Art is Getting Everybody Through- A Conversation with Erin Dionne

April 8, 2020

We have to delay our conversation a few minutes; Erin is stuck in the line as BJs and I can’t find the dongle that lets me plug earbuds into my iPhone. Normally, this is the sort of conversation we’d have in one of our offices, or maybe Atomic Café, but things aren’t normal right now. Eventually we get started. 

“How’re you doing?” we ask at the same time.

“Hanging in there,” we answer at the same time.

Erin Dionne joined the Montserrat community in July 2003 as both an instructor and as the director of the Writing Center. At the time, she’d been working for a number of other institutions, community colleges, and private schools. But she was excited by the prospect of working at a school for artists; a place for makers. She found a community there.

“Because of its size, everybody is invested on one another’s success and able to support and cheer one another on. I came on board as a writer and teacher who maybe wasn’t taking my writing as seriously as I could have. Once I started seeing the amazing work that Judy Brown, Fred Lynch, and all of the people that I worked with, I thought “I have to buckle down.’ So I really credit my colleagues at Montserrat for spurring me on to get published and get serious about my own art.”

A lot has changed in the intervening 17 years, for Montserrat, for the city of Beverly, and for Erin.

“The students have always been wonderful,” she says, “But I feel like we have really firmly established ourselves as a cultural institution of Beverly in a way we hadn’t always been.”

Erin has been chair of Liberal Arts at Montserrat since 2015. In that position, she oversees all the faculty that teach non-studio arts courses, everything from art education to sociology to business. She works with faculty, students, and with Coordinator for Liberal Arts, Dawn Paul to come up with classes and curricula that are rigorous and engaging for Montserrat’s student body. Every Montserrat student is enrolled in a Liberal Arts class at all times, so a diversity of course offerings is crucial. Since Erin was hired, the college has added five new minors within the Liberal Arts department, like Entrepreneurship in the Arts or Art Education. The Creative Writing minor in particular has been popular. Erin often teaches some of its courses herself.

“The Creative Writing minor is one of the biggest groups on campus,” she says. “If it were a concentration it would be in the top five. We have a lot of students that incorporate writings with their art in all sorts of ways. Across the board our students end up with a really strong appreciation for their liberal arts classes as a counterbalance to all of the work they’re doing in studio. They’ll learn about a topic in one of their liberal arts classes, like sociology, and it’ll find its way into their art making. And that’s our goal.

“I’m always trying to bring my writing life into my teaching life. I try to have people skype or visit my classes and talk about the work they’re doing. And the teaching really informs my writing, because I’m always thinking about my craft, and ways to be better, and better explain what I do to my students. And my writing informs my teaching because I’m always trying new things.”

Since coming to Montserrat, Erin has published seven novels and two picture books, all geared towards younger people. Her first, Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies, was published in 2009. Her latest, Balletball, came out this February.

The situation has changed since that book’s publication. The spread of the novel coronavirus and the resulting social distancing orders have inspired a number of schools to transition to online instruction. Montserrat is no exception, and it has forced all of us- faculty, staff, and student- to adapt.

“Liberal arts classes are uniquely suited to being in the online space, because the back and forth with students can be done fairly easily over the online platform. It’s no replacement, but in terms of sharing work and the types of assignments? We can do it.”

As the days of online instruction have gone on, Erin’s been trying to ramp us up slowly, using Google Hangouts and posting videos for her students (both of herself and her dog).

“I understand that everybody’s circumstances are not ideal right now. Mine is certainly not. I’m trying to be really honest with my students and give them the opportunities to be flexible with assignments. One of the things I’ve really encouraged is if they’re not feeling some of the projects they started at the beginning of the semester to instead consider documenting their life at home right now. This is going to be historic record in the next twenty years.

“I’ve been really pleased with the ingenuity, adaptability, and the resilience of our students and faculty. They have risen to the occasion. It’s an adjustment and we got up and running so quickly, I have to commend us for that. This is the hallmark of creative people- we can solve problems quickly and creatively.”

In this time of uncertainty Erin has been turning, as all of us have, to art.

“Even when things were normal, I always have had some music on in my house. I’ve made it a point every day to have music playing while I’m at home. I listen to a lot of music: most people know I’m a huge hair metal fan. But I’ve been playing a lot of classical music, soundtracks, and standards from the 50s and 60s, and having dance parties in my kitchen with my kids.

“I’ve also been reading a lot. There’s this tiny little essay Neil Gaiman wrote called Art Matters. Chris Riddell illustrated it in this tiny little book, and I’ve literally carried that around my house. I think- I know- art is what’s getting everybody through.”

Asked what advice she had for Montserrat’s students, she said this:

“Stay connected to your community, reach out to friends and faculty, to people who you miss as Montserrat. Even though we’re apart, this is how we get through it. Be compassionate with yourself. If you can make art right now, do it. Because we need it. But if you can’t, don’t feel bad. This is unprecedented and we all need to take care of ourselves. 

“And get outside, drink a lot of water, wash your hands, and don’t lick anything.”

Erin’s newest book, Balletball, is available through your local bookstore (many of which are still taking orders!) or via Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Her own website can be found at erindionne.com.