Jenni Petersen-Brant and Eric Petersen are the new directors of the Chatfield Center for the Arts.
SUBMITTED PHOTO Jenni Petersen-Brant and Eric Petersen are the new directors of the Chatfield Center for the Arts.

Meet Jenni and Eric, new art team members.

“We began our work with the Chatfield Center for the Arts (CCA) on October 1. It has been a gradual and slow transition from one arts center to the other,” said new CCA co-director Jenni Petersen-Brant. “We are part of a bigger team that involves a dynamic board of directors. Our initial contract with the CCA is a part-time, one-year commitment that aims to hire us on as full-time employees at the end of 12 months. It is a collaborative process between us, the board and the community to achieve sustainability and longevity for the CCA.”

Jenni and her partner, Eric Petersen, will oversee how the arts are brought to Chatfield’s jewel of an art venue.

Eric related, “I was born in Lincoln, Neb., but have lived in many states, particularly in the southwest and northwest. Jenni grew up in southwest Wisconsin on a dairy farm just outside the small community of Kieler. We met when she was in graduate school in Lincoln, and we moved back to the region to be closer to her family. We live in Decorah, Iowa, now.”

Eric has been engaged in numerous art forms for the past quarter century. “I have been painting, drawing, sculpting and making music for over 25 years, and have been teaching at community colleges, art centers and in higher education for more than 15 years. Working with youth and the public of all ages in the studio, on public art projects and collaborative murals has been especially enriching, and I truly believe that by partaking in all of the arts, one finds the richness of the human experience; a chance to share, express and come together.”

He continued, “I can firmly say that I have no favorites or bias toward any medium – that’s most likely stemming from the influence of my mom, who truly believed that nonjudgmental appreciation for all forms of expression is the basis of human joy. She was supportive of all of my experiments in music and visual art, and expressed sincere appreciation for the arts of others.”

Jenni recounted how she became an artist. “I was a creative kid, spending my time coloring with cousins, doing sewing projects with my mom…just always making stuff. In school, I took every art class I could, played the flute through high school…my senior year of high school, my art teacher entered a drawing of mine in a Congressional art contest, and I won in my district. My drawing went to Washington, D.C., and hung in a government building for a year. This experience as a young artist had transformed my love for making things into the idea of ‘being an artist’ when I grew up.”

Jenni earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and her master of fine arts from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; both degrees in studio art.

“Since then, life has led me down the path of community-based arts, working in galleries, designing arts education programs, developing an ‘art van’ to take hands-on programs off-site, co-chairing a community-wide public art project that engaged 1,100 youth, ran an artist residency program and more,” she said. “I’ve also maintained an active studio practice, exhibit and sell my work and travel to present workshops on working in clay and give lectures in professional practices.”

She elaborated, “As a maker, I most enjoy working in the visual arts, namely in clay or with printmaking techniques, but I also love to work with mosaics, paint, graphic design and paper crafts. As a viewer, I can enjoy and appreciate it all.”

Eric said, “Jenni has been an education director at the large community center in Lincoln where I taught for many years, and she was also the executive director of the Kimmel-Harding Nelson Center for the Arts artist-in-residency program in Nebraska City. I have worked to coordinate and create multiple large-scale public art pieces and installations in both Lincoln and Omaha, Neb. We are both studio artists working primarily in ceramics, though I also work in painting, drawing and printmaking, write poetry and make music. Jenni is brilliant at drawing and printmaking also, but likes to focus on ceramics. We are also educators and teach classes in a variety of visual art mediums to ages 2 and up.”

The pair describes themselves as “thoughtful, intelligent, engaged and idealistic,” sharing their home with three furry friends and doing their best to leave a small environmental footprint.

They enjoy spending time outdoors, garden to grow food and flowers and tend to be do-it-yourselfers when it comes to building or fixing anything. They claim to be passionate about connecting people to creative cultural experiences to bring joy to the everyday and inspire a deeper understanding of the human experience.

For their first year as the CCA’s directors, their primary focus will be on marketing and fund development, as well as shaping and coordinating programs and events.

Combined, they have over 25 years of experience in arts administration and education. They’ve spent the last two and a half years co-directing and developing ArtHaus in Decorah, presenting and hosting a wide variety of events in the visual, performing and literary arts. Their efforts were recognized with the 2016 Iowa Governor’s Arts Award for developing programming that increased impact and accessibility in the arts for the state.

