From portraits to pottery, ‘After Hours’ exhibit showcases artistic talents of Brown staff

The annual staff art exhibition, curated by the Brown Arts Initiative, is an eye-opening reminder that Brown’s employees are as innovative, thoughtful and bold in their free time as they are at work.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Fifteen years ago, Viveka Ayala-Heredia made her first attempt at drawing a self-portrait. It didn’t go so well.

“It didn’t end up looking like me at all, because I couldn’t stand the process of studying my own face,” Ayala-Heredia said. “I had severe acne and I wasn’t feeling very confident about myself. I wasn’t prepared to analyze my own appearance so closely.”

By 2020, Ayala-Heredia —a senior research assistant at the Center for Health Promotion and Health Equity in Brown’s School of Public Health — was ready to give it another try. Months before, she had begun to invest more heavily in her own health and well-being, and she said a new self-confidence readied her to jump back in. This time, Ayala-Heredia felt proud of the result — so proud, in fact, that she submitted the self-portrait to be included in “After Hours,” an annual art exhibition mounted by the Brown Arts Initiative featuring original work by staff members from across the University.

Year after year, the art featured in “After Hours” reveals that after Brown employees leave their desks, labs and work sites, many trade keyboards for canvases and meetings for modeling clay. Health promoters take up embroidery and cross stitch. Grant writers dabble in ceramics. Construction staff fuse intricately patterned layers of glass in kilns. Organizers say the exhibition is an eye-opening reminder that Brown’s employees are as innovative, thoughtful and bold in their free time as they are at work.

“After Hours”, typically an in-person exhibition held at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, has moved online this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibition is available to view through the end of the Spring 2021 semester.

Drawing is my stress outlet. Once I'm drawing and I'm in the zone, time doesn't exist and my mind is clear. All those thoughts I have throughout the day, little worries over this and that — all of that completely disappears.

Viveka Ayala-Heredia Senior research assistant, Center for Health Promotion and Health Equity
Self portrait of Viveka Ayala-Heredia

Sophia LaCava-Bohanan, assistant director for programs at the BAI who curated the show alongside a graduate student fellow, said she enjoys the annual glimpse into staffers’ extracurricular lives.

“One of the reasons I love the staff exhibition is the opportunity to get a peek at an artistic practice from people working in all areas of the University,” she said. “The artists truly come from every type of profession: We have artists who work in Facilities Management, the University Library, the Warren Alpert Medical School and more.”

Some staff artists see a direct connection between their creative pursuits and their day jobs.

Leo Selvaggio, an instructional media specialist at Brown’s Multimedia Labs, was educated as an interdisciplinary artist at Rutgers University and Columbia College Chicago. Early in his career, Selvaggio became passionate about providing communities with easy access to “makerspaces” — studios or shops that allow artists, engineers and computer scientists to bring their creative visions to life. At Brown, he found the ideal outlet for that passion: He spends most workdays helping students execute multimedia projects that often aim to confront pressing social issues.

“It's a really fun job where I get to work with the entire Brown community on developing their media-making skills, and it suits my interdisciplinary background,” Selvaggio said.

The job also keeps his own creative juices flowing, he said. His “After Hours” exhibition piece, an animated video piece titled “Apologize to America,” resembles some of the projects he helps Brown students and faculty create in the Multimedia Labs.

Rip Gerry, an exhibition coordinator and archivist at Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, spends many of his daytime hours curating and arranging items for public display. On evenings and weekends, he flexes those same creative muscles making eclectic assemblages in his home studio. The untitled piece he submitted to “After Hours” features a collection of plastic spaceships and robots arranged neatly but artistically, like a diorama one might expect to find in a museum of science fiction or 1960s pop culture.

For other staff members, the connections between work and art are more abstract.

Rebecca Rex, an associate director in Brown’s Office of Foundation Relations, has worked with clay since high school. She said she has maintained a consistent pottery practice for almost 20 years, logging between 6 and 9 hours per week at a community studio inside the Newport Art Museum.

Rex, who helps faculty in the humanities and social sciences develop grant proposals that will support new and existing research, noticed that her approach to pottery changed after she came to the University seven years ago.

“I learn a lot about faculty research as part of my job, and this causes me to think more expansively about the world around me,” Rex said. “I can't say for sure if there's a direct corollary, but since coming to Brown I have definitely started to take a more contemplative and open approach to my work. I'm spending more time thinking about what I'm doing and why, and how I can push myself further.”

Ayala-Heredia never saw a connection between her work and her art — until now.

The Pawtucket native started drawing regularly in elementary school, when a teacher noticed her talent and gifted her a 10-yard roll of drawing paper.

“She called me into class on the last day of school and said, ‘Take this roll of paper with you over the summer; see if you do anything with it,’” Ayala-Heredia said. “I spent the entire summer drawing. That’s all I did. That was the point where I realized, okay, there’s something here.”

She said art became her “stress outlet” as she pursued a college degree in psychology, worked in the mental health and hospitality fields and later joined the staff at Brown’s School of Public Health, where she has worked for 10 years.

But 2020 was the first year when her art intersected with her work in a meaningful way. After years of facilitating Center for Health Promotion and Health Equity research projects that encourage members of the Latinx community to develop healthy habits — like eating fresh, whole foods and exercising regularly — Ayala-Heredia decided she wanted to lead by example.

“I felt like a bit of a hypocrite telling women to be more healthy and physically active when I wasn’t doing it myself,” she said. “I thought, OK, if I’m going to throw myself into this job and mean it when I tell them physical activity is good for them, I’m going to have to walk the walk.”

In 2019, Ayala-Heredia adopted healthy eating habits and discovered that running, like drawing, helped clear her mind and ease stress. Her new lifestyle led to huge health, strength and confidence gains — and prompted a renewed desire to draw herself. Her self-portrait now hangs in a digital gallery alongside 29 other staff artists’ works in the virtual “After Hours” exhibition, available freely until the beginning of May to anyone in the world.

“When I’m drawing someone else, it’s easy to see beauty in their imperfections,” Ayala-Heredia. “That’s harder to do when I’m drawing myself, because I’m my own worst critic. It’s tempting to feel disappointed that my skin is textured and scarred from acne, or to think, ‘Geez, my nostrils are too big!’ But I was so proud of myself for investing in my health that I ended up embracing those parts of me. Putting myself through this process was therapeutic, on some level.”