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The Interview: A.J. Vanderelli

As Alicia Jean (A.J.) Vanderelli leads me around her Franklinton-based gallery, a former church now called The Vanderelli Room, she shows me her most recent painting, Revelation: The Seven-Headed Beast of the Sea—seven self-portraits suspended on tentacle-like appendages stemming from a nude torso. Some faces stare directly at the viewer, almost glowing, while others smile [...]
Laura Dachenbach

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As Alicia Jean (A.J.) Vanderelli leads me around her Franklinton-based gallery, a former church now called The Vanderelli Room, she shows me her most recent painting, Revelation: The Seven-Headed Beast of the Sea—seven self-portraits suspended on tentacle-like appendages stemming from a nude torso. Some faces stare directly at the viewer, almost glowing, while others smile subtly from the shadows. I could stare at this work for hours without answering half the questions it raises for me. And that’s exactly what Vanderelli wants: for images to be a little complicated. After all, part of the painting’s inspiration was a Bible once owned by her uncle who lived with schizophrenia—and all the cryptic, apocalyptic passages he’d underlined within it.

Self-portraiture requires honesty and vulnerability to be placed on the canvas, and Beast is an artistic exploration of self, identity, family, and religion. The lived version of Vanderelli’s exploration has been one to find herself, her community, and her purpose. That wandering has included a sequence of less than exciting jobs, a short-lived marriage, and lot of geographic drift. The death of her grandfather (whose own remarkable academic life included attending Gallaudet University as a hearing individual and mastering sign language) caused her to reflect and to commit to her education. She started (at age 30) and finished her degree at Columbus College of Art and Design.

Now planted in the capital city, Vanderelli is driven by the her passion to make and share art, and to create opportunities for others to do so as well. As a vital member of Franklinton’s artistic renaissance, she’s currently in the planning stages of a four-venue exhibition, Silence is Death. Set for March, Silence is Death showcases not only the art and political voices of the neighborhood, but also Vanderelli’s talent for bringing those elements together to inspire change.

Childhood and Finding Community: I grew up in Panama City, Florida, which is kind of a beach/spring break community, so it is very transient. People come and they go all the time. The town is seasonal, so in the winter nobody’s around. It’s just like a vacant place—it’s really sad. In the summer, everybody has a job. In the winter, nobody has a job. So after high school, I moved. My dad’s family’s in Pennsylvania, so I went there for a little while. I went to Atlanta for a little while. I went to Orlando… just unsettled. Couldn’t really figure it out. I didn’t know who I was, who my people were, I guess. So it was just a constant search, just to find the people that I fit in with. I got married, and then I freaked out. I felt stagnant—I wasn’t making my own work. I ended up getting divorced and then dove into my art, for the most part, full-time. While I was married, I wound up at 400 West Rich … and ended up meeting people over there that I felt really connected to. We would work in our own studios and then we’d congregate in a friend’s studio and talk about about how. You know? Like we have this community and how do we create something out of this—this stuff that we like to do? There was this core group of people and we would just sit around: how do we do it, how do we do it, how do we do it? And then everyone kind of went, “Let’s do it.” And we did, for the neighborhood.

Goals and Purpose: I am an artist and I’m poor. I don’t care about money; that’s not why I’m in it. I want to be able to survive, but my ultimate goal isn’t to make bank. I spent a long time trying to figure out my role in the world—my purpose. Over the course of this year, I’ve figured out that my purpose is facilitation. I’m an art facilitator. Like, if you’re an artist and you really believe in yourself, you should be given an opportunity to prove it—I have this space for you to prove it. My day job is facilitating. I work with a kid who’s 16. He’s an artist and he has autism, so I work with him a few days a week to assist him. I can’t tell him how to make art, but I can provide him with the tools that he needs to be a successful artist and hopefully he’ll get it as he evolves.

