Watershed Art House

Interview by Lindley Estes
Issue 62 • April 2018 • Norfolk

Conceptual art and its presentation, once raw and unexpected, has ossified as of late. To this new art collective, that sentiment sounds like a challenge to shake things up.

You know the drill. Show up at the gallery for an opening. Look at the newly unveiled paintings. Socialize. Maybe there’s wine. Read the artist’s statement. Leave.

Heidi Peelen knows the drill, too. And after years of going to the same art openings, she wanted something more out of the scene in Hampton Roads.

She wasn’t just disillusioned with how things stand—she was worried about the message white-wall galleries send to the general public: that the art scene is all about walls. That is, it’s exclusionary. “Art should be something people interact with and come away from with a feeling,” she said.

Over the idea of art as something archival or monetary, Peelen wanted to provide the area with the “concept of happenings or performance as art.” A few months after she got the idea, Watershed Art House launched in February as a machine for conceptual art. Peelen is the Executive Director and with a board of like-minded artists from Hampton Roads, she is seeking to “to commodify conceptual art and make it approachable.”

“Think of Jackson Pollock. The process more important than end result.”

For now, the art house is without a home. The group is holding events around Norfolk before fundraising and settling on a location near the art district.

Along with an open exhibit space, Peelen wants to offer classroom space for classes in sound art and group drawing, as well as studio space for artists. She said the hope is to offer a transient art space for artists who show outside of Virginia.

Like the name Watershed implies, Peelen wants the nonprofit to be a turning point for the area and what people envision when they think about art.

Peelen grew up in the Hampton Roads area and her background is in traditional art. Studying fine art at Old Dominion University and then the Pratt Institute for her MFA in digital imaging spawned her interest in conceptual art. As a professor at Regent University, she sees an opportunity for regional art education, and shares this aspiration with the Watershed Board of Directors.

The Board consists of local artists including Lucy Hale, who works with multimedia; Heather Bryant, who makes mixed media paintings; digital storyteller Shannon Bowman; Michael Khandelwhal, who directs the Muse Writing Center; comedy writer and performer Brad McMurran; and Alyssa Strackbein, a photographer and designer.

Before they get to a physical space for Watershed, Peelen and her group of local artists are doing the important work of community building. That includes making and presenting conceptual art pieces, as well as hosting events like a lecture series.

“We want to help the community recognize how far art has come,” Peelen said. “It’s not just painting anymore and it involves a larger population. Everyone should feel included in the area.”

“Think of pieces like ‘Andy Warhol Eats a Hamburger.’”

The group’s recent event, This is How You Art, exemplifies those goals. An experimental live performance, it challenges the audience’s expectations of art and its presentation.

The show starts with a lecture, Peelen playing the part of an art critic showing a PowerPoint on major moments in conceptual art. She’s poking fun at conceptual art as well, moving that barrier to entry for the audience. She shows them pieces like the video of Warhol eating a burger, and invokes other sensory experiences with pieces like Christian Marclay’s Berlin Mix.

The turning point comes when the audience begins to doubt what is scripted and what is not. Someone from the audience answers their cell phone and won’t leave. A bunch of groups begin talking. An elaborate game of telephone begins. All of it is directed to evoke certain feelings in the audience. And eventually they act on those feelings, becoming the real scripted performers.

“This is art academia for everyone,” Peelen said. “We are tearing down walls and making conceptual art an approachable thing. It’s a lot of fun and anyone can do it.”

“Bob Ross made everyone a painter.”

Every month for the year of 2018, Watershed Art House will produce a new event.

In April, Watershed is planning a plot cleanup for Norfolk’s Neon District. While cleaning, they will create an ephemeral sculpture—a la Andy Goldsworthy—using trash they recover. And once it goes up, they’ll tear it back down again.

Then in May, Peelen said they are planning a video based on anonymous submission. Submissions can be video or ambient audio, but the final makeup of the piece will be determined by an algorithm which will reorder everything for each listener.

“What we really want is for people to come and experience this,” she said. “That they take a memory away and are inclined to come to another event. Watershed is as much a place for artists as a place for people who didn’t realize they could define themselves as such. We know the area is interested in art. The hunger is there, we want to expose how much broader that phrase is.”

Learn more about Watershed Art House at watershedarthouse.org and follow their event schedule at facebook.com/watershedarthouse.

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