Life in Patterns

Laura Petrovich Cheney in her studio.

Laura Petrovich-Cheney ’89 

Inspired by traditional and contemporary quilt patterns, studio-art major Laura Petrovich-Cheney ’89 uses wood salvaged after major storms, including a 2010 nor’easter and 2012's Hurricane Sandy, to create artwork that gives new life to debris that washed up on the shores of coastal communities.

Can you speak to how Dickinson’s useful liberal-arts approach helped you along your career path?

Many people believe that a full-time artist spends her or his day in the studio just making art. It is true that I spend plenty of time in the studio, but I also spend time on marketing, writing grants, developing proposals, researching new exhibit opportunities and making and keeping key relationships.

My time at Dickinson College prepared me extremely well for this kind of work. First, I learned time management: Although I wanted to spend all my time working on my artworks, I knew that I had other courses that needed attention, and after pulling an all-nighter to complete a paper during freshman year, I quickly realized that if I was going to be successful in college, I needed to manage my time. Second, my education at Dickinson prepared me to write well and to articulate my ideas in a clear and concise way. Dickinson’s liberal-arts education taught me to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems in my chosen field and in other areas of study. I also learned that walking clears one’s mind. I am so grateful that I had to walk to class, the dining hall, the library and downtown. When I am stuck on a problem or just need to take to a break, I go out for a walk.

What was your favorite activity/organization at Dickinson?

When I first arrived at my college, I knew absolutely no one. However, living in a dorm and participating in Greek life and academic clubs provided plenty of opportunities to make new friends. One of my favorite clubs was the Russian Club. The professors were actively involved, and those connections with faculty made it easier for me to go to them when I didn’t understand an assignment or when I wanted to learn about a topic more comprehensively.

What jumps out as a great memory from your time at Dickinson?

Studying abroad in Russia was one of the most beneficial experiences. I was able to completely immerse myself in the country for three weeks, and I was so fortunate for the opportunity to witness a completely different way of life. My first trip was in 1986, just after Chernobyl. I traveled again in 1988, just before the wall came down. It was life-changing to be in the Soviet Union and witness that living history.

Visiting a foreign country for an extended period, I was able to conquer public transit, learn to shop for groceries and other supplies and adapt to a new climate. This built such confidence in me, and I became more interested in long-term travel. Since college, I have lived in Venice, Italy, for three months and County Claire, Ireland, for a month, and I sailed the coastline of Svalbard, Norway, for three weeks. I make it a point to live in a country for an extended period to really understand the language and culture. I hope to live in Rome, Patagonia and Madagascar—and in Alaska, during the dark winter months.

How do you stay involved with/support Dickinson? Why do you think it’s important?

I stay involved with Dickinson through social media and Dickinson Magazine. Dickinson’s small and close-knit community provides a great opportunity for networking even after college. Through Dickinson, I connected with a fellow Dickinsonian, Louise Feder ’10, the assistant curator at the James A. Michener Museum in Doylestown. She curated an exhibit, “Pattern Pieces,” which included my work. 

What does your current work entail?

Much of my work is feminist in nature. I work with traditional women’s arts, such as needlework and quilting, and my work expresses resilience, power and voice. Most recently, I completed a piece called “Imagine Your Park, Imagine the Art,” a public sculpture project at Sandy Hook National Park, New Jersey, a National Endowment for the Arts grant collaboration with Monmouth Arts. I have created work in diverse spaces, such as the Arctic Circle Residency setting in Svalbard, Norway (2013). I organized and raised funds for “Frozen Earth,” a climate-change panel discussion led by Diane Burko, and because my interest in sustainability started at Dickinson College, I invited [Adjunct Faculty in Earth Sciences] Jeff Niemitz to be part of the panel discussion. My sculptures, made from collected detritus found along the coast of the Greenland Sea, were featured in “Frozen Earth” at the The Noyes Museum of Stockton University, (Oceanville, N.J., 2014). When I am not making work, exhibiting or traveling, I lecture in museums, galleries and educational settings.

In addition to several recent solo and group exhibitions, I received grants and recognition from the Barbara Deming Fund for Women and The Clark Hulings Fund for Visual Artists; a merit scholarship to the Vermont Studio Center; the Mary Hinman Carter Prize for Drawing from the National Academy; and the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Art Education. This year, I was awarded the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship in Sculpture.

What is the most challenging part of your work?

Finding balance. The climb to success is steep and seemingly impossible sometimes for artists. I am faced with an extraordinary amount of noes and a few pleasant yeses. To succeed in a creative field, I have to work very hard and spend as much of my time making my work. I also need to hustle to promote and sell my work. That means I am writing grants, looking for new exhibit venues, honing my skills on social media and working with collectors. I need to maintain a balance of work and play in my life so I don’t burn out.

What comes to mind as something unforgettable that you’ve done since you graduated?

I think just developing into the person that I want to be. 

If you could have dinner with anyone famous, living or dead, who would it be?

It would be more like a dinner party of eight: myself, Ben Franklin, St. Augustine of Hippo, Genghis Kahn, George R.R. Martin, Eva Hesse (my favorite artist), Cleopatra and Amelia Earhart.

You just built a time machine: where and when do you go?

I would want to travel to medieval England for about a year and be a part of the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine. I would like to be a part of her crusade to the Holy Land and learn about many of the courtly rituals that were popular during her reign.

If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?

Sleep less, so I can have more time to play and work.

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Published June 2, 2017