Interview with Chris Sickels


Watching his grandfather amble around the family farm hunting for bent nails is a memory that’s clung to Chris Sickels.

This regular quest was motivated not by safety or cleanliness but thrift. He was going to use them again. Bent nails. Something most would drop into the category of useless garbage before tossing them into the trash. But after the long day’s work was “done”, the nails would be pulled from his pocket and placed in an anvil for straightening. Chris recalls he’d also perfected a technique for effectively driving them post-anvil that involved spitting on the hammer’s head and rubbing it on his pants to ensure a clean strike.

This inclination to see the possibilities in that which is worn and weary also inhabited Chris’ father. As a dairy farmer living on the edge of success and survival, he had the ability to look at cows that were thin and/or ill and devise a plan to restore them to health. He does the same and more with horses today.

All of this recycling, hard work and perseverance was not lost on Chris. Though it’s been over 20 years since he left that small farm in Indiana for the big city of Cincinnati to attend the AAC, he finds himself on his own quest to reshape reclaimed items. His motivation is a mix of  thriftiness, a willingness to try and fail combined with a courageous creativity that allows him to envision and build extraordinary worlds with everyday items. And though he’s back living in another small Indiana town with his wife and four kids, memories from his time at the Art Academy have not only clung to him but played a part in reshaping him as well.

Chris remembers entering his freshman year with an insecurity that sprung from his rural upbringing and what he thought would be his limited art education. But he soon realized that Terri Martin, who was his sole art teacher through both middle and high school, had more than equipped him. Her attention and dedication even set him ahead of the curve. She also went well beyond the obligatory classroom instruction when she helped him put his portfolio together for reviews and drove him to different art schools including the AAC where he ultimately enrolled after accepting a helpful scholarship. And though he was thoroughly versed in the inner workings of farm life including the birthing process of its animal residents, he was unaware of all the options and opportunities that lay before him artistically.

As he listened to and learned from his fellow students and dedicated professors, Chris began to see how the seeds they were planting in his already fertile mind were beginning to take root and produce strange but wonderful fruit. Susan Curtis, an adjunct professor from England, took him under her wing and pushed him out of the nest at the same time. Their trip to the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County opened his eyes to new forms and styles of illustrating he wasn’t aware of. She also “locked” him in a room with two VHS tapes with compilations of stop motion animation work by the Quay brothers. Former marine and then AAC student, Sean Wallace, brought him to a magazine stand to show him illustrations of C.F. Payne in Rolling Stone. Checking out the shows of avant-garde puppeteers Mark Fox and Anthony Luensman and experimenting with his own drew out of him the desire to push beyond the two dimensions of illustration and painting into a three dimensional universe with nearly  infinite directions.

These experiences and more were opening up borders, allowing Chris to explore and travel without ever leaving Cincinnati. This spirit of exploration is something Chris sees as unique and profoundly helpful about his time at the AAC.

“That’s what the Art Academy afforded me. You could take stone carving, woodworking, etching, printing making and oil painting. You could be a communication design major but you could still go weld. I was hungry to see all that.”

He didn’t know how it would apply to what he wanted to do down the road but he was grateful for the exposure. AAC’s intentional cross-pollination was highlighted when he spent a semester at another well-known art school for an exchange program of sorts.

“I went there to study scientific illustration but I remember trying to use their photography department but you couldn’t go shoot your flat work because you weren’t a photography student. I remember trying to make frames but I couldn’t use the wood shop because I wasn’t an industrial design major.”

The farm boy from Indiana had been given a passport with no travel restrictions and he had no intention of giving that up.

In the years after graduating in 1996, Chris has added more stamps to that passport as he’s ventured into projects ranging from magazine covers, children’s books, short videos, and sculptures which coaxe you from the real into the surreal (visit The AAC honored him with the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2010.

Currently, Chris is busy making new memories with his family as he strives to stay open to all the ways they can inform his work and shape his heart. Combined with those from the farm and the AAC, these new memories are bound to birth creations which cling to those privileged to enjoy his work.

He’s still pushing. Still exploring. Trying and failing.

Always hunting for the next, bent nail.


Sarah Stolar Appointed Director of UNM-Taos Art Department

Sarah Stolar found her creative voice; you can too

Bill Knief, For The Taos News Sep 16, 2016

Sarah Stolar, the newly appointed director of the UNM-Taos art department, has been a practicing artist and art teacher for a good part of her life. Her mother, Merlene Schain, a college professor, holds a master’s degree and owns an art school in Cincinnati. Nevertheless, Stolar started out wanting to be a concert violinist – that is, until the day she came face-to-face with her true calling.

