Department of Visual and Performing Arts Hosts Fall 2022 Speaker Series
Merrimack College’s Department of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) has a long history of welcoming outside artists, designers, and performers to engage with students, faculty, and the broader Merrimack community. The Fall 2022 semester was no exception, with three exceptional guest speakers sharing their experiences and advice with our students.
VPA faculty and students nominate outside speakers, performers, or workshop leaders each year. Every nomination is considered as the Department seeks to expose our community to a diverse and eclectic mix of creative leaders and practitioners. These figures complement and augment our many music, art, design, and theatre courses. These guest speakers also help the Department of VPA and the School of Liberal Arts with its long-standing goal of fostering interdisciplinary collaboration and exposure.
This past semester Assistant Professor Dan Vlahos hosted the speaker series within the Department’s Introduction to Visual and Performing Arts course, held in the Merrimack College Writers House and the Rogers Center for the Arts. The three speakers included a fashion designer/entrepreneur, a new-media artist/sculptor, and a music educator/performer. Each speaker is briefly profiled below, with noteworthy comments and reflections provided by students and faculty alike.
In early September, over thirty students and faculty attended a talk by designer and entrepreneur Suzanne McKenzie. After studying advertising and graphic design, McKenzie got her start working as a designer at Arnold Worldwide—a branding and advertising agency in Boston. There, she met Professor Vlahos, also a member of Arnold’s design group at the time.
Sadly, in 2009 McKenzie experienced tragedy when her late husband, Ucal McKenzie, a beloved Boston-area soccer coach, experienced chest pains while playing soccer and passed away. Later that year, McKenzie launched a foundation and youth program in her husband’s honor. Over ten years later, and with sponsorships from Puma and other brands, the Ucal McKenzie Breakaway Foundation (UMBF) now operates youth camps in Boston and Hartford, CT. UMBF is offered to youth ages 8-18, providing a mix of programming centered around soccer, health, art, and mentorship.
Just after launching UMBF, McKenzie had the idea to create and sell custom-designed apparel to generate financial support for the foundation. What started with one shirt has grown to become an entire collection of luxury-soccer inspired activewear. In 2012, McKenzie labeled the brand “Able Made,” now a fast-growing sustainable clothing line.
During her talk at Merrimack, McKenzie clarified that her path to success with the foundation and fashion line was never easy. In fact, the day she was scheduled for her talk at Merrimack, she also needed to support a newly launched retail location in Connecticut. McKenzie had to open the store, and thus she gave her talk remotely from that retail location. Luckily, McKenzie now has more hands to help. In October of 2022, she hired Merrimack College alum Hayley Dougela ‘22, who is currently serving as a Sales and Marketing Associate. Dougela graduated with a BA in Marketing and a minor in Graphic Design. Professor Vlahos states, “McKenzie is pioneering the future of business and design through social entrepreneurship—deftly intertwining circularity, health, creativity, sustainability, and social purpose in a meaningful and impactful way.”
The second speaker in the Fall 2022 Speaker series was Dennis Svoronos. Svoronosis is a sculptor and new media artist. He was nominated to speak at Merrimack by Assistant Professor and Director of the Art and Art History program at Merrimack, Jonathan Latiano. According to Svoronos, his works exist at the intersection of “art and engineering.” Both Latiano and Svoronos are members of the Boston Sculptors Gallery.
During his workshop at Merrimack, Svoronos demonstrated a remarkable creation of his own engineering and design. This computer-controlled device is worn somewhat like a hat on the user’s head. When turned on, the device scans for brain activity. In real-time, cognitive activity is translated and represented into 8-bit musical tones. Svoronos half-jokingly called this an MRI (Mind Reactive Instrument). Students watched in amazement as Svoronos presented the device.
Svoronos’ fascination with the brain is deeply personal. In 2009, at 26 years old, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. During his talk, Svoronos showcased several of his past works that, in many ways, connect to his diagnosis and experiences as a patient. Remarkably, much of Svoronos’ work inverts any notion of shame or stigma of sickness. It is instead explored through subtle, sincere, and even sarcastic lenses of his experience. What some patients define as struggle, Svoronos saw as insight into his identity and his work.
Svoronos also invited students to participate in the creation of a dynamically generated poem by contributing words that would be randomly assembled into abstract, single-sentence poems. The resultant piece, The Collaborative Poetry Project (2022), can be viewed here.
The final speaker in the Fall 2022 series was Jim Felker. Felker was born and raised just north of Merrimack College in Haverhill, MA. Even as a child, Felker excelled in music—playing percussion and guitar, singing, and eventually leading his high school marching band as the drum major. Felker studied music and education at UMass Lowell, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Music Education.
Felker’s talk, A Life in Music, was interspersed with several short solo performances with vocals and guitar. Felker performed “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley, as well as “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” by Stevie Wonder. Felker identifies himself as a drummer, musician, teacher, and dad. He performs solo and with various bands as a freelance drummer. Outside of performing, Felker has been a music teacher for Bedford Public Schools since 2000.
When asked about Felker’s talk, a student remarked, “I felt very inspired by Jim Felker and the advice that he gave to us. It really resonated with me, and I’ll take that advice and use it throughout the rest of my life.” The student went on to say, “One thing I noted when he was giving his presentation is that he suggested that you don’t need to be a big-name artist or celebrity to be successful—and that there are a variety of ways you can find success and happiness within what you choose to do in life.”
With a newly launched undergraduate program in music and a growing marching band, Merrimack College is seeking those who, like Felker, seek to develop a life in music. “To go from one music major to nearly 30 in under five years is so exciting, and I love that our hallways are filled with music all hours of the day,” says Professor Andrew Cote, who leads the academic music programs and has helped launch the marching band alongside several other instrumental and vocal ensembles.”
Following his talk, Felker opened it up to questions from students. In response to a question regarding his musical inspirations, Felker cited Tower of Power, an American R&B and funk-based band performing since 1968. Another student asked Felker who mentored him—and in response, Felker noted the influence of his high school music teacher Joe Leary. Leary studied at Berklee College of Music, taught music for over 30 years, and who, like Felker, actively performs throughout New England and beyond.
Spring 2023 Workshops
VPA is also hosting interdisciplinary workshops in the spring 2023 semester. Currently, three workshops are scheduled: Courtney Marchese, a global experience designer at Slalom; Katie Pustizzi, who will engage the students in movement, choreography, and dance; and Len Davis, an interdisciplinary visual artist.