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Faces of the Arts: Dorchester Center for the Arts

Jan 26, 2016 02:39PM ● By Kathi Ferguson
By Kathi Ferguson // Photography by Jenny Madino

It had always been an anticipated holiday tradition. Choir members from local churches would assemble on the grand staircase of Nathan’s Furniture store in Cambridge and sing Christmas carols to an audience seated in sofas and chairs placed throughout the retailer’s main showroom. That tradition continues still today. Only now, listeners gather amongst an impressive display of artwork in the main gallery of what has become a thriving downtown arts and cultural center.

"Everyone can benefit from being 
exposed to the arts. It comes down to 
making it accessible and welcoming” 
—Mickey Love

 Dorchester Center for the Arts (DCA) was established in 1970 by area artists John Bannon, W. Robert Tolley, and the late Shirley Brannock, and has since emerged as the designated County Arts Council for Dorchester County. Dedicated to enriching the community through high quality programming in the visual, literary, musical, and performing arts, DCA currently has approximately 500 members, offers more than 100 classes, workshops, and programs, and features a world-class artisans’ gift shop.

The historic Nathan Building at 321 High Street has been home to Dorchester Center for the Arts since the summer of 2008. “We started out in a 2,200-square-foot private residence just a few blocks away,” says DCA’s Executive Director Mickey Love. “Now we are able to utilize this amazing 14,000-square-foot facility to its fullest capacity.”

As the latest of a two-part renovation, the building’s spacious second floor opened in January of 2014 and is now an attractive venue for additional performances and special events. “When I came on board in 2007, theater was non-existent at the Center. Last year, we sold out all six shows of Godspell. It was our first full scale musical,” Love proudly states. “We have since hosted some amazing concerts such as the Mid-Atlantic Symphony string ensemble this past November and an opera trio called Le Dive Divine (the Devine Divas) last January. Both were underwritten by a grant from, and presented as part of, the Pauline F. and W. David Robbins Foundation Trust Concert Series.”

Seventeen year-old Makayla Hernandez of Cambridge grins with delight as she talks about performing at Dorchester Center for the Arts last year. In addition to being in the cast of Godspell , Makayla was invited to sing solo at one of the Center’s Second Saturday receptions last summer. “Performing at the Center has been so inspiring for me,” she says. “Everyone is so welcoming and I love being surrounded by all of the art! The experience has had such a positive impact on my life and my aspirations as a performing artist.”

"We partner with many wonderful 
organizations and artists to design 
programs that support a variety 
of art forms.” —Barb Seese

 Calling herself a “Pied Piper of the Arts,” Love believes that comfort can be found in “anything art” and that simply being around it can improve the quality of life. “Imagine closing your eyes while sitting in your living room, then opening them to no pictures, no music, or books—not very stimulating,” she says. “Everyone can benefit from being exposed to the arts. It comes down to making it accessible and welcoming. That is what we try to do at DCA by bringing the arts to the community.”

One of the many areas in which DCA excels is their outreach to area youth. Leveraging private and public funds with re-granting funds received from the Maryland State Arts Council, the Center delivers an array of impressive arts education programs to Dorchester County public schools. Barb Seese, DCA’s Education and Program Coordinator, leads the effort. “We partner with many wonderful organizations and artists to design programs that support a variety of art forms,” Seese says. For example, students can explore the connections between music and math through the vocal art form of beatboxing, focus on the elements of acting to build character while participating in a fun-filled theater residency, or receive instruction on the principles of creative writing through the world of hip-hop as they write verses about subjects they study in class. “The results have been stellar,” she adds.

DCA also encourages children of all ages to unleash their imagination by offering a selection of summer classes as colorful as a jumbo box of Crayola crayons. Students can learn drawing, painting, mosaics or collage, fiber art, how to make a movie, explore the world of color, create “junkyard art” from repurposed and found objects, or even learn to sew.

Equally impressive is the realm and quality of adult classes available at DCA. “There is something for everyone,” Seese says with a wide grin. “I think it is important to offer your fundamental studio courses such as painting and drawing on a regular basis. Once those standards are met, we can build from there,” she explains. “Fortunately, I inherited a fairly solid base of instructional arts that were in place when I arrived here a couple of years ago. My goal has been to support those successes while identifying areas for growth or modification. I think it has worked out well.”

Beginning painter and dedicated student Lois McKenzie will attest to that. “Since retiring, I’ve been free to develop my passion for painting and began taking classes at the Center two years ago,” McKenzie says. “I love it! The classes are very interactive and well-planned. Not only have I learned a lot, but I can see continuing improvement in my work. I applaud DCA for their commitment to maintaining such high standards for their instructors. They are all very talented.”

Not only can many of the Center’s classes claim a loyal following, but some have had a significant influence on the artistic direction of their students. Award-winning area artist Jill Basham actually discovered her medium of choice while taking her first oil painting class at DCA from instructor Mary Ekroos. “The class was offered to all levels of experience at a reasonable cost, which was wonderful for me,” Basham says. “Not only was I inspired to continue painting, but the very first showing of my oil paintings was at the Center. It was also there that I sold my first piece in a gallery setting! I was thrilled.”

Dorchester Center for the Arts is host to twelve gallery shows per year. Visual arts coordinator Janette Jones and the Center’s gallery committee members select and implement a variety of eye-catching exhibits each month. “Ideally, I want our shows to make people think about what they are viewing, whether it be a captivating painting, a sculpture, or a whimsical piece of custom furniture,” Jones says. “Hopefully they will be inspired to explore their own creativity or perhaps their definition of what they like will be expanded. Or maybe they will simply learn something about the process of making art.”
Annual exhibits include a Members Show, a Young People’s Art Show (school-age children), the Community Photography and Digital Arts Exhibit and Competition, and the Wednesday Morning Artists’ Gallery of Gifts show. Janette adds, “It is not unusual for artists who have had exhibits in the gallery transition into the gift shop once their show is over.”

Dorchester Center for the Arts is also home to a number of lively and industrious art groups that meet or volunteer on a regular basis. The Wednesday Morning Artists take great pride in using their skills as artists of many disciplines (painters, sculptors, jewelers, potters, glass artists, fiber artists, and more) to help organizations like DCA, volunteering their time on projects such as the front window display and special events for the holidays. “We believe that DCA is vital to the well-being and progress of Cambridge and the surrounding area,” says the head of the group, Nancy Snyder. “There is also the camera club, Choptank Writers, a knitting group, sketching group—all are tremendous supporters of one another and of the Center,” Jones adds. “It has been fun to watch them grow.”

It is in late September when Dorchester’s creative community spirit is seemingly encapsulated during the Center’s annual Arts Showcase event—now in its 39th year. Historic High Street is transformed into an artisan lovers’ delight where visitors may enjoy more than 100 vendors, interactive public art projects, theater and dance performances, and live music. The monthly Second Saturday “Art Walks” are also a big draw when DCA and neighboring galleries stay open into the evening to host free meet-the-artist style receptions and the opening of new exhibits.

"Hopefully they will be inspired to 
explore their own creativity or perhaps 
their definition of what they like will 
be expanded.” —Janette Jones

 A notable benchmark for Mickey and the Center came about in 2012 when Love accepted Dorchester County’s Economic Development Director Keasha Haythe’s invitation to serve on the Economic Development Advisory Council. “Keasha recognized there was a lack of attention being placed on the importance of the arts to economic development and the correlation between the two,” Love says. “The arts are now an integral part of the Council’s strategic plan and DCA has been given a greater face in the community.” In 2013, the Center participated in the Economic Development Office’s “Water Moves Us” brand marketing campaign as one of the seven businesses initially featured.

Now in its 46th year, Dorchester Center for the Arts remains steadfast in its mission to enrich the Eastern Shore’s community through the arts. “We still have our growing pains,” Love says. “But we continue to make tremendous strides. I am so proud to be working with such a terrific staff, board, and amazing volunteers who share in that success.” Moving forward Love hopes to reach area teens by taking more of DCA’s outreach programs to locations and communities, add more theater, concerts, and lecture series, and eventually create an exhibit area at the Center that tells the story of the building’s history to its visitors.

There are no boundaries when it comes to exploring one’s inner artist. Whether you are a creator of art, simply a fan, or just beginning your creative journey, you will discover something at DCA that will capture your interest. The creative spirit is undoubtedly alive and well at Dorchester Center for the Arts and voices throughout the community continue to sing its praise.