“I was living with my mom in Cincinnati, and one day I was walking through the lobby of the Art Academy of Cincinnati and I saw all of these amazing drawings on the walls and I had an epiphany,” Stolar said. “There was something about the energy of that building, and it kind of hit me all at once that I wanted to be there. I ended up getting my undergraduate degree in painting at the Art Academy and immediately went to grad school at the San Francisco Art Institute as a painting major.” Stolar said that, about halfway through the program, she changed to a new medium — new media, installation, performance and sound art — all mostly considered to be “non-traditional” forms of fine art.

“I’m a traditional painter in some sense, as I work with the landscape and the figure, but I make installations,” she said. “I do video art, sound art — I was a costume designer for a very famous artist named Annis Sprinkle and her equally notable partner Beth Stevens. So you could say I’m interdisciplinary and art has consumed my life.”

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Interview with Matt Hart


1. When did you decide to become a writer, specifically a poet?

I was in college studying philosophy and playing in punk bands, but I started hanging out with a bunch of performing poets. I loved that with poetry I didn’t need a band or amplifiers or instruments or microphones, I only needed my voice. I only needed language. Poems unlike songs are the words and the music in the very same breath.

2. Who are your influences?

There are so many. I love the Romantics—their imaginative flights—especially Coleridge, Keats, Clare and Shelley. But I also love the destructive disgust of the Dadaists, the wanna be revolutionary consciousness of the Surrealists. The Beat Generation—particularly Gregory Corso and Anne Waldman, the personal nature of the work, writing through a life. Also, the (1st and 2nd Generation) New York School poets—Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Ted Berrigan, Paul Violi, Ron Padgett—are also huge for me. I love the ways that poetry for them is an activity, a kind of play, a resistance to ordinary language in favor of new formal possibilities, new discoveries, new music, the absurd. Of course, there are lots of contemporary poets I love as well, among them Dean Young, Mary Ruefle, Peter Gizzi, Noelle Kocot, Kiki Petrosino, Darcie Dennigan, and Nate Pritts, to name a few.

3. How did you find your writing voice?

Do I have a voice? Is this mic on? I think I keep trying to find a voice, but then I get bored and resist it. Poetry is an art of resistance in love, a language made noisy with god. Just today I wrote a poem where I listed all the content I’ve been using in my poems over the last four or five years as a way of exorcising that content. I don’t want do the same things again and again, so it becomes necessary sometimes to take stock and then throw the baby out with the bathwater. That’s where I am right now.

 4. How many hours a day do you write?

It depends on the day, but I’d say most of them—the ones I’m awake anyway—though I have occasionally written while asleep as well. The truth is I’m always writing something, and I read a lot too. Reading is also a kind of writing, since everything I read winds up in the poems. Lately, I’ve been writing long sprawling essays and doing some (loose) translations of the 20th century avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire as well, so I always have plenty to keep me in ink.

 5. Why did you become a teacher and how long have you been teaching?

As with all the good things in life, I became a teacher accidentally. A friend told me that the AAC was looking for adjuncts to teach English. At the time I didn’t think that was something I’d really like to do—at least not for a career. Previously I’d taught logic at Ohio University where I was in graduate school for philosophy. It was fine, but I didn’t love the subject. That said, my wife Melanie is a teacher at SCPA and a graduate of the Art Academy’s MAAE program. When she heard about the opportunity, she encouraged me to apply to teach a class, if only occasionally (or just to give it a whirl). Since she’s the one with the real sense in our family, I figured I should listen—and I’m so happy I did. I LOVED teaching at the AAC from the start, and I’m grateful every day that it’s turned into my job, which is a part of my life and a part of my art. I get to work with the most imaginative students and colleagues. I get to be weird. I get to think about art and poetry and awe 24/7. What could be better? I’m astonished every single day that I’m alive and that anything exists at all.

 6. What writing and life lessons do you teach your students?

It would be interesting to ask them that. Maybe I will. But here’s what I think I do: I ask them a lot of questions about who they are and what they believe in as artists. I ask them to describe what they make, how they make it and why they care about it. I tell them that imagination LITERALLY MAKES THE WORLD, that the creative life is a life as art—not just a life of making art. It’s about being a work-in-progress. I say YES a lot to whatever they’re interested in. I tell them to “do it yourself.” I tell them do MORE of that, and also I tell them to make money as irrelevant as possible in their lives. Money turns everything to garbage. And the thing is if you’re truly creative you find a way to live that allows you to LIVE CREATIVELY and HAPPILY. Money isn’t the driving force in my life or in the lives of my students. What does drive us is the notion that through art we can live more fully, we can be connected and empathetic, we can change people’s lives for the better. The value of art is that it reminds us we’re alive. “Beauty is the object of longing,” wrote the philosopher Crispin Sartwell. And as long as we’re longing we’re not dead—the possibilities are endless, and empathy, understanding and meaning are the goals. Make a mess. Have a blast. Include everything. Be as big as the world.

