Ella Hepner was surrounded by art growing up in western Massachusetts. Her father was a performance artist who dabbled in painting and sculpture; her mother was a creative writer. So, a future in the arts was almost predetermined. But Hepner set her sights on a wider path, and followed her interests to pursue her career.
A 2018 graduate of the BXA Intercollege Degree Programs with a bachelor of humanities and arts (BHA) in global studies and art with a minor in Hispanic studies, Hepner chose her degree to suit her talents and to diversify her assets “to craft a better future,” she said.
“Art was a part of growing up, but I didn’t want to go to art school,” she said. “I wanted to focus on a combined degree that would help me build a career vs. being a studio artist.”
After taking an interest in Spanish and Hispanic studies in high school, Hepner said she loved how that language opened doors to a different world for her. Following a study abroad experience through CMU, she found that understanding and living in a different culture provided access to new realities within her overall life scope, she said. Now, she teaches Spanish full time and works as an interpreter, but she is dedicated to her art, whether it’s to survive or not.
“In terms of going the route of trying to be a practicing studio artist, I have had some teachers who’ve been a huge influence,” Hepner said. “When I was 15, I had a pre-college teacher who encouraged me to live on my own in a new city and be part of a rigorous, serious arts education.” At Carnegie Mellon, School of Art Professor Susanne Slavick was a major influence, as was Associate Professor Andrew Ellis Johnson. Johnson, she said, introduced her to taking risks. “He would say, ‘Make something really bad.’” She realized that making mistakes was a part of learning her craft.
When she had Professor Suzie Silver for Senior Studio, Hepner initially wasn’t sure what to expect because Silver was someone with a reputation for being very direct.
“I had a fascinating moment with her when I was away from my partner,” Hepner remembered. “Suzie was so empathetic and romantic about approaching love from a distance. She encouraged me to push my art even deeper into romance, recommending poetry and other intimate artists. She said, ‘What you make, ultimately, should be a representation of what you live and what you do and what you feel.’”
As such, Hepner advises current students who are making art to live their lives while working toward their futures – whether they become professional artists or not.
“You’ll end up making art, no matter what,” she said. “When I was an undergrad in painting, I went through an uninspired period. My professor, Echo Eggebrecht, said it was good that I wasn’t making anything, that I was living my life. You must live to have things to make art about.”
Hepner said she has learned to gather those resources and make use of them when she is creating her work. She tapped into life experience for works she displayed in a group exhibition 345 Gallery in Manhattan. The show, “Nocturnes,” was curated by Zachary Ginsberg was on view February 23 through March 19.
Her work, “New Year’s Dance,” was inspired by what she was feeling at a New Year’s party – the anticipation of new beginnings, of dancing and being with people during a celebration. The mix and movement of people in mid-dance came to life on canvas, communicated through reflection and light.
“Your life is informed by the different things in it, and you’re going to soak up all that’s around you,” she said.
She found that to be true as an undergrad at CMU, recalling the studio culture of her junior and senior years in the School of Art and being able to create alongside other people. That type of collaboration, she said, is organic to Carnegie Mellon.
“There’s so much interdisciplinary work, especially in CFA, the School of Art and the BXA programs,” she said. “There’s this intersection of different elements coming together to create a unique product. It’s something that happens not only at CMU, but also in Pittsburgh, where you see both the mix of gritty underbelly and kindness.”
Story by Pam Wigley