Making Creativity Productive: What it takes is working your ass off—you’re doing it for you. If your life’s goal is strategy and [thinking], “For my work to be successful, I need to talk with this person and I need to make this many posts and I need to get this many followers,” that’s not creativity, that’s just a numbers game. It has to come from within. You constantly have to stay active. For my own personal work, [creativity] comes from interacting with people and being influenced emotionally by someone else. Someone strikes a chord with me and I’m like, “I have to paint.” If you’re stagnant, and you’re in the funk and you’re not doing anything, it’s so hard to get out of it. So you have to keep pushing through it, constantly. It’s like exercise. If you go to the gym everyday, and you take a week off, how hard is it to get back to the gym? It’s the same with creativity, which for me is good. I’m not making as much work as I used to make because I’m doing the gallery. But putting together the exhibitions and hanging the work and seeing how the works talk to each other and rearranging the space…is still using that part of my brain.

Hard work is really important. I sleep like four hours a night. Four hours. I’m not doing manual labor for 20 hours a day, but my brain is going 20 hours a day. And it’s good to be able to rely on someone else if you need it, and building those relationships and being someone that somebody else can rely on is good, too.

Inspiration and Technique: I want to be able to spend time with a painting or a sculpture and really look at it, and get away from it, think about it, and then go back to it and look at it again. I want something that’s engaging—that makes me wonder, or makes me imagine. I find that a lot of work that sells is just… eh. Is it purely because the color matches your house, or it’s cute? I don’t understand that part. I think it’s because my work tends to be a little more complicated. So I don’t know if I’m holding other people to that expectation just because I want that in my own work. [When you look at my work], I want you to go, “What the hell is she talking about?” Caravaggio is the man. I mean, his use of light is just… [sighs]. If I could achieve that, I would be in heaven. That’s what I strive for. I really want that depth. I want to come out of the darkness. I still want the darkness there, looming in the background, but you’re emerging from it—almost like growth.

Art, Pop Culture, and Technology: I hate social media. It’s a thorn in my side. For me personally, it kills me to have to [say], “All right, gotta do the Facebook post.” I’m more of a person-to-person contact. However, it’s a free source of promotion. There are really good things that come out of having a phone and being able to do photographs, and there’s art shows that are strictly about photos that you take with your phone. There are creative ways that you can use [smartphones], but it is very depressing because of how accessible everything is. I could imagine that with the evolution of photography, how painful it must be to a photographer who’s 80 years old, who’s been around and understands. I’m reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake right now, and that is a part of the discussion in the book. You have the three sisters, and one is not a creative. The other two are creatives. What does [the third sister] do to show her sisters she’s just as good as them? She creates television and creates all these things to take away from the writers and the visual artists. [Technology] devalues in a lot of ways, but at the same time, self-expression’s been around forever. We have these other outlets for people to be entertained … and it takes a special person to be able to take the time to read the blog, or to go to the theater.

Location and Connection: Columbus is so unique. You have that Midwest attitude, which is a lot more relaxed. You still have the energy that the East Coast has … but you have that Midwest, “Everything’s great. Yeah, let’s all get along,” which is awesome. As a creative community, people aren’t necessarily trying to step on each other to get to the top. There is a community. There is [an attitude] like, “Hey, I know this person that can do this thing better than I can, so I’m going to connect you to them, because I know that you deserve a really amazing product and I’m not the best fit.” I’m not saying everybody’s like that, but a majority of people want to see you succeed, too. It’s not just a “me” game—it’s an “us” game. I think that’s where I’m powerful—being able to bring people together. That’s why I stayed [in Columbus], because most everybody that I’ve met has just been so generous. If you’re willing to give, they give. People see the kindness, and they’re not afraid to take a moment and explore it.

In the End: The art thing is the only thing that’s ever been consistent [for me]. That’s my go-to. I’ve got to solve the world’s problems through art. I couldn’t imagine not making art. I can’t imagine having a lifetime career just painting, but I think I will always have a career in the arts in some faculty.

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Scream Team: Behind-the-scenes look at local haunting industry

Mike Thomas

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Like many a fiend of silver screen fame, the origins of Kelly Collins’ career in terror involve some teens, a campground, and a fateful ride into the deep, dark woods.

