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Photo by Meghan Ralston

The Interview: A.J. Vanderelli

As Alicia Jean (A.J.) Vanderelli leads me around her Franklinton-based gallery, a former church now called The Vanderelli Room, she shows me her most recent painting, Revelation: The Seven-Headed Beast of the Sea—seven self-portraits suspended on tentacle-like appendages stemming from a nude torso. Some faces stare directly at the viewer, almost glowing, while others smile subtly from the shadows. I could stare at this work for hours without answering half the questions it raises for me. And that’s exactly what Vanderelli wants: for images to be a little complicated. After all, part of the painting’s inspiration was a Bible once owned by her uncle who lived with schizophrenia—and all the cryptic, apocalyptic passages he’d underlined within it.

Self-portraiture requires honesty and vulnerability to be placed on the canvas, and Beast is an artistic exploration of self, identity, family, and religion. The lived version of Vanderelli’s exploration has been one to find herself, her community, and her purpose. That wandering has included a sequence of less than exciting jobs, a short-lived marriage, and lot of geographic drift. The death of her grandfather (whose own remarkable academic life included attending Gallaudet University as a hearing individual and mastering sign language) caused her to reflect and to commit to her education. She started (at age 30) and finished her degree at Columbus College of Art and Design.

Now planted in the capital city, Vanderelli is driven by the her passion to make and share art, and to create opportunities for others to do so as well. As a vital member of Franklinton’s artistic renaissance, she’s currently in the planning stages of a four-venue exhibition, Silence is Death. Set for March, Silence is Death showcases not only the art and political voices of the neighborhood, but also Vanderelli’s talent for bringing those elements together to inspire change.

Childhood and Finding Community: I grew up in Panama City, Florida, which is kind of a beach/spring break community, so it is very transient. People come and they go all the time. The town is seasonal, so in the winter nobody’s around. It’s just like a vacant place—it’s really sad. In the summer, everybody has a job. In the winter, nobody has a job. So after high school, I moved. My dad’s family’s in Pennsylvania, so I went there for a little while. I went to Atlanta for a little while. I went to Orlando… just unsettled. Couldn’t really figure it out. I didn’t know who I was, who my people were, I guess. So it was just a constant search, just to find the people that I fit in with. I got married, and then I freaked out. I felt stagnant—I wasn’t making my own work. I ended up getting divorced and then dove into my art, for the most part, full-time. While I was married, I wound up at 400 West Rich … and ended up meeting people over there that I felt really connected to. We would work in our own studios and then we’d congregate in a friend’s studio and talk about about how. You know? Like we have this community and how do we create something out of this—this stuff that we like to do? There was this core group of people and we would just sit around: how do we do it, how do we do it, how do we do it? And then everyone kind of went, “Let’s do it.” And we did, for the neighborhood.

Goals and Purpose: I am an artist and I’m poor. I don’t care about money; that’s not why I’m in it. I want to be able to survive, but my ultimate goal isn’t to make bank. I spent a long time trying to figure out my role in the world—my purpose. Over the course of this year, I’ve figured out that my purpose is facilitation. I’m an art facilitator. Like, if you’re an artist and you really believe in yourself, you should be given an opportunity to prove it—I have this space for you to prove it. My day job is facilitating. I work with a kid who’s 16. He’s an artist and he has autism, so I work with him a few days a week to assist him. I can’t tell him how to make art, but I can provide him with the tools that he needs to be a successful artist and hopefully he’ll get it as he evolves.

Making Creativity Productive: What it takes is working your ass off—you’re doing it for you. If your life’s goal is strategy and [thinking], “For my work to be successful, I need to talk with this person and I need to make this many posts and I need to get this many followers,” that’s not creativity, that’s just a numbers game. It has to come from within. You constantly have to stay active. For my own personal work, [creativity] comes from interacting with people and being influenced emotionally by someone else. Someone strikes a chord with me and I’m like, “I have to paint.” If you’re stagnant, and you’re in the funk and you’re not doing anything, it’s so hard to get out of it. So you have to keep pushing through it, constantly. It’s like exercise. If you go to the gym everyday, and you take a week off, how hard is it to get back to the gym? It’s the same with creativity, which for me is good. I’m not making as much work as I used to make because I’m doing the gallery. But putting together the exhibitions and hanging the work and seeing how the works talk to each other and rearranging the space…is still using that part of my brain.

Hard work is really important. I sleep like four hours a night. Four hours. I’m not doing manual labor for 20 hours a day, but my brain is going 20 hours a day. And it’s good to be able to rely on someone else if you need it, and building those relationships and being someone that somebody else can rely on is good, too.

Inspiration and Technique: I want to be able to spend time with a painting or a sculpture and really look at it, and get away from it, think about it, and then go back to it and look at it again. I want something that’s engaging—that makes me wonder, or makes me imagine. I find that a lot of work that sells is just… eh. Is it purely because the color matches your house, or it’s cute? I don’t understand that part. I think it’s because my work tends to be a little more complicated. So I don’t know if I’m holding other people to that expectation just because I want that in my own work. [When you look at my work], I want you to go, “What the hell is she talking about?” Caravaggio is the man. I mean, his use of light is just… [sighs]. If I could achieve that, I would be in heaven. That’s what I strive for. I really want that depth. I want to come out of the darkness. I still want the darkness there, looming in the background, but you’re emerging from it—almost like growth.

Art, Pop Culture, and Technology: I hate social media. It’s a thorn in my side. For me personally, it kills me to have to [say], “All right, gotta do the Facebook post.” I’m more of a person-to-person contact. However, it’s a free source of promotion. There are really good things that come out of having a phone and being able to do photographs, and there’s art shows that are strictly about photos that you take with your phone. There are creative ways that you can use [smartphones], but it is very depressing because of how accessible everything is. I could imagine that with the evolution of photography, how painful it must be to a photographer who’s 80 years old, who’s been around and understands. I’m reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake right now, and that is a part of the discussion in the book. You have the three sisters, and one is not a creative. The other two are creatives. What does [the third sister] do to show her sisters she’s just as good as them? She creates television and creates all these things to take away from the writers and the visual artists. [Technology] devalues in a lot of ways, but at the same time, self-expression’s been around forever. We have these other outlets for people to be entertained … and it takes a special person to be able to take the time to read the blog, or to go to the theater.

Location and Connection: Columbus is so unique. You have that Midwest attitude, which is a lot more relaxed. You still have the energy that the East Coast has … but you have that Midwest, “Everything’s great. Yeah, let’s all get along,” which is awesome. As a creative community, people aren’t necessarily trying to step on each other to get to the top. There is a community. There is [an attitude] like, “Hey, I know this person that can do this thing better than I can, so I’m going to connect you to them, because I know that you deserve a really amazing product and I’m not the best fit.” I’m not saying everybody’s like that, but a majority of people want to see you succeed, too. It’s not just a “me” game—it’s an “us” game. I think that’s where I’m powerful—being able to bring people together. That’s why I stayed [in Columbus], because most everybody that I’ve met has just been so generous. If you’re willing to give, they give. People see the kindness, and they’re not afraid to take a moment and explore it.

In the End: The art thing is the only thing that’s ever been consistent [for me]. That’s my go-to. I’ve got to solve the world’s problems through art. I couldn’t imagine not making art. I can’t imagine having a lifetime career just painting, but I think I will always have a career in the arts in some faculty.

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