Art Fellows: Four Artists Embark on a Two-Year Program with Headlands Center for the Arts

Out in scenic West Marin, Headlands Center for the Arts is a longtime getaway for artists who mainly take part in residency programs.

Now, the center is extending its reach throughout the art community in a new initiative, the Bay Area Fellowship, that supports four Bay Area artists through a two-year experience tailored to the individual artist’s needs.

The four Svane Family Foundation Inaugural Artists selected for the Bay Area Fellowship are multidisciplinary artist Arleene Correa Valencia; project-based visual artist Torreya Cummings; poet, performer, educator, fashion designer and playwright Yvonne Onakeme Etaghene; and performance maker, choreographer and director Erika Chong Shuch.

“We are thrilled to welcome Arleene, Erika, Torreya, and Yvonne into the Headlands community, and cannot wait to see how the power and vibrance of their creative practices manifest over the next two years,” Mari Robles, executive director of Headlands Center for the Arts, says in a statement.

The Bay Area Fellowship departs from the center’s traditional residency model by engaging each artist as a full collaborator in the process of developing their individual fellowship.

In addition to providing access to Headlands resources such as studios, meeting spaces and staff expertise, the fellowship includes an annual stipend of $20,000, additional financial resources to cover the tax burden of that stipend, health insurance, project development and fabrication, and travel. The total value of the fellowship over both years is approximately $85,000.

All four of the inaugural Bay Area Fellows will use the fellowship to see their wildest art dreams come true and to bolster the Bay Area arts community.

Arleene Correa Valencia came to Napa Valley from Mexico when she was three years old. Still undocumented after 25 years, she graduated from California College of the Arts in San Francisco and uses her art to investigate concepts of cultural visibility, migration and her own position in this country.

“The work explores figure paintings or figurative textiles in an attempt to make certain bodies visible while making other bodies invisible,” Valencia says. “The social practice component of my work in the same way highlights the visibility of agricultural workers or laborers who participate in industries heavily composed of undocumented people.”

That social-engagement work ranges from art events to campaigns encouraging people to sign up for the census, though it always attempts to make a social impact. Valencia considers herself in a specific realm of the art world by talking about migration and identity from first-hand experience, and she appreciates being supported in her work beyond being tokenized for being undocumented.

“I felt like Headlands had a place for me where they could be supportive in the ways I need support,” she says of the Fellowship.

Valencia is also excited to be able to work with people in the Bay Area, given the fact that her work is celebrated more on the East Coast than in San Francisco.

“I’m always making an attempt to stay local, since I am from Napa Valley, and my family is still there,” she says. “It’s nice to be embraced in that way with Headlands.”

In fact, Valencia calls the center’s support “monumental” in terms of being able to advance her practice. Moving forward, she wants to translate her visible/invisible textiles into sculptures that could be placed along the border.

Valencia says these sculptures are the wildest thing she’s ever thought of, and she has no idea how to make them, but she knows this fellowship can help her realize that vision.

“I do feel like there’s a huge emphasis on having a built-in community [at HCA] to be able to have conversations with or to connect with,” Valencia says. “It definitely feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Valencia also hopes the Fellowship will allow her to work more on her recent research around fire ecology and the ways in which agricultural workers in Napa Valley are being affected by climate change.

“That’s another area I hope to focus on more in depth over the next two years,” she says. “Being able to document more exactly what is going on and share that with people, whether it is through some social practice event or through art work.”

East Bay visual artist Torreya Cummings works with ideas of space, place and time, particularly around unlearning dominant narratives of the American West.

“I started history in undergrad, and eventually got to the point where I was interested in these stories and this research,” Cummings says. “But I wanted to think about how that intersects with fiction and how we understand history, especially in America and especially in the West.”

The California native creates solo exhibits that reveal the vast differences between the real West and the fictionalized version presented in pop culture.

“I work in a variety of media these days, video and installation, but I also work in photography and drawing,” Cummings says. “I do a lot of research around a particular topic; I follow my curiosity and then the work comes out of that.”

This process of research and development can be a long one, and Cummings notes that the two-year length of the Bay Area Fellowship is a rare chance to take that needed time.

“The traditional residency model where you go there, you stay there and you bang out a bunch of work, that’s not how I work,” Cummings says. “So this was a really fantastic opportunity to dig into some long-term projects.”

Cummings already has a major installation show planned for next fall and is in the research phase of that show.

“It’s loosely about water rights in the Central Valley, but it’s also a little bit secretly autobiographical, and it’s thinking about broader issues of home and returning, and how do you access places that you can’t access anymore,” Cummings says. “I have my work cut out for me on that one, so it’s nice to have a studio space out there [at HCA].”

Beyond the space and the funding, Cummings also notes that the overall support shown towards the four artists is simply not something that happens often in the art world.

“You can be an emerging artist for 20 years, so it’s nice to be at a point where [HCA says], ‘We have confidence in your work, here are some resources, how can we help you?’ They really want to support what we do, I’m grateful for that.”

Bay Area–native Erika Chong Shuch is interested in expanding the way performance is created and shared. Her main focus for the past several years is the performance group For You, which she co-founded and which brings strangers together for intimate participatory performances.

In 2020, as a response to Covid-19, For You launched the now ongoing project Artists & Elders, bringing those two groups together to combat isolation through shared creative exchanges.

Shuch first spent time at the Headlands Center for the Arts as part of the artist residency program circa 2006–2007.

“I was granted a three-month residency, but I ended up staying a month longer,” she says. “I love working there. As a performance maker so much of my process is being in a social space, and I rarely have the chance to dip into my imagination and feel where my own impulses are taking me. I love working with groups of people, but I find it so rejuvenating to have that alone time in that beautiful landscape and that beautiful community. Any excuse I have to be at and with the Headlands, I’ll jump on that.”

Shuch—who spent half of her time before the pandemic on the road choreographing for regional theaters around the country—says this fellowship will allow her to root herself in her own work without worrying about traveling to make ends meet.

“I’m from the Bay Area, and I think that for many artists from the Bay, we’ve witnessed so much displacement, we can’t afford to live in the houses we grew up in,” she says. “It’s particularly meaningful to feel like there is some sort of resource to help keep us here and maintain the vibrant, radical spirit of the Bay Area. And giving us this opportunity without a high demand for a specific kind of output is an incredible gift.”

For the two-year Fellowship, Shuch plans to produce more work with For You’s Artists & Elders program, now that in-person gatherings are coming back.

“We’re thinking about a series of projects called ‘The Welcoming,’ putting ourselves into the hands of the elders we’ve been working with over the course of the pandemic and designing a series of live, performative rituals to welcome us all back into shared spaces together,” Shuch says.

She is already working on the first of these events, scheduled for Dec. 12 at the new KQED headquarters in San Francisco. In addition to this series, Shuch wants to create something specific to the fellowship’s ideals of engaging more with the community and with Bay Area artists.

“So many Bay Area artists are in the moment of reconsidering the role of art, and so much has changed in the world in the last two years,” Shuch says. “I would like to design some sort of creative, I don’t know, get-together? So that we have some space to talk about new paths and how we’re all going to band together to move forward.”

Get more info about the Bay Area Fellowship at Headlands.org.
Charlie Swanson
Charlie Swanson is a North Bay native and an arts and music writer and editor who has covered the local scene since 2014.
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