Rodney Veal is a talker. He’ll talk to you about his art, his family, and his passion for this city. Upon a first meeting, he’ll talk to you like you’re old friends, and he’s not afraid to tell you what he thinks. I got the opportunity sit down with Rodney over a long lunch to talk about his experiences. He’s doing something right – as a Dayton native making it as an artist and giving back to the community through the Blue Sky Project. I wanted to know his story in hopes that it could help others on a similar journey. Luckily, Rodney is happy to tell his story.
Who is Rodney Veal?
Rodney Veal is a performance artist who hesitates to use that term to define his art. He uses visual art, dance, film, photography, music, and more to create experiences for his audiences. Originally, he was drawn to art school for design, but dabbling in dance while in college gave him a new direction. After graduation, he found himself clerking at the Department of Transportation, but missing the vibrancy of movement. He decided that he needed to find a creative outlet. Luckily, he knew he could take a beginning ballet class at Sinclair Community College at a cost next to nothing and revive his excitement for dance.
That class started the ball rolling. Basic Ballet at SCC shifted to adult dance classes at the Dayton Ballet which opened further doors for him. His teacher and soon-to-be champion, Barbara Pontecorvo, told him that he had good qualities; he was musical with good turn out (and he was a man), but he would have to lose weight and learn technique. Pontecorvo’s honesty and encouragement pushed him along to work harder.
Rodney believes it was the feedback, criticism, and encouragement from local dance professionals that kept him in the scene. Bess Imber was his “catalyst for change,” making him take dance seriously as a career. DeShona Pepper-Robertson shared with him her great passion and positive spirit to transform lives. It was meeting these women in the Dayton community – and so many more – that created an atmosphere where he could work and thrive. That’s what he claims makes Dayton such a special place – the support system available to artists. He argues that the history of Dayton in the dance world is a “history of legendary performers and teachers” all with reputations that extend beyond Dayton.
With more feedback, he kept getting better. The success he achieved as a choreographer really enticed him and that became his passion. He learned he was honestly good when four of his works were performed and recognized at Regional Dance America. He credits his continued success to the fantastic support structure that exists in Dayton; his work with friends at the Dayton Ballet, Gem City Ballet, DCDC, and other dance organizations have built him into a professional dancer/choreographer. With a light in his eyes, Rodney says, they “gave to me and they didn’t have to be generous – but they were.” He is forever grateful for his mentors and teachers; it is because of them that he is excited to give back to his own community through the Blue Sky Project.
His days of clerking for the Department of Transportation are long gone. Now he teaches at Sinclair (the same college that re-introduced him to dance years ago) and Stivers, acts as the President of the Board of Involvement Advocacy which operates the Blue Sky Artist Residency Program, and he freelances as an artist. Good work brings about more good work. Because he was a Blue Sky resident artist in 2009, Rodney has been asked to install exhibits and create other works. Local boy definitely makes good.
The Blue Sky Project
It’s through Blue Sky that I learned about Rodney’s story. According to their Web site, Blue Sky is “an artist-centered program committed to producing significant works of contemporary art.” They provide a communal environment for diverse artists to collaborate with local young people, they use the creative process to teach important lessons to the youth participants, and they build up the Dayton community by contributing to the cultural experience. Blue Sky is changing the landscape of the Dayton region with their creative and collaborative approach to art making. Rodney believes in the mission and its benefits for Dayton, stating “if we support individuals in what they’re passionate about, it’s a win-win for the community.”
Rodney was a resident artist in 2009, and is so pleased to be involved in the Project again this year. He gushes about youth participants from last year and the difference the Project has made in their life. Each year, forty young people have the opportunity to be next to someone making art at a professional level, and those youth get to be actively engaged in the process as artists with ideas that are critiqued, validated, and utilized. Talking about the kids from 2009, he believes their whole demeanor has changed; they see life in a different way. And he believes that even if they choose to leave Dayton – they leave with a good story to share, and that story will make outsiders more interested in the region.
But it’s not only the youth participants who benefit; the professional artists from around the world are finding that they can work freely in Dayton. Artistic collaboration is available and resources can be utilized. There are so many possibilities available if you only ask. Giving an example from his own experience, on Thursday, July 22, 2010, Rodney filled the Schuster Center Wintergarden with music, silk and dancers for two spectacular performances. How in the world was this allowed? He asked. And Ken Neufeld, the President and CEO of the Victoria Theatre Association, said yes. According to Rodney, this type of access isn’t available anywhere else – Dayton is a welcoming arts community.
Although the summer residency program is coming to an end, you haven’t missed out yet. Coming up this weekend is the R U Experienced Final Exhibition; there are three ways to check it out. How you enjoy it is up to you. Thursday is a special gala with a ticket price that goes to support the project. Dress up, meet and greet, and put your money toward this great cause. Low on cash? Friday is about hipsters and hanging out and seeing the art during First Friday. Saturday is a friends and family event; although it’s more intimate, it’s not closed to the public.
In the future, Rodney hopes Blue Sky will expand to a year-round program. The artists this year love the freedom and collaboration available in Dayton and they really want to come back. Blue Sky hopes to host them through the year and connect them to what they need.
Future Growth in Dayton
The story could end there. It was a great conversation about his history and what makes Dayton such a great place for young artists. But I told you Rodney likes to talk, and our conversation didn’t stop with the good news about his history and the Blue Sky Project. He also has strong ideas about what might be holding Dayton back.
When talking about the art scene in the region, Rodney calls it “an embarrassment of riches.” But he fears that the audiences aren’t always “present” to enjoy it. I asked what he means. He points out that too often audiences will “stop the experience to beat traffic.” Too many people don’t live life as it comes– they are always thinking of what comes next. Rodney sounds like he gets his philosophy from an inspirational poster when he encourages that people should work to live rather than live to work, but you can tell that this is a man who honestly lives by that credo. Life is about the choices that you make; he asks, “What are you running toward on that treadmill?”
He encourages more artistically-minded people to get involved in civic leadership. New voices at the table will bring fresh, new ideas. The myth that artists are too removed from “real people” and aren’t hard workers also must be dispelled. Rodney says he has learned management and finance through the arts business, and he argues that many artists have the capability to use both sides of their brain for creative project management. These individuals who bring the artistic “full-mindedness” can help implement the changes our region needs to succeed. It’s a two-sided challenge; our region’s leadership must value the work done by the artists and call on them for help, and the artists must take up arms to help in the revitalization of the region.
Beyond the individual motivations of audience members and the commitment of artists, Rodney has recommendations for the region. He wants Dayton to be the city that changes the mindset of middle-class America. Believing that Dayton is behind the times in relations to many societal norms, Rodney wants to see more people feeling empowered to be themselves. Rodney argues against what some people call “hometown values,” he says that it’s the region’s antipathy toward gay rights, a pigeon-holing of women, and the expectations that our young people should be on a track to marry and start having children quickly that results in stagnation. In his opinion, breaking out of this mold can encourage more openness, creation, and progress.
Rodney’s last words of advice for those working to make a difference in the region: affect change for the people in front of you – don’t worry about how many are moved, just be sure that you can move those people as much as possible. Trust the people around you to work. Critique and feedback is good – Blind validation is bad. And finally, he has words for the naysayers in Dayton. “Change it or get out – find the place that makes you happy.”