Thirty-eight years ago, Collins was general manager at a campground. Every Saturday at noon, he’d hook up a wagon to a tractor and treat the young campers to a hayride through the woods. The route Collins followed circled around an old oak tree, before turning around and coming back to the start. One Saturday, some mischievous teens sprang out from behind the tree, giving quite a scare to the unsuspecting wagoneers. All of the children screamed in surprise—then they laughed.

Kelly Collins (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This gave Collins an idea. To spice up his little hayride, he would arrange for the teens to act out the same routine the next Saturday— but this time, he’d up the ante by giving them rubber masks to wear. His plan was set in motion, and this time, the startled youngsters on the wagon cried all the way back to the campground.

“That was a bad idea, but it got me thinking...Why don’t we have a hayride at night and call it the ‘Spooky Hayride?’ ” Collins recalls. By fine-tuning the balance between fear and fun, Collins’ new enterprise was a success, and would set him on the path to a lifelong career in the haunted house business, or “haunting” as it’s known to its practitioners.

Early in his career, Collins became a key figure in the Central Ohio scream scene. After his haunted hayride, he spent a couple of seasons overseeing the Hallowscream event at the now- defunct Wyandot Lake. It was there that he was approached by Ken Schnacke, General Manager and President of the Columbus Clippers baseball team, who tapped Collins to create and lead the “Terror Park” event that was held at Cooper Stadium for a decade.

When the Clippers made the move to Huntington Park, the Terror Park event was shelved. Collins set out again on his own, founding the Scareatorium: a haunted house attraction occupying a 40,000-square-foot space in a northeast Columbus strip mall.

Over the next decade, the Scareatorium would serve as a hub for haunters, attracting and nurturing some of the city’s top talents in the field. From actors, makeup artists, set designers and people who just appreciate a good scare, the group that grew from Collins’ enterprise came together over buckets of blood and latex viscera, but now enjoy the valuable connection of a genuine community.

A longtime compatriot of Collins, Keith Newsome was one of the creative minds behind Terror Park and the Scareatorium. Though he specializes in visual effects design and fabrication, Newsome’s talents in haunting are wide-ranging. Since retiring from 13th Floor, Newsome has remained a vital member of the community, teaching classes on topics ranging from makeup application to mask making and performance.

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This season, he’s lending his skills to an attraction in Lancaster, Ohio titled “A True American Haunt: Birth of a Nightmare.” The house is set up in the Miller Building, a “poor house” originally built in 1828, which event promoters suggest may in fact be haunted. According to Newsome, the building is classified as one of the top-10 haunted houses in the United States, and was recently filmed for an upcoming episode of The Travel Channel show Destination Fear.

“It’s actually a haunted place. I don’t believe in that crap...I do now,” says Newsome. “There’s something in that place. I don’t go on the third or fourth floor anymore.”

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Whether patrons can expect to encounter bona fide spirits along with latex-clad actors in this haunt remains to be seen, but whatever the case, the event serves an important purpose. All proceeds from this haunt will benefit Habitat for Humanity’s plan to revitalize the historic Miller Building, and to help build housing for local veterans.

The charitable angle for this event comes as no surprise in an industry that at times seems like an extended family. People attracted to haunting come from every imaginable background, but are united by a common passion.

“I’ve had people who are financial managers of huge companies, down to people who are almost homeless,” says Newsome. “The cool part about it is that we treat everybody equally. When you walk in, you’re automatically family.”

One member of Newsome’s haunt family is Bobbi Jo Gonzalez, an artist who has turned a passion for body art and makeup into a year-round career.

Bobbi Jo Gonzalez (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Gonzalez’s first foray into the industry came while volunteering with her eldest daughters at a home haunt. Stepping up to fill the need for a makeup artist, Gonzalez gleaned what she could from YouTube videos. Her tool kit at that time consisted of, as she calls it, “that really crappy makeup you get at Kroger around Halloween.”

After encouragement from her peers at smaller attractions, Gonzalez eventually made her way to the Scareatorium, where she met Newsome. Newsome introduced her to higher-quality, water-based makeup, and she went on to mentor under the more experienced effects artist for two years.

Photo: Brian Kaiser

Today, Gonzalez is the owner of Aftershock Art, a thriving face painting and body art company that operates year-round. She’s also found a healthy sideline doing moulage—the art of creating realistic, simulated injuries on actors during training exercises for the military and first responders.

Like her mentor, Gonzalez sees the past support and encouragement from members of the haunt community as a foundation of the success she now enjoys.

“It’s something that we’re all passionate about, so once you find your niche in that community, it doesn’t matter what your background is, what your religion is, what your sexual orientation is—you have that weird background, and you have a family for life,” Gonzalez explains.

While basking in the warm embrace of your fellow ghoul is reason enough to keep some hooked on this line of work, there’s another essential element that unifies all haunters: the love of the scare.

“I fell in love. I didn’t know you could have so much fun scaring people,” says Ashley Shilling, another former employee of Collins from the Sacreatorium days who today serves as general manager of the 13th Floor Haunt.

Ashley Shilling (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

“Being an actor is a huge stress relief,” Shilling explains. “Getting to scare people kicks in your endorphins, especially if you can make a big man that looks very intimidating scream like a little girl—that’s a lot of fun. At the end of the night, you’re just relaxed.”

Whether drawn to a sense of community that can sometimes be hard to find in the world at large, or simply in it for the thrill of scaring people, the haunting industry has an undeniable pull for those that find their way into its spooky ranks. Even retired industry veteran Collins is unable to fully step away from the work, and is gearing up for his first season as manager of a Spirit Halloween supply store in Newark, Ohio.

“When you scare people, and they scream and run away from you, it’s a great way to let out pent-up frustration,” Collins says. “You could have the worst day in the world, and within a few minutes of working at the haunted house, you feel so much better. It’s a great tension reliever.”

In professional haunting, one person’s fear is another’s bliss.

For more information on the 13th Floor Haunt and other haunted houses happening in October, click here.

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Photo Gallery: HighBall Halloween

614now Staff

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HighBall Halloween is the nation’s most elaborate costume party. Staged in the Art & Soul of Columbus, the annual event bridges runway style with the culture of the Short North Arts District.

Much like in years past, the city turned out in full force and full costume to celebrate fashion, fall, and fun with host Nina West.

Here's a look at some of the best looks of HighBall 2019:

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I Love My Job: CBJ national anthem singer Leo Welsh

Regina Fox

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Every day, people all around Columbus drive/ride/walk to their jobs, eager to contribute their passion and talent to the city. This series aims to highlight those people and give them a platform to spread their love for their careers. Welcome to I Love My Job.

You may not know his face (depending on your seats), but you definitely know his name: LEO! Longtime Columbus Blue Jackets national anthem singer Leo Welsh has been stealing the hearts of hockey-goers at Nationwide Arena with his impressive pipes and passion for the game since 2003.

Here is why he loves his job so much:

614: What do you love most about your job? 

LW: The thing I love most about my position with the CBJ is being such a fan and being part of the game experience. It is a total thrill every single time. 

614: What parts of your job do you find most challenging?

LW: The most challenging part would have to be maintaining my health during the winter. Hard to sing well when you aren’t feeling your best. 

614: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

LW: The most rewarding aspect is when I am singing and I can see young people singing along to our National Anthem.

614: What’s the best story you have from your time with the Columbus Blue Jackets?

LW: So many great stories and interactions with fans and our military honorees. Most recently the playoffs from last year strand out. The CBJ had a World War II veteran on the ice with me every night. These men were all special and excited the crowd and made it very easy for me to be focused on honoring our country. Several were arm in arm with me and singing along to our National Anthem, very special moments. 

614: Who has been the most influential mentor in your career so far?

LW: I have had many great teachers and mentors. Maestro William Boggs stands out. He is one of the reasons I moved to Columbus following graduation from Ohio University. He offered me a job with Opera Columbus. He was critical when he needed to be, demanded preparation from his singers and was supportive by offering examples and best practices at all times. Truly a great mentor.

Leo will be leading players and fans in the national anthem this Friday as the Blue Jackets open their season against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Nationwide Arena. Puck drops at 7pm.

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