Eric commented, “We want to build upon the success of the public and private partnership formed by the hardworking folks at the city and on the CCA board, which has made the CCA what it is today. Our efforts will include surveying the needs and desires of the community in order to respond with programming that will enrich the quality of life for our region. This will also entail enhancing the profile of the Center throughout the area and establishing a sustainable funding platform so that the CCA has a long and bright future.”

Both Jenni and Eric are impressed by the opportunities the former school building and its accompanying auditorium offer.

Eric stated, “When it comes to specific ideas that we have for the CCA, the square footage and the quality of the facility has so much amazing potential that it is a bit difficult to put our finger on particulars. With the completion of the Potter Auditorium renovation, Chatfield now has a state of the art venue that will draw performers of the highest caliber, including the amazing regional talent of southeast Minnesota. We hope to continue the tradition of great folk music and enjoyable tribute shows while also bringing in more theater, dance and world music. We’re also looking forward to bringing more visual art to the center with consistent exhibitions in the 1916 Gallery and hopefully some summer workshops and art camps for youth and adults.”

He also stated that the vast possibilities presented by the CCA’s various venues are valuable unto themselves.

“We envision that the 1916 school could become an indispensable, multidisciplinary facility that serves as a collaborative creative space where art, in sync with science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEM) learning, is made, exhibited and taught,” Eric added. “It will also serve the public as a community rental space with meeting rooms, rehearsal spaces and multipurpose areas to be used as maker spaces. The direction of the facility will definitely be influenced by our experiences at other arts centers, but it will also rely heavily on input from the community so that the space is one that connects us through the shared acts of creation, expression and innovation.”

The two admitted they have “LOTS” to learn about the CCA yet, but they’re willing to venture the energy to take in all they need to know.

Jenni commented, “We’re still in the process of wrapping our heads around the flow of current operations and the history of how and who has made what happen. We’re still not even sure how to find our way around the building sometimes…no joke.”

She continued, “We also want to learn more about the community of Chatfield, the people that live there and what they are passionate about. We look forward to spending more and more time in Chatfield as we dive deeper into our jobs and our roles at the CCA.”

She shared, “One of the things we are most looking forward to is working with the dynamic group of people who serve on the board for the CCA…filled with out-of-the-box thinkers and roll-up-your-sleeves doers who are incredibly passionate about the CCA vision. We’re also looking forward to having the space to stretch our creative wings in developing programs and doing so in a state where the arts are recognized and supported as an essential part of daily life.”

Jenni and Eric understand there will be challenges unique to a rural art center, including fewer resources, volunteers, funding and audience members and observed that a regional mindset will assist them as they build programming and relationships, as will the passion of people who are engaged in operating the CCA or attending events there.

Jenni highlighted, “We feel that it is going to be important to take a multi-pronged approach to addressing these challenges. Our work in development will look to funding at the local, regional and national level to tap into grant programs that the all-volunteer board simply hasn’t had time to explore. When it comes to marketing, we’ll be tackling things, everything from making sure CCA events are appearing on regional online event calendars to building our social media presence and overhauling the website for a contemporary look and more user-friendly experience. Along the way, we’ll be working to put the systems in place to streamline volunteer coordination, organize and archive the work being done and make it easy for people to get involved and excited about the CCA…it is really rewarding to see new friendships formed through the classes and events at spaces like the CCA, often meetings that might not otherwise take place in our everyday lives.”

Upcoming performances at the CCA include the Chosen Bean Concert Series with the Sudden Lovelys in February, an Eagles tribute show in Potter Auditorium in April and Ruth Moody of the “Wailin’ Jennys” in November.

CCA event attendees can look for Eric and Jenni in the crowd at concerts and other events as the directors aim to connect with the public and the artists as a means of determining how successful each event is.

They have suggestions for performers who may not have already graced the CCA’s Legion Room or Potter’s stage, including the Galactic Cowboy Orchestra, and also hope to host an art and music festival sometime in 2018.

Jenni invited, “We are incredibly passionate about and open to ideas on how the arts function and enrich life in rural communities. We invite people to connect with us about their ideas, whether that’s through email, a phone call or snagging us for a conversation when you see us out and about in Chatfield. We would like for the people of Chatfield to know that our work at the CCA is ultimately for their benefit and the region, that our work and programming at the CCA will respond to the needs and desires of the community, and also hope to expand their perceptions of what and how the center and enjoyment of the arts can improve their quality of life.”