Assistant Professor Ellie Zenhari shares her thoughts about the “Watts: Then and Now” exhibit and student project, photography, and her current project.
Ellie Zenhari earned her MFA at Savannah College of Art and Design and has been with CSUDH in the Art & Design Department since 2012 teaching photography, motion graphics, 3D animation, and interactive design classes.
She has traveled and photographed extensively around the world, and her work has been exhibited in a solo exhibit in the Library Cultural Art Center at CSUDH (2015-2016), Watts Labor Committee Action Community Gallery (2015), the Louvre Museum in Paris (2015), the International Art Fair, Art Basel, Miami, Florida (2015), Angels’ Gate Cultural Center Gallery (2014), Santa Monica College (2011-2012), and Received the “Special Merit Category” from Light, Space & Time online Gallery (2013.) In 2014, Ellie was anonymously nominated and received the White House prestigious President’s Award in the area of Service.
In 2015 Ellie completed an in-depth series of photographs of contemporary Watts for the Watts: Then and Now exhibition commemorating the 50-year anniversary of the Watts rebellion. The 48 black and white and color photographs focus on four themes: People and the Community, the Neighborhoods, Historic Sites (Then and Now,) and the Watts Towers.
The Watts Now photography exhibition and community-related projects took about nine months of extensive research to plan, make community connections, photograph, process, publish, and install. The exhibition was well-received in the media with praise from independent reviews, KCET, Wave magazine, and the Daily Breeze.
We caught up with the artist/educator for a quick chat about her work and what’s next.
Q: Watts: Then and Now was such a success, garnering lots of attention and accolades from the community and the media. Tell us what was your vision for that body of work and how do you feel its message continues to resonate?
A: That body of work tries to shed light on social justice issues that the community of Watts struggles with on a daily basis. It also shows a vibrant community bringing about positive change. To provide an authentic visual representation of Watts, that balance had to be accurately depicted in the work, and I believe we caught that. It is meant to present a community in its entirety, struggles and triumphs, and I hope it continues to inspire and challenge viewers to see the humanity of this amazing community through the photographer’s lense.
Q: What was it like to work with students on such an expansive and important project? How did they respond to the subject matter, what did they bring to the project, and what were the learning outcomes?
A: It was labor intensive. After many preliminary trips with my colleagues and community members: Tim Watkins, President of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), John Jones, III (field deputy for Los Angeles Council District 15,) and Ervin Bromell,
I arranged for an extended four-hour field trip and made all the arrangements for in-depth tours of the WLCAC, Watt Cultural Center, and the Watts Towers. These individuals and organizations are making a significant impact in Watts, and have done so much for so many over the years. The students were highly engaged with the community and photographed them through their eyes. They found meeting the Watts community and taking photographs to be transformational.
Q: You’ve done a lot of work in the realm of arts education and pedagogy, developing advanced arts curriculum, and even an app to help students better understand abstract photography. What is your philosophy of teaching and what kinds of methodologies do you use to work with your students?
“If you tell me, I will listen. If you show me, I will see. But if you let me experience, I will learn.”
“Lao-Tse” (6th Century BC)
My teaching pedagogy aims to create a transformative student-centered classroom environment that inspires, invigorates, and empowers student in creating socially engaged art. Through a blended combination of research, reflection, experiential learning activities, and cross-disciplinary collaborative projects, my goal is to help my students to expand their visual vocabulary and excel and build meaningful connections and relationships with the community as a whole.
Q: As an artist, how did you choose photography as a medium, and what do you find is the most challenging aspect of working with this form?
A: I started out as a freelance graphic designer then branched out creatively into photography. I began shooting editorial photography, and environmental portraits. _. I have also traveled extensively in my life to such locations as Turkey, Greece, Eastern and western Europe, and I have a large body of work showcasing my journeys.
Q: What’s next for you? Any exciting new projects?
A: I have been working on an extensive photo project on the Port of Los Angeles for the past few years. Last year, I shifted focus to the Watts community during the university’s commemoration of the Watts Rebellion. I plan to continue my work about both these areas with a focus on creating socially engaged art.