CIA Faculty’s Community-focused Projects Have Impact in and out of the Classroom

The Cleveland Institute of Art’s world-renowned faculty are known for the difference they make in the classroom teaching and mentoring future generations of artists and designers. But their work at CIA represents only one facet of their creativity and ingenuity.

They’re also highly-accomplished working artists, and their personal practices often involve projects in which community engagement is central. Interaction, connection, and creative collaboration play prominently, and these ambitious works frequently leave a lasting impact on the participating communities.

At least two such projects are currently in the works, and though the processes for both have been slowed by the pandemic, audiences will soon be able to enjoy them.

Hitting the right notes

Amber D. Kempthorn wants to make art more accessible to communities where participation is limited due to intimidating institutional barriers.

“It’s so regrettable to me that art, which in my opinion should be the safest place for people to share their world views, often becomes a siloed space that becomes unapproachable,” she says. “People are hungry for art, and it’s a real tragedy when they feel like they can’t access it.”

One of many hand-drawn gouache-on-paper drawings by CIA faculty member Amber D. Kempthorn for the animation of Ordinary Magic: A Sunday in the Cuyahoga Valley.

Kempthorn, a lecturer for CIA’s visual arts departments, seeks to remove those barriers through Ordinary Magic: A Sunday in the Cuyahoga Valley, an animated artwork that celebrates the landscape of Akron and the Cuyahoga Valley set to composer Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes. She’s hand-drawing every asset and working with an Akron-based company to bring visual life to the music through animation.

Ordinary Magic will first be screened with live accompaniment by the Akron Symphony Orchestra at EJ Thomas Performing Arts Hall. After the rights to the music from that performance are purchased, thanks in part to a Knight Arts Challenge Grant she’s working to match, the fifteen-minute production will be screened for free in public places, like parks, where few barriers to participation exist.

“I love the idea of marrying animation, which in some communities is considered low-brow, to what people in some communities think is high-brow, and creating opportunities for people to engage and hopefully see it’s all accessible,” Kempthorn says. “I know what it is to live in places where art is a luxury—or strange—and it’s always been really important to me to help change those perceptions.”

Telling a community’s story

Jacob Koestler’s current documentary film started as one part of a multifaceted language-based project but quickly took on larger meaning.

Koestler, a lecturer in CIA’s Photography + Video Department, and filmmaking partner Michael McDermit sought to tell the story of Sequoyah, the Cherokee leader who created the Cherokee syllabary. But during a 2019 visit to Cherokee, NC, they learned through conversations with community stakeholders that a different story needed telling: the efforts to preserve the Cherokee language from extinction.

“It was much bigger and more pertinent than Sequoyah,” Koestler says. “There’s a very real fight to save the language. For Cherokee people, it’s the gateway to their culture.”

Production of their documentary, Handful of Water, was slowed by the pandemic. However, that pause allowed Koestler and McDermit to refocus their approach. Notably, they invited community involvement and used a Red Bull Arts Microgrant to put cameras in the hands of Cherokee artists, musicians, educators and activists in both North Carolina and Oklahoma.

Koestler says the community’s involvement has been significant. “We’re reassured as filmmakers that this is important by the people we’re working with to make it. That’s been really helpful.”

He hopes the film will help eliminate challenges faced by the Cherokee community for generations.

“There have been so many institutional walls in place that have blocked any success within the Cherokee community in the United States,” Koestler says. “I think this film is about those barriers and hopefully sheds light on something that’s devastatingly important.”

Sharing lessons with students

Real-world learning is integral to CIA’s curriculum, and Kempthorn and Koestler’s projects are providing them with ample lessons to relay to students.

Koestler teaches Engaged Practice courses at CIA in which students collaborate with community partners on semester-long projects. While working on Handful of Water, he has felt “a lot of responsibility to do well”—particularly after Cherokee community members said they trusted him with this important project. He can relate that feeling to what his students experience when engaging outside of the classroom.

“They find the responsibility similarly by working with a community partner,” he says. “I find the work is exceptional, the students are dedicated to the project and they learn something that wasn’t baked into the syllabus from the get-go.”

Kempthorn is an academic project leader for Creativity Works, an internship program for Visual Arts and Crafts majors that calls on them to develop self-initiated project ideas, including business plans and budgets. Her experience, including that gained from Ordinary Magic, allows her to assist students with both the professional and more personal aspects of the creative process.

“I have a lot of firsthand experience, not just on the technical side, but I also know what it is to have a lot of doubt or to feel like I’ve made a mistake or want to run away from it all,” Kempthorn says. “So, I can really speak to the students with authority, and frankly, from a place I hope they can trust, that I know how to guide and mentor them through the process.”




Reinberger Gallery


Reinberger Gallery