Staff Q&A: Austin Dunn & Laurel Hilliard

Melissa Starker, Creative Content & PR Manager

Aug 25, 2022

Laurel Hilliard and Austin Dunn sit at a table outside Mershon Auditorium with the Wexner Center in the background. Laurel has shoulder length light brown hair and is wearing a white top with a dark vest. Austin has curly dark hair and glasses. They are wearing a collared shirt and a cardigan sweater.

We're happy to introduce you to two recent additions to our team: Social Media Coordinator Austin Dunn and Digital Content Editor Laurel Hilliard. Respectively tasked with engaging with the community online and honing the center's communications through print and digital marketing materials, each plays an instrumental role in shaping the voice of the Wex. 

We recently connected on a sunny day at one of the tables lining the exterior of Mershon Auditorium for a fun chat about past experience, things to look forward to in the future, and what each hopes to accomplish in their time at the center.

What did you do before you came to the Wex?

Laurel Hilliard: I was an associate editor, working on both print and digital material, mainly for engineering exam prep for professional engineers. Which, I didn't study engineering [laughs] so it definitely was not my up my alley in terms of interest. I am from Milford, Ohio, which is outside of Cincinnati, and I came to Columbus out of high school for my undergrad at OSU, where I studied English literature and creative writing.

Austin Dunn: I was born in the central Illinois area—a lot of my family's from there. And it was a small town—Rochester, just outside of Springfield—where I went to high school. I actually came to Columbus because I was looking at veterinary programs. I was very driven towards veterinary medicine and spent two years in a vet office, two years working at a zoo, doing a lot of things with animals. As I graduated, I realized that I still loved the animals, but maybe that wasn't the path for me.

I started at OSU in honors chemistry because I thought I was going to be this big chemistry researcher. And I realized very quickly that I wasn't as fulfilled creatively as I always had been. At home, my mom was an artist, she was an art major. She did graphic design. We always did things together. I was a writer at home. I found that I didn't like the sciences because I like the sciences; I like the sciences because it challenged my brain to think creatively in different ways. And I realized that I've always wanted to be creative and not the other way around.

It took me three tries to get into English creative writing program. I was not, like, gifted from the beginning. And along the way, I decided that screenwriting was interesting to me. And through that process I started taking some film courses, and it was actually after Unorthodocs at the Wex that I discovered my love of documentary cinema and switched into a double major with film, and kind of never looked back.

I have to ask, just related to your majors, if you have any favorite authors or filmmakers.

AD: I think my answer kind of depends on the day you ask and what I'm thinking about at that moment within my own writing, because I think that my favorite author is always something that I admire in what they've done with the craft at that particular moment. Right now, I'm really thinking about AI and algorithms, and the intersection of serial narratives. So, I've been thinking a lot of Jennifer Egan's The Visit from the Goon Squad and the way she pulls together narrative. And so that's really stuck with me right now.

LH: I wrote an essay on that

AD: [laughs] Yeah, that was one that stuck with me from my postmodern class.

LH: Oh, man. [laughs] I've been drawn to literature and social studies ever since I was little. And I just remember reading Toni Morrison in high school. I'd never read anything like that before and it really put me onto like magical realism. But the reason I bring up Toni Morrison is because it brings me back to one of my first memories at the Wex and how I came from English to the arts.

One of the first exhibitions at the Wex I went to is the Mickalene Thomas exhibition and I remember one of the gallery spaces just having a ton of books all over the floor. I remember seeing Toni Morrison and being excited about it. Having not really been very much in the arts before coming to OSU and having interdisciplinary classes that helped me understand the intersection of all the arts and literature, seeing that in the gallery space just emphasized the impact that literature has on artists and their work, which now brings me kind of full circle, thinking about the Syllabus for Black Love Library [in Portal For(e) the Ephemeral Passage] and how much that work influenced jaamil's work and the entire theme of the exhibition. So that was an exciting realization for me. It really drew me into contemporary art.

When you first thought about applying to the Wex, what was meaningful to you about that prospect?

AD: After I graduated, I went to work for a creative studio in town, Kinopicz American in Grandview. I learned a lot about marketing and a lot about just the relationship of messaging and how you produce a video. Taking the art side of things and having to make it work from a very corporate perspective. There's always art within commercial work, but for me, I treasured the clients and