Local Heroes: Meet SDA Rep/Ambassador Team of Massachusetts/Rhode Island

Building SDA artist networks has always been my focus.

Since becoming an SDA member in 1977, I’ve been the Iowa state as well as the North Central Regional Representative. 2 years ago, I served on a committee to reevaluate the system of member representatives.

One result of this committee’s analysis was the establishment of a Board-level position, the Director of Representatives, replacing the Regional Representatives (who had no direct connection to the Board). Another committee recommendation was that State Representatives (or Area Representatives as we now call them) should be encouraged to seek out “Ambassadors” to help organize meetings, exhibits, write blogs, or whatever else might encourage a renewed emphasis on membership activities at the state level. Current SDA Director of Fundraising Regina Benson successfully pioneered this concept during her tenure as Colorado Representative.

1 year after launching the Representative-Ambassador team concept, I’m delighted to profile our Massachusetts-Rhode Island team, headed by Area Representative Vicki Jensen and her Ambassadors Sue Bleiweiss and Catherine Kirsch. Together, they represent 181 SDA members in the states of MA/RI. That represents an increase of 21 members since February 2009! This increase is remarkable in this economy and a testament to their dedication and leadership.

The MA/RI team reflects the typical gamut of SDA experience. Rep Vicki Jensen, who works with felt-making and indigo-dyed shibori textiles, joined SDA in the early 1990s, as a graduate student at Arizona State University.

“The benefits of being a member of SDA keep me up to date with the what is happening in the world of surface design–not to mention the networking possibilities,” Vicki explains. “I have a very special bond with SDA, because if I hadn’t been a member receiving the newsletters and journals, I would never have found out about the job opening in 1996 for PRO Chemical & Dye, where I currently work as the Lab Manager and Classroom Coordinator.

Ambassador Sue Bleiweiss currently uses fabric and paper to make books, wall art, vessels and boxes. When her new studio is completed, she hopes to reassemble her loom and add weaving to the mix.  Sue joined SDA about 4 years ago in order to meet like-minded people and expand her knowledge of surface design techniques.

“I think that the most impact so far has been in the area of inspiration and motivation,” Sue observes. “I really look forward to each issue of the Surface Design Journal.  It’s such a beautifully photographed and well written publication that it never ceases to inspire me to push myself creatively after I read through it.”

Sue created the MA-RI blog and helps with photography and note-taking at meetings. She also assists with the Yahoo listserv and whatever initiatives are underway. “I am very excited about the direction the organization has been moving in over the last year.  It’s great to see so much energy being generated and I’m looking forward to being an active member of the organization for a long time to come.”

Catherine Kirsch volunteered for her position as Ambassador because it’s a priority for her to be “a member of a group that supports artists who create art with fiber and on cloth.” A member of Jane Dunnewold’s 2009 Art Cloth Mastery Program, Catherine creates art cloth using linen and silk broadcloth. Through SDA, she is developing relationships with other artists in her area. Catherine believes her role as ambassador involves helping Vicki to reach the goals she sets for MA/RI SDA . “I need to be a presence. I will do whatever I can to make sure Vicki can accomplish the goals she sets for this area.”

Massachusetts-Rhode Island SDA has held several quarterly meetings. They attract a core group of loyal members who meet 11am – 3pm on a Saturday. The most recent one was held on October 16. Vicki and her Ambassadors had to search for a central location within convenient driving distance to members across the state. After conducting a poll to see if participants would support making a donation towards renting space, Vicki discovered the Franklin Mill Store, which has an upstairs workroom available free of charge.

Meeting formats have evolved over time. In her August members’ newsletter, Vicki wrote, “Due to the different levels of expertise and needs of members who attend our meetings, the Ambassadors and I made a decision to format our 1-hour programs so that members can choose between 2 options. One would be a lecture/ demonstration given by a member on a specific technique or product; the other would be a group discussion that would enable members to explore a variety of topics pertaining to professionalism in our art work.”

The Show & Tell period was also revised to include just 1 piece per person. The “Tell” portion should address the following 3 questions: What was your source of inspiration? What surface design techniques did you use? What did you learn from this piece that will carry into your next one? Meetings start with a “Business Meeting,” that includes discussion of possible projects–such as the upcoming juried member exhibition.

Asked about the working dynamics of her team, Vicki comments, “I feel very fortunate to have several ambassadors helping me to energize our local SDA members and activities. Having them available for feedback and suggestions has been wonderful. It is also great that I can delegate various tasks versus relying on just myself to get things planned and organized. Serving as a Rep is almost a full time job! But with a strong, committed Ambassador–who keeps up to date with fiber arts–you can achieve just about any goal you might have for your region. The more you work together, the stronger the team!” Sue supports this by adding that “Vicki does a terrific job of keeping the team informed, focused and up-to-date on what’s going on in the region.”

Their shared vision for the future includes a regional exhibition that Vicki is organizing as well as Sue’s hope to explore the possibility of holding a mini-surface design conference in the MA area. Another goal is to attract new members–especially those just entering the world of fiber arts.

Vicki adds, “I get the most excited about the new energy for a whole re-structuring of SDA. This includes the upcoming conference in 2011 and the networking in my local region. There is such a great group of women in this area. I can always count on volunteers to pitch in and help–without feeling like I am ‘pulling teeth’.

The Representative-Ambassador Team concept is new, still evolving–but also very encouraging just 1 year after its implementation. These 3 dynamic women have transformed the experience many dedicated members once had as state reps–which has often been a real struggle.

This much is clear: being a Representative no longer needs to be a lonely job. Collaborating with Ambassadors has doubled the available energy supply and provided a much-needed sounding board for Reps. The MA/RI team demonstrate how this system can generate excitement, support creative growth and build community at every level.

Astrid Hilger Bennett joined SDA in 1977 when she was 24 years old and SDA was 1. She paints and prints on fabrics and is an arts entrepreneur. She has served as manager, co-owner and marketing director of Iowa Artisans Gallery, Gallery Walk director and SDA state and regional Rep. She sees her service to SDA as a way of giving back to an organization that has given her inspiration and an aesthetic base for many years.

View her website at www.astridhilgerbennett.com


  • jo-ann says

    March 17, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    such a nice article! jm

  • LCotton says

    May 16, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Awesome and inspiring article!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.