such as Crosstown Arts, Rhodes is making its mark on the visual arts of Memphis. In turn, the city has a definite impact on Rhodes, says alumnus Johnathan Payne ’12. 

“In studio art courses at Rhodes, it’s generally a requirement for students to attend at least three off-campus exhibitions,” he says. “The art department values exploration, and they push students to go see art. There are opportunities to intern at arts organizations, assist professional artists, and show work in the city. I took advantage of these opportunities as a student and it ultimately helped me build relationships and grow personally.”

Payne also tapped into the arts community through Material, one of the first home galleries in Memphis. Material was an alternative art space created by Hamlett Dobbins, then-director of the Clough-Hanson Gallery. The home gallery movement has grown and expanded ever since.

Lauren Kennedy ’08 established her home gallery Southfork-Memphis in October 2012 as an alternative space for art, conversation, and whiskey drinking, according to the Southfork website. 

“I started Southfork as a way to stay engaged in contemporary visual art while I was working for Ballet Memphis,” says Kennedy, who is now the executive director of the UrbanArt Commission. “It was also a good excuse to invite my artist friends to Memphis. A lot of the work shown at Southfork has been from out-of-town folks who piled art in their cars and came to stay with me for a weekend. I like getting interesting people here and showing them how lovely and weird and warm this city is.” 

Joel Parsons’07, the current director of the Clough-Hanson Gallery and art faculty member, created his apartment gallery Beige around the same time Kennedy created hers. Both spaces grew organically out of a desire to integrate art into the rest of life as much as possible, including living with it and socializing around it, he says. 

“It’s easy to look at Memphis and complain about what we don’t have in comparison to other cities, but it’s also not very difficult to step into that gap and do something about it,” he says. “I didn’t see much work by queer artists in Memphis, so I started Beige, which is devoted to queer art and performance. And people have responded in really positive ways.”

“Removing the commercial element that usually drives successful gallery spaces is very liberating,” says Kennedy. Artists have the opportunity to play with a concept in a low-pressure, inviting, and comfortable space. 

In addition, home galleries are nimble. “The gallery can shift and change as the conversation changes, which is one of the benefits of these apartment galleries—they can fit into your life in various ways depending on what your needs are and what the needs of the community are,” says Parsons.

Payne says it is like going to a house party and appreciated the intimate and creative environment when he exhibited at Beige in spring 2014. “Joel had acquired a vintage cigarette vending machine and we filled it with small prints of my drawings and collages, along with fake celebrity autographed honey buns, among other odd accoutrement. It was a fun element to the show. That is the magic of the home gallery—you can do whatever the owner is willing to do!”

Whether it is visual, performing, or musical, the arts are thriving both on campus and off—and Rhodes faculty, students, and alumni are a vital part of the rich artistic tapestry that Rhodes and Memphis are weaving together.