Fountainhead Fellowships draw talent to school

“My current work merges craft with objects of violence and control to examine large structures of power and how they might be interrupted by ways of making that are often labeled as gendered, amateur, and low. By hand-weaving razor wire fences that have been ensconced with yarn knitted on children’s toy knitting machines and morphing seminal craft tools like spinning wheels into cyborg like creatures, notions of what it means to ‘master’ are thrown into question.”

That’s how artist Lacy Jane Roberts describes her work on her website.

Now, students in Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts Department of Craft and Material Studies have the chance to learn from Roberts, one of two Fountainhead Fellows spending this academic year in Richmond, Va.

The concept of the Fountainhead Fellowships was born in 2005, when Tom Papa, president of Fountainhead Development LLC, approached the late Gerald Donato, then professor emeritus in the Department of Painting and Printmaking, about devising a way to help support that department and bring in new talent.

Fountainhead Fellowships provide artists the opportunity to gain valuable teaching experience while they continue their studio practice and participate in Richmond’s arts community.

“VCU has such inspiring, bright people, and we consider it a cross-pollination opportunity to get the best and brightest in one spot,” Papa said.

Last year, Sonya Clark, chair of the Department of Craft and Material Studies, collaborated with members of the Richmond arts community and a private foundation to facilitate the department’s inclusion in the Fountainhead Fellowships, which were already in place in the Department of Painting and Printmaking and the Department of Sculpture and Extended Media. The department needed outside assistance as budget cuts had made the cost of placing fellows into adjunct teaching positions too great, Clark said.

The foundation made a $150,000 anonymous gift to support 10 fellows over five years in the crafts department. Funds are divided into $15,000 stipends for living expenses per fellow over the course of each academic year.

For the department, the program brings two of the strongest recent national Master of Fine Arts graduates to campus for an academic year, Clark said.

The 2010-11 Fountainhead Fellowships were awarded to Roberts and Andréa Keys Connell.

“This fellowship allows the VCU School of the Arts to support the studio practice and developing teaching careers of two dynamic emerging craft artists while enriching the learning experience for undergraduate students,” Clark said.

Fountainhead Development continues to support the fellows by committing two apartments in its newest complex, New Manchester Flats. Papa and his partner, Rick Gregory, also included private studio spaces for each fellow at Plant Zero Art Center in Richmond, in addition to their on-campus studios, where fellows have a communal-style studio space that is open and accessible to students.

Connell took a leave of absence from her post as head of ceramics in the Art Department at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., where she teaches ceramics along with 2-D and 3-D sculpture. Last semester at VCU, she taught a senior critique class and advanced hand building.

Connell said she has already gained a wealth of experience from teaching advanced classes.

“I try to interact with students on a daily basis and go to their studios and critiques and really be a part of their work,” she said. “This opportunity is great preparation for my teaching career and also gives me the ability to focus in the studio.”

Connell’s VCU studio space is next to Mary Elkins, a second-year graduate student in the clay section of craft and material studies. Having Connell nearby has been especially fortunate, Elkins said.

“When I’m trying to figure out which colors to use, she is right there to offer her opinion, which is great to have when you’re right there in your studio working,” she said.

Before coming to Richmond, Roberts taught resident workshops in the New York foster-care system for the nonprofit organization Leake and Watts Services Inc. and completed residencies at The MacDowell Colony and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.

At VCU, she teaches a graduate-level seminar in craft studies theory and introduction to textiles.

“I love being here at VCU –– it’s an amazing opportunity,” Roberts said. “I appreciate the wide spectrum of teaching here.”

Page Bond Gallery will feature the fellows’ solo exhibits, and a collaborative show will follow at Quirk Gallery in the summer. Both fellows will also present a public lecture about their work.

“Attracting talented craft artists to teaching positions requires a competitive level of support greater than the university is able to offer given current state budget constraints,” Clark said. “This program would not have been possible without the generosity of the local arts community and our anonymous donor.”

To make a gift to the School of Arts, contact Tom Burke (B.S. ’79, M.P.A. ’95), executive director of the VCU Foundation, at (804) 828-3958 or