Interviewing someone for an article is bit like creating a sculpture. You have an idea of what you want to write, based on what you’ve researched about the person, just like a sculptor has an idea of what’s inside that piece of stone.
You ask that person one question, maybe two, they start to talk, you listen, ask more questions, and slowly (sometimes quickly) you find their passion, their personality, the things that make them interesting. The sculptor chisels away the unnecessary chips of stone to uncover the beauty inside, the part that is interesting.
I started to get an idea about Kelly Harlan (right), Marketing Director of the Virginia Arts Festival, before I met her at the delightful aLatté Café. Kelly emailed to let me know that she was flattered that I wanted to interview her about the upcoming NEON Festival (in Norfolk’s Arts District on October 15 – 16 from 5 – 10 pm) but she was uncomfortable being the sole subject of an article when so many people and organizations have put so much effort into organizing the first NEON Festival.
NEON is New Energy of Norfolk, and is a celebration of the Arts District. The marketing person in her could not resist getting the word out about the “Dawn of the NEON,” so she agreed to meet me.
We sat down to coffee and ginger lemonade. The first thing she did was hand me a list of over 30 names and organizations that are working hard and have been working for months, even years to get this party started. This cultural cooperation is impressive. Hampton Roads has so many organizations, institutions, businesses and people who not only care about the arts, but put their money where their mouths are, work together and do something about bringing the arts, both visual and performing, to all ages and all the communities in Hampton Roads. Unless you’ve lived in other places, you don’t realize how unique it is to a community of this size.
The idea of an Arts District in Norfolk has been percolating for a few years. To get a rainbow recap of the history of Norfolk’s Arts District, click on the up arrow at NEONnfk. This colorful, clean website was created and donated by the artists of the web at Sway Creative Labs (below), another example of that cultural cooperation.
So many people, from private citizens, like C. Arthur “Brother” Rutter III, his wife, Meredith, and law partner Robert Mills, who purchased the Texaco Building and turned it into an art space and performance venue; to Heidi Leigh from Push Comedy Theater; to Ashley Mars, graphic designer from the Virginia Zoo; to so many more people that we would need a spreadsheet, have come together to–here comes the cliché–to make a dream a reality. It is really amazing.
Kelly Harlan is a prime example of one of these people. Kelly’s parents met at ODU, got married, and are still living in the house in Larchmont where Kelly grew up. Kelly is a proud graduate of Maury High School. She was a stellar student at Maury and went on to University of Virginia, where she majored in Studio Art with a concentration in photography. Kelly is an artist at heart, but probably sits right in the middle of that left-brain, right-brain diagram. She is a creative thinker with an extremely organized, outgoing side.
Not sure of what she wanted to do in the world, she went to work for Virginia Arts Festival right out of college as a seasonal worker. She worked her way up from Playbill Coordinator to the youngest Marketing Director in less than ten years. She lives in Freemason, walks to work and loves downtown. Kelly says that “as a resident, you take more ownership of an area and you really want to see the area thrive and develop. It challenges you to get more involved and see what you can do.”
She loves her work with VAF. They will be announcing the line-up for the 20th season on October 21. There will be about 60 performances throughout Hampton Roads and outreach to over 34,000 students. There may even be a few surprises in this season. One of these student outreach groups will be performing at the NEON Festival. The Rhythm Project All Stars are a steel drum band made up of high schoolers throughout Hampton Roads. For a full line-up of all the NEON Festival Events, go here.
The VAF has always encouraged Kelly to “not stay in the silo of what we do.” She became involved with the Arts District early on, because of her love of the arts, because she lived downtown, and because “seeing the energy and the ideas around the table and the creative minds is inspiring. There is a certain energy that artists bring; nothing is too big. They can take anything and make it into something.”
“NEON festival is a large collaboration.” AltDaily, with Hannah Serrano and Jesse Scaccia at the helm, “set the groundwork for Arts District,” according to Charlotte Potter, Programming Director of the Chrysler Glass Studio and self-described “arts activist” (left). The Chrysler Museum and Glass Studio anchor the west end of the Arts District. The Chrysler committed early on. They believe that “by engaging people across natural barriers, the NEON is succeeding in truly bringing people together and creating a new place for creativity and transformation.”
The Downtown Norfolk Council, Mary Miller, President and CEO and Rachel McCall (above left), Special Projects Manager, are “driving the ship” that is NEON. The NEON Festival is a massive undertaking with murals, both big and small, other visual art, dance companies, comedians, buskers, theater groups, bands, and more, happening in venues all over the Arts District. The DNC is the organizing force. Ambassadors and volunteers will be out to direct you to the next “art surprise” and help you discover the NEON.
Rachel McCall says, “We want the Arts District to feel full and exciting at every turn and street corner from the Chrysler Museum and Glass Studio, to Harrison Opera House, to Work | Release. There is so much enthusiasm surrounding the Arts District and this is the perfect moment to show it off.”
There are so many people, businesses and organizations working on the NEON Festival. I wish I could name them all. Kelly Harlan, Rachel McCall and Charlotte Potter are just three who believe that “a rising tide raises all ships.” Charlotte says, “this is the most organic and natural cooperation between different entities across the region I have ever seen.” Someone should be taking notes, because the NEON could make an inspiring coffee table book someday. Art, dedication, and cooperation are all coming together to recreate a neighborhood and make Norfolk even better.