7. How do you encourage your students to become writers and poets?

As I said above: I say YES to whatever drives them deeper into the things they’re passionate about. I don’t care what you’re interested in, just be interested in something and do it with all your heart (I often say that). Of course, I also talk with them about how their thinking, their attitudes, their brilliant strangeness is itself poetry, is itself art. Many of them are walking poems—by which I mean, in the words of Walt Whitman, they “contain multitudes.” They are agents of plethora. Poetry is language deployed generatively to say many things simultaneously and wildly (rather than merely practically).

8. How do your poems become books?

My 8th and 9th books, RADIANT ACTION and RADIANT COMPANION, were just published on Sept. 15th. RADIANT ACTION is a philosophical, book-length, serial poem and RADIANT COMPANION is a new collection aimed at my radiant companions. The books are friends. They talk to each other. They look up at the stars and supernova together. Lines in one reappear in the other. They are each other’s best shadows and ghosts.

The truth is I still don’t know how books happen sometimes. The problem is: Like a lot of poets, I don’t write books, I write poems—lots of poems—and I think of them as individual events. That said, at some point inevitably they start talking to each other (in terms of form or content or both), and that’s when I start arranging them in ways that exploit or explode or connect those conversations into a larger constellation of shadows and reflection. Somehow, via accumulation, assembly, juxtaposition, and rearrangement, I wake up from the dream of activity and there’s a book!

9. How did you find a publisher for your new books?

H_NGM_N Books did RADIANT ACTION, and I’ve worked with them before. We have a good relationship, and I’m excited to keep working with them in the future. This is the third book of mine they’ve published. I met Nate Pritts, H_NGM_N’s editor-in-chief, in grad school back in the late 90s. We kept in touch over the years, and when he started H_NGM_N Books in 2010 he asked if I had a manuscript, at which point I sent him what would become my third book WOLF FACE. In 2012 he published DEBACLE DEBACLE and now RADIANT ACTION, so H_NGM_N’s become my primary publisher. RADIANT COMPANION was published by Monster House Press, and placing it happened in a way very similar to the experience of placing the H_NGM_N books. Richard Wehrenberg Jr, the MHP editor, saw me read and asked me for a manuscript. I sent him one and that was it.

People often think that publishing is super mysterious, but really it’s about being a part of the community. If you go out and read, if you send your work out, if you’re genuinely interested in other people and what they’re doing, good things will happen. 23 years ago, right after I moved to Cincinnati, I co-founded and started editing Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking, & Light Industrial Safety as a way to build community in what was then for me a new city. I’m still doing Forklift today, but now we have a national, and even international, audience. It would be ridiculous of me not to acknowledge how being a part of that community has benefited my own writing. I’ve met some of my best friends through Forklift, and I get to work on it with people who are really dear to me. But I also get to read the newest of new work, things that challenge my own sensibility, values, and aesthetic. That’s so important. It’s the life blood of a poet.

All that to say, be genuinely excited about the art and publishers will find you. It takes patience, a willingness to put yourself out there (and sometimes get rejected, and a desire to engage with others in language and life.

10. What are your future plans regarding writing and teaching?

I don’t have any plans beyond continuing to write, continuing to teach, continuing to push my own limits, challenge my own values and beliefs. I’m one of the most un-strategic people I know. I always lose at chess. But I am committed to this life, committed to art, my family, my students. My plan is to keep trying to live up to that commitment. And also not to die.

11. What advise do you have for the young writer?

Write every day. Read voraciously. Don’t worry about whether what you’re doing is any good. Quantity leads to quality eventually. Believe it.

Here’s a poem I wrote for AAC students that’s full of advice for young writers, but it’s also advice to me:


You could do a lot worse than art.

I like plaid flannel shirts, but maybe

you’re into cute dresses or deerskin.

Maybe you’re into hopped-up IPA’s.

Maybe when I say hopped-up you think

of rabbits or you think of crank.

It’s all okay. Associations are always

okay. But have some intentions

for your work, if only after the fact

of making it. Don’t leave meaningfulness

to chance. Chance operations are fun—

especially removing the spleens

of your friends. You can try this

at home, but for you it may work better

in a bar or an ice skating rink. Find yourself

a process that works. Or find many of them.

Think about what you’ve done, what you want

to do, and what you’re doing. No one else will

do it for you. Don’t make yourself ignorable

by not making decisions. On the other hand,

nobody knows what art is, and

anyone who says otherwise is merely

limiting your possibilities. Turn tail and run

in the other direction when you can.

When you can’t, turn into Grendel

and wreck the mead hall. Making art


is a value in and of itself, and if your art isn’t like what some supposed authority on the matter, X, thinks art should be, that only goes to show how little they know about the history of art, not to mention things like imagination, creativity, and vision. Remember Van Gogh. Read Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Read A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord. Read the “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Read HOWL and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg for god’s sake. These are all books about faith and perseverance in art. You will need them to continue. Setbacks will occur, and you need to be ready. If somebody tells you you can’t include: stars, trees, birds, the human heart, leaves, grass, dogs, babies, etc. in your art, immediately make a great piece that includes all of those things to prove that they are wrong. If the first piece you make which includes all of those things isn’t to your liking, then make another one and another one until you make one you like, OR, alternately, make a whole body of work where you include the “impossible to use” or “impossible to use well” things one at a time. As for originality, forget about it. You will be original because you have been able to tap in to what makes you uniquely weirdly, brilliantly who you are, but it’s important to note that who you are has been shaped by all the art you’ve been astonished by, all the experiences you’ve had, the music you’ve listened to, the books you’ve read. Nobody creates out of a void. The poet Dean Young says that the highest achievement of the human consciousness is the imagination and the highest achievement of the imagination is empathy. I say additionally that through empathy we find our feet with the world, connecting the self to the other viscerally. These connections are our finest sort of human entanglement. The imagination—and thus art—allows us to recognize and be moved by the similarities between us—which is the basis for appreciating difference. Make your work payoff meaningfully in proportion to the amount of work you expect a viewer to do to get it. Be as worried about avoiding hermeticism as you are about avoiding the sentimental and saccharine. You could do worse than humanity. When something works for you, celebrate wildly, then resist it in future works. People like to be understood and listened to. Be genuinely interested in other people and what they’re doing, and they will be genuinely interested in you and what you’re doing. If they aren’t, too bad for them. Not everybody’s kind, and there are so many thousands of people making art whom you can be friends with and build a community with. You can do better than mean, snarky people. Also, everybody needs a nemesis—a nemesis that isn’t themselves or their mother—so you can choose one (or a hundred) from among the mean people, but you should do this mostly only to ignore them. Don’t waste time being angry and negative, and complaining. Instead make more work. If any of this is contradictory, that’s par for the course. Welcome


to art. You could do worse, e.g.

Welcome to Syria 2013. Welcome to the Lord’s

Resistance Army. You are five or you are

seven. Remember: Ambiguity isn’t vagueness

anymore than Justin Timberlake is a landfill.

Association and disjunction are entirely different things.

Just because there’s a story behind your painting—

because a story was the impetus for your painting—

doesn’t make it narrative. Sometimes form is

content. This may or may not be something

you’re comfortable with. Go to dances. Do karaoke.

Be willing to look stupid. Nonsense really is serious

business. There is such a thing as called the soul,

but probably not in the way that I or anyone else

thinks about it. Forget about business. Forget

about jobs. An art education is about getting

a creative education—one that will allow you

to deal imaginatively and resourcefully with any situation

life throws at you, any materials, any instructions,

any employer. The creative mind is a mind on fire.

The mind of the artist is a valuable thing to everyone.

Often even artists’ failures are brilliant.  In art,

your genius is your error, because art must be

“a debacle of the intellect” (Breton). You can’t be

out of control-in control, but in art you have to be

a bad artist not to be. I said that somewhere else. Also,

don’t obfuscate. It’s annoying. Don’t expect others

to be able to interpret your work if you haven’t put the time

in to make it about something, On the other hand,

not everything needs to be solved, especially not (in) art.

Works of art aren’t puzzles, secret codes, or witnesses

beholden to the facts. Swear to tell the Truth,

including all the lies. Sabotage, thievery, and failure

are three of my most favorite artistic values. Maybe

they’re yours as well. “Always do the opposite

of anything I tell you” is something I wrote

elsewhere for a different purpose, but

I think it applies here more than ever.

You can’t do better than art.





AAC Shares Economic Impact Report with City Hall


Economic Impact studies have become a common tool for colleges and universities to examine the effect that their institution has on their local and/or regional economy. These effects are often wide-ranging: knowledge creation, research and development, and direct and indirect expenditures into local and surrounding economies. The Art Academy is a unique institution in that it is one of the smallest four-year art colleges in the United States. Traditional economic impact studies are designed to focus and appeal to the needs of large and regional research universities. However, this summer the Community Building Institute (CBI) of Xavier University created a sound and valid methodology that focused on the impact of the Art Academy, a small arts institution, on solely the neighborhood it is located.

The Art Academy of Cincinnati was a development catalyst when it moved to Over the Rhine in 2005. We helped pave the way for other arts organizations and companies to follow.  Over the years, AAC students, faculty, and staff buy art supplies, lunches, entertainment, parking, and gasoline; we pay rent and mortgages and invest in life necessities and niceties. According to the Community and Economic Impact conducted by CBI, a conservative estimate and is that in 10 years the Art Academy has infused nearly $2,000,000 into Over-the-Rhine. That is not an insignificant amount.  

On Monday, September 19, President John Sullivan and Henry Simanson the graduate student of Xavier University who defined the methodology and conducted the research and report, shared this information with the City of Cincinnati’s Committee on Human Services, Youth, and Arts chaired by City Council woman Yvette Simpson.  You may watch that presentation at this link. at minute 24.  

Or, join them in Chambers at City Hall on Monday, October 17 when they will make a presentation to the Neighborhoods Committee chaired by Vice Mayor David Mann.

President’s Reception for the Helm’s Trust


It was an evening of recognition and celebration at the Presidents Reception on Friday, September 25th when 50 friends of the Art Academy gathered for refreshments, commaradarie and a chance to mingle with some of our student, faculty and alumnae artists. Remarks were shared by Dick Friedman, Chairman of the AAC Board of Trustees; John Sullivan, AAC  President; Len Weakley Jr. Director of the The William G. and Mary Jane Helms Charitable Foundation. Derek Alderfer and Katelyn Wolary, both recipients of a Helms Trust Award, talked about their art and their student experience at the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

Derek Alderfer is a freelance illustrator from Fairfield, OH who graduated from the Art Academy of Cincinnati’s BFA program in 2015. He considers himself an aspiring children’s book illustrator who works as a painter using mostly traditional media. “I was so humbled to have gotten 2nd place in 2015′s Helms Trust Award competition. I’d never entered my work in a show that granted awards, especially against my own friends and peers. I very fondly look back on having hung my work next to theirs, and winning among some of them. In the end I was proud of everyone who entered. The judge’s decision showed me that my newest work was truly unique and worth pursuing, and since then I’ve continued pushing myself to make my best work.”

Katelyn Wolary commented, “It’s an honorable award, with a history of great artists and work selected.  I’m very happy to be in my school’s collection, and feel very grateful for the opportunities I’ve received so far in my time at AAC.  I have reinvested the award money back into my education, which is a great feeling!”


Student Spotlight: Alyah Shoulders


Alyah Shoulders is a Junior, and her major is Illustration with an emphasis in sculpture at the Art Academy of Cincinnati (AAC).  She is a Cincinnati native, who graduated from Colerain High School and currently lives in the Colerain community. Alyah is a shy and quiet young woman with dynamic visions of becoming one the best female animators of all time.  She is a huge fan of Disney animated films, Snow White and Beauty and the Beast, are among her favorites.

When the time came to select a school, she ultimately selected the AAC due to the fact she immediately noticed the faculty and staff were kind and willing to help her in anyway.  After her portfolio review and during a tour of the building with the admissions team, she was introduced to Professor Ken Henson.  He took her sketch book and presented an impromptu critique of her work. She was a bit overwhelmed, but immediately knew AAC is the place for her.

According to Alyah, “If you are willing to make the sacrifice and work hard, you can make your dreams come true.”  The Art Academy is a great place for people like her to thrive.  Despite her shyness, she has been able to meet like-minded classmates, who are fated to be life-long friends.  “If you need help raising your hand in class, there is someone there to help push your hand even higher.  I know this from personal experience. If you see someone who needs art supplies, you share your art supplies.  It’s that simple.  Everyone here helps one another.”

Her involvement as a focused student is pointing her in the right direction to fulfill her ambitions. She’s made the commitment to work hard and take in every lesson or opportunity to hone her craft.  We have no doubt we will witness Alyah Shoulders blossom into a world-class animator.