Encouraging Creative Growth

We find out how CEPA’s FUJIFILM Foundations of Creation program is benefiting aspiring young creatives in Western New York

Photo 2023 © CEPA | FUJIFILM X-T3 and FUJINON XF18-55mmF.2.8-4 R LM OIS, 1/60 sec at F4.5, ISO 1600

Getting started in the creative industry is not easy. To find a job, you often need examples of your work; but without a job, how are you supposed to build a portfolio?

“I can speak from my own experience, in that I took way too many unpaid internships. That was tough,” says Claire Leggett, Executive Director at Buffalo’s Center for Exploratory and Perceptual Arts (CEPA).

The idea of opening doors for young creatives to gain paid experience in the industry sits at the heart of the FUJIFILM Foundations of Creation fellowship program – a partnership between Fujifilm and CEPA that aims to build on CEPA’s success providing opportunities to low-income youths.

The program provides project-based career opportunities that allow enthusiastic entry-level cultural workers to benefit from mentorship and experiential learning. This creates paid opportunities for emerging artists to learn essential job skills.

“That is incredibly important to our mission, that you get paid for your work in the art world,” continues Claire.

“All our interns are incredibly talented, and we’re very lucky to be able to help them expand their skill sets.”

Photo 2023 © CEPA | FUJIFILM X-T3 and FUJINON XF18-55mmF.2.8-4 R LM OIS, 1/60 sec at F4.5, ISO 1600

Photo 2023 © CEPA | FUJIFILM X-T3 and FUJINON XF18-55mmF.2.8-4 R LM OIS, 1/60 sec at F7.1, ISO 1600

Photo 2023 © CEPA | FUJIFILM X-T3 and FUJINON XF18-55mmF.2.8-4 R LM OIS, 1/60 sec at F7.1, ISO 1600

The internship program forms part of CEPA’s overall mission of making art more accessible to the local community.

“We are aware of the high barrier to art that exists, and want to do everything in our power to lower that barrier.

“So, we try to engage the community with the arts through free exhibitions, educational programming, and low-cost rentals for studio space, darkroom space, and lab space,” explains Claire.

CEPA was founded in 1974 as a collective artists’ space, and it remains one of the only organizations in Western New York (WNY) that’s dedicated to the photo-related arts. It pays particular attention to the history of photography while teaching analog techniques to provide a better understanding of the art in its modern form.

“I’m trying to connect children today with the tradition of photography that’s existed for nearly 200 years, but has, in my view, been separated in the last 20,” says Nate Ely, Education Director of CEPA.

“It’s a different kind of craft than it was formerly,” he continues. “I refer to it as the antiquarian avant-garde. Normally, you think about avant-garde as being very forward looking. This is sort of the opposite, where you can look back at photography’s history and use that as a way to reflect on its future.”

Photo 2023 © CEPA | FUJIFILM X-T3 and FUJINON XF18-55mmF.2.8-4 R LM OIS, 1/8 sec at F9, ISO 1600

Achieving CEPA’s goals can be a busy task for Claire and Nate alone. Having assistance from the fellows in the program has been a huge help for the team and, in turn, the entire community.

“The FUJIFILM Foundations of Creation program has allowed us to hire part-time intern-level staff to help us do the work here, while at the same time providing them with the opportunity to get paid experience,” says Nate.

“We’re making sure we’re not hiring them and simply saying: we need help. Instead, we’re saying: you have skills we can use, but while you’re here, let’s get you more skills,” adds Claire. “We’re giving them opportunities to grow as young professionals so they can go on to do even more things with a level of skill.”

Outreach Fellow Kasey Edgerton agrees wholeheartedly, highlighting the beneficial combination of experience and guidance she received as part of the program.

“It allowed me to engage in such valuable, real-world arts management experience under high-caliber, professional tutelage,” says Kasey. “It was such an amazing opportunity for personal and professional growth.”

Photo 2023 © CEPA | FUJIFILM X-T3 and FUJINON XF18-55mmF.2.8-4 R LM OIS, 1/8 sec at F9, ISO 1600

Photo 2023 © CEPA | FUJIFILM X-T3 and FUJINON XF18-55mmF.2.8-4 R LM OIS, 1/8 sec at F10, ISO 1600

Photo 2023 © CEPA | FUJIFILM X-T3 and FUJINON XF18-55mmF.2.8-4 R LM OIS, 1/8 sec at F10, ISO 1600

Kasey’s role as Outreach Fellow meant she was involved in fundraising events and the planning, promotion, and opening of exhibitions. She tells us how CEPA’s mission and her role within it were an ideal match.

“I believe strongly in the value of serving others, and embrace care as a practice that can and should be mindfully designed into administrative processes, systems, and institutions – not as an afterthought, but as a core concern.

“Working with CEPA has been a dream, and in such perfect alignment with my values and passions. As a public-driven organization, they do so much to strengthen the local and global arts communities by facilitating inclusion, equality, and accessibility – and I am proud to be right alongside them,” explains Kasey.

“You can’t overstate the importance of community in what we do,” asserts Claire.

“We were founded as a collective. A bunch of artists got together and decided we needed to have a photography space, and since then we’ve tried to maintain that CEPA is community-focused and artist-driven.

“We don’t work top-down; we try to work as a collective. We try to say, what are your ideas? What are my ideas? How do we blend them together?”

Photo 2023 © CEPA | FUJIFILM X-T3 and FUJINON XF18-55mmF.2.8-4 R LM OIS, 1/2 sec at F9, ISO 800

Marketing Fellow Zixin Jiang expressed her gratitude at how this inclusive environment allowed her to gain essential experience.

“The program gave me the opportunity to begin my first work in the arts industry,” says Zixin. “As Marketing Fellow, my efforts have focused on growing public awareness, disseminating information, and sharing success stories through digital media marketing and press relations,” she explains.

This gratitude is shared by Chase Kunz, who tells us her time as Educational Fellow at CEPA has been well spent.

“Together with the excellent leadership and guidance of the Administration at CEPA Gallery, I have found this fellowship opportunity to be an invaluable and engaging experience,” she begins.

“My aim is to bring prospective students into the programs at CEPA, and forge links in the community that will allow CEPA to be accessible to the WNY population. Additionally, I spent some time reaching out to schools, filling open spots in educational programs so we could benefit as many students as possible.”

Photo 2023 © CEPA | FUJIFILM X-T3 and FUJINON XF18-55mmF.2.8-4 R LM OIS, 1/2 sec at F9, ISO 800

Photo 2023 © CEPA | FUJIFILM X-T3 and FUJINON XF18-55mmF.2.8-4 R LM OIS, 10 sec at F11, ISO 800

Photo 2023 © CEPA | FUJIFILM X-T3 and FUJINON XF18-55mmF.2.8-4 R LM OIS, 10 sec at F11, ISO 800

Chase and the rest of the Fellows team successfully hosted a fundraising event in benefit of CEPA’s Photography Works program. Photography Works offers instruction and mentoring in a variety of photo-related careers to students from underserved communities who are interested in photography.

This was particularly significant for Chase, as she was a graduate herself.

“Our ‘Halloween in September’ benefit event was hosted at the local drive-in theater and raised over $500 for the program – funds that are much needed to provide the students with this wonderful opportunity,” she beams.

This perfectly encapsulates the legacy CEPA aims to leave: providing bright young individuals a solid foundation from which to grow, continuing to nurture, encourage, and support them throughout their journey towards success.

“That’s how I think about my legacy; that it’s in the lives of the students who have come through my classroom. If just a tiny piece is present in the students I have taught, that would make me extremely proud,” says Nate.

Photo 2023 © CEPA | FUJIFILM X-T3 and FUJINON XF18-55mmF.2.8-4 R LM OIS, 1/2 sec at F11, ISO 800

“A great example is Hope,” adds Claire, referring to Hope Grunert, a CEPA graduate and participant in FUJIFILM Creative Mentorship, a separate initiative run independently by Fujifilm. Read more about Hope’s story here.

“She came to CEPA when she was 11 and was part of our inaugural Photography Works program,” continues Claire. “When she got the call from Fujifilm to be part of the Creative Mentorship program, she was preparing for her first ever solo show, right here at the same place that ignited her love of photography.

“She sold out her entire show, and that’s the type of legacy I hope we’re leaving. Saying to these students: you can do all those things, you can be successful, and we’re here for you to celebrate those successes,” she says.

Partnership Fellow Ahmad Nieves is another example of how CEPA has laid the perfect grounding for future success. He tells us that CEPA’s mission of ‘nurturing creativity and encouraging active learning’ was the reason he first became involved – long before his fellowship began.

“I believe it was seven or eight years ago when I was heavily involved in the nonprofit world. CEPA partnered up with an organization I was working with and offered us a free seven-week workshop. I was hooked!

Photo 2023 © CEPA | FUJIFILM X-T3 and FUJINON XF18-55mmF.2.8-4 R LM OIS, 1/2 sec at F11, ISO 800

Photo 2023 © CEPA | FUJIFILM X-A5 and FUJINON XF18-55mmF.2.8-4 R LM OIS, 1/180 sec at F4.5, ISO 800

Photo 2023 © CEPA | FUJIFILM X-A5 and FUJINON XF18-55mmF.2.8-4 R LM OIS, 1/180 sec at F4.5, ISO 800

“Over the seven weeks, I learned about social and racial justice through a photography lens. It was literally the best workshop I have ever taken. After the class, I became involved with CEPA Gallery by volunteering on a regular basis.

“Since joining CEPA as a fellow, I have been introduced to three other fellows whose passion for art and photography has been exciting to watch. They have become my newest friends,” says Ahmad.

The year 2024 will mark CEPA’s 50th anniversary – an important milestone for the organization. Claire concludes by telling us just how much that means to the team and how it has strengthened their dedication to the future.

“It’s huge! Not that many organizations make it to 50 years, and that’s made us even more committed to making sure CEPA is around for another 50 years,” she enthuses.

“We’re dedicated to maintaining CEPA’s culture as a collective, with new ideas coming in, never just staying where we are, always pushing boundaries – and perhaps most importantly, always asking: ‘how can we better serve people?’”

Learn more about the Center for Exploratory and Perceptual Arts (CEPA) by visiting its profile page.

Claire Leggett, Executive Director

Claire Leggett holds an MS in Arts Administration and a graduate certificate in Fundraising Management from Boston University and received her BA in History from the State University of New York at Cortland. Her experiences, including working at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, the Cortland Repertory Theatre in Cortland, NY, and Eureka Ensemble in Boston, MA, inform her commitment to uniting art and community.

Nathan Ely, Education Director

Nate Ely has a BA in Cinema and Photography from Binghamton University, and an MFA from SUNY at Buffalo. Drawing on years of experience in event planning and photography, as well as college teaching and his studio practice, Nate works to expand and support CEPA’s educational outreach programs. He is currently spearheading CEPA’s Mobile Darkroom initiative, which aims to bring material photography experiments to underserved children across WNY.

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