by Stephanie Stewart-Howard | Photography by Tamara Reynolds
Watkins College of Art, Design & Film provides an outstanding secondary education outlet for some of the city’s most talented students. Founded more than a century ago with the intent of educating the community, it has grown to provide the kind of fine arts education Nashville can take pride in.
Michael Rolli has a whole career as a military doctor behind him, but a few years ago, when he was leaving the Army, he dared to do what few with his level of training do: move to a completely different career path and pursue filmmaking.
Rolli has always loved the arts. In high school, theatre got all his time, though he enjoyed film. His mom took him to Broadway shows that sank into his consciousness. He did make films with a neighbor using Star Wars figures and a video camera, he says. Later, as a student at West Point, he found himself going to three or four films a week to escape the stress of school.
He also had the advantage of regular European travel, seeing films while visiting family in Italy and in Paris. “I’d spend half the day in a museum, half of it at the movies, then go out at night,” he says.
When he left the Army, a friend asked him what he really wanted. The answer surprised him—he wanted to make movies. “It seemed impractical, but it was something I really wanted to do. I’d spent my life working on things that weren’t for me.” Asking himself what the best way to learn the craft was, having moved to Nashville, he enrolled at Watkins and got to work.
“I love what I’m doing,” he says. “It’s just as hard as anything I did when I was a physician. Even the things that aren’t my own projects are fun. I enjoy the entire creative process.”
Rolli’s student film project Born Again has created some buzz. No, it’s not a religious theme but rather is inspired by his work in neuroscience: a new perspective on the science fiction trope that asks what happens if you could erase someone’s past entirely from his mind and reprogram him to start over as someone else. This film might well be seen as a potential pilot for a TV show, tracing the experience of one person within the memory-altering program while wide open for new episodes with other perspectives.
“Right now I’m looking to submit it to film festivals and get some feedback,” he says. “I’d originally intended it as a full-length film, and I have some fantastic actors. I’ve got the ideas behind it worked out, and I’m working on the longer script now.” He’s got an interested producer in New York, and he hopes to explore the concept much further. Meanwhile, he’s about to start filming a situation-comedy pilot concept, in collaboration with a local writer who created it and staged it as a live theatre production at the Sideshow Fringe Festival.
One way or another, whether through mainstream film channels or by working online or with TV networks or subscription companies like Netflix, he hopes to find the best creative outlet to produce more smart, thoughtful material for a large audience.
Holly Carden grew up, to age 10, in North Wales, UK, where her mother encouraged her to do lots of reading and to play imaginative games. From earliest days, she adored illustrated children’s books, the higher the level of detail the better. Especial favorites were the Brambly Hedge series, telling the story of field-mouse heroes. “We went caravanning [camping] a lot when I was young; I spent a lot of time in the woods,” says Holly by way of explanation. Even then, she knew she wanted to draw.
Her father’s job in aerospace technologies moved them to Wichita, Kansas, for several years, then to Nashville when she was a sophomore in high school. She met her partner in high school, and both of them knew they wanted to attend Watkins—film for him, illustration for her. The couple made a deal, and Holly worked in sales to put her husband through school (he’s now an editor at WSMV), and now it’s her turn.
While she was in the workforce, she did little in the way of drawing—“it’s hard to be creative sitting in your cubicle”—and her application to Watkins in 2010 was the first serious work she had done in years.
She remains dedicated to the traditional methods of illustration, pen and ink, pencil, and watercolor, but says Watkins has allowed her to explore digital technology, which some projects simply call for, and also to work with things like typography and web design.
Holly says her work by nature is grounded in a realistic environment with elements of imagination. “I usually have a weird creature stuck into a familiar landscape,” she says with a grin. Friends say her work “tends to be curvy; I have a rounded quality to it.” Generally, her style is broad and adaptive to a specific project.
“I like to draw highly detailed images, with little clues and hints in them as rewards for the people who spend more time looking at them—like the concept behind Where’s Waldo. That sort of thing was fun, magical for me as a kid.”
The goal, she says, is to use images to tell a full story. “I want to translate as much as possible through a single picture, so the characters are thinking and feeling, and readers can glean some sort of mood from it.”
Carden’s work can be seen in June with her show at WAG, which will feature sketchbooks from her career so far, allowing the viewer to see the images behind and before the finished images.
Her ultimate goal: a freelance illustration business, doing everything from children’s books to campus or theme-park maps. “I’ll keep my options as flexible as possible,” she says.
Kayla Saito, in her second year at Watkins, transferred from Memphis College of Art. Specializing in sculpture and printmaking, she plans on working in the arts for life. “I’m realistic about it,” she says. “I may not always be a gallery artist; I can easily see myself teaching or in an art therapy program. Right now that’s my goal. It helps that I’m also interning at Seed Space.”
Kayla’s family, originally from Hawaii, first moved to the mainland when she was 3 years old, living in Phoenix for a while before moving to Nashville. She attended Nashville School of the Arts prior to college and says NSA focused her. “There are no other career artists in my family,” she adds. “For me it’s a very exciting field and a little bit terrifying at the same time.”
Thanks to her internship and the opportunity to work with a variety of organizations, she’s learning more about curating exhibits; the insider’s view is very exciting for her.
As both a sculptor and a printmaker, she uses her interest in art therapy for her own benefit, as she continues long-term recovery from a car accident at 18 that left her bound to a wheelchair for months (she’s just had surgery on her ankle again), followed by a bout of meningitis.
“I’m looking into my own mind. With sculpture, my work is based on the materials I was exposed to in that time, car parts, equipment, technology, and making the connection with my own mind and my body.” One can’t help making the parallels to Frida Kahlo.
Her printmaking work also explores the aftereffects of her accident, although she says in both cases she’s begun to move past the personal as she works within a theme. She’s working with the notion of memory—in part because, though conscious at the time, she can’t recall all of the accident.
In this case, Kayla is making use of disposable cameras, scanning and layering the photos on a translucent surface while deleting some of the image to create a partial void. At the moment, she’s working in collaboration with an Irish art student, working almost entirely online via Facebook chats. The photos they each take answer a question (“Why does he move so much?”) or provide a representative word image (“green” or “doubt”). Next, they will build on the conversation via Skype, face to face.
You can see Kayla’s work at the April 1 show at Watkins Arcade Gallery (WAG) and at a summer show at the Seed Space Gallery.