This week we had the pleasure of talking with arts and living reporter for C-Ville Weekly, Erin O’Hare.
We talked with Erin about what drew her to writing about the arts, her most memorable pieces, how she feels a renewed responsibility to report in Charlottesville, the Beach Boys and more.
Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about what it is you do, where you do it and where you were before coming to C-Ville Weekly.
I’m Erin O’Hare, arts and living reporter for C-VILLE Weekly, an alternative weekly paper based in Charlottesville. I report on all manner of the arts and culture for the paper, with particular focus on local music, visual art, and theater. C-VILLE runs one long form story each week, and I write a number of those as well, usually (but not always) with an arts and culture focus. I began freelance writing for C-VILLE in spring 2015 and joined the staff in August 2016; before that, I was an assistant editor for the University of Virginia’s alumni magazine.
How did you get into wanting to write about the arts? Did it happen by chance or has it been a lifelong interest of yours?
I’ve always been into the arts–as a kid, I always had my nose in a book, headphones on my ears (sometimes both at once). I loved going to art galleries and seeing plays. As I grew up and went to college (where I double majored in English and art history), I started to realize why I loved the arts so much: They enrich our lives. The arts can be very pleasurable in that they tap into so many of our senses in a positive way–a note of music can send a shiver up your spine, a painting can make you smile–and they can make the impossible possible, like how a book can transport you across time and space.
And then there’s the fact that artists put a lot of themselves and their world into creative endeavors, and because of that, I think that art, in all its forms, gives us the chance to recognize, understand, and respect our similarities and our differences. That makes for a better world, I think. I came to appreciate all of this by having someone explain it to me, share it with me, so when I started reporting and writing journalistically, I was immediately and fiercely drawn to the arts. It’s pretty awesome that my job involves cracking open the proverbial nut and handing it over to someone so that they can un-shell it.
What’s one of the challenges when it comes to writing about arts for a newspaper audience?
One of the challenges of writing about the arts for a newspaper audience, I think, is finding the stories that will hopefully compel people to read a story about an artist, or a type of art, that might not be in their usual scope of interest or comfort zone. I think I’ve gotten pretty good at finding those stories (and emphasizing artists whose voices and work has previously been left out of the broader arts conversation here in town), but it’s hard to know how readers react.
“It’s pretty awesome that my job involves cracking open the proverbial nut and handing it over to someone so that they can un-shell it.”
What’s been one of your memorable pieces for C-Ville and why?
Maybe my story on seed saver Ira Wallace, because I got to spend so much time with her and shine a spotlight on the really amazing but rather hidden work she does right here in Virginia that has major implications for the entire planet. Another is my story on Monacan Indian Nation, the traditional custodians of the land upon which Charlottesville sits. As is the case with many other American Indian tribes and indigenous peoples around the world, the rich history of the Monacan people has been overlooked, largely written out of history books, despite the fact that they have inhabited this land for more than 10,000 years. The news peg was that after decades of work, decades of trying, the tribe was finally officially recognized by the U.S. government, but the story was about so much more than that. It was about identity, race, history, survival and presence. It was an honor to share that story.
Another extremely memorable one for me is a story about Frank Walker, a local artist whose work focuses around how black bodies are treated in America. Frank has an amazing story–he grew up in Charlottesville in the 1950s and ’60s (a time when the city flattened an entire black neighborhood in town in the name of “urban renewal”), always drawing from comic books. He went on to do graphics in the military, then worked as a medical illustrator at UVA hospital for a couple decades. Only in retirement has he moved into fine art, and his work is both formally and conceptually extraordinary. He was a lot of fun to get to know–I think we talked for seven hours total for this particular story–and it felt good to give him and his work the attention it deserves. Stories like his are very important to our community.
A lot more people know Charlottesville’s name now, for better or worse. Do you feel like you job as a reporter changed after Aug. 11, 12, 2017? Some say the arts are the thread that holds together a city’s collective identity so I was wondering if you picked up on a type of collective shift after the Unite the Right rally.
I wouldn’t say that my job as a reporter changed much after August 12, 2017, no. I personally feel a renewed sense of responsibility, because I think more people in our community are looking to make meaningful connections, to learn more, to be more socially conscious and socially responsible after that day, and, as I mentioned previously, I think the arts can facilitate, or help facilitate, all of that.
What I have noticed is that there seems to be more support of artists of color; I don’t want to overplay that, because there is still a lot of room for improvement. But I do think some (again, not all) local arts organizations are finally examining the actual diversity of their programming, thinking about the racial (and, to an extent, gender) diversity of the artists they choose to showcase in their theater, art gallery, or music venue. That also forces an examination of audience, of realizing that maybe your theater/art gallery/music venue hasn’t been as welcoming as you’d thought.
The thing is, a lot of people in Charlottesville’s arts community (particularly artists of color and women) have been engaged in these conversations that other people in the town (namely white folks) are now just starting to have.
What has kept you wanting to write for a newspaper and remain the industry, despite its challenges?
Reporting for C-VILLE is the most challenging job I’ve had, but it’s also the best job I’ve had. I report and write stories about my community, for my community and for a free paper that anyone, everyone, has access to. We care a lot more than people think we do, I think. We miss the mark sometimes, but we truly learn from it, move on and do better next time. It’s an extraordinarily supportive, thoughtful and smart editorial staff. I’m proud to make a paper with these people every week, and I’d have a drink with every single one of them after work, too.
Hobbies outside of journalism: Going to see live music, going to art exhibitions and performances, baking, listening to records (I have a pretty big collection).
Most treasured record: My most treasured record is an original mono pressing of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
Favorite artist: One is the current Howardena Pindell show at the VMFA; another is “Reflections: Native Art Across Generations” at The Fralin at UVA; another is “Marking the Infinite” at the Phillips Collection, featuring work by contemporary Aboriginal Australian women artists.
Favorite author: You’re killing me, Smalls! Right now, I’m reading Gita Mehta’s A River Sutra.
Book: My big, fat, Riverside Shakespeare. It’s almost 2,000 pages long.
Mantra you adhere to: Be kind.
This conversation has been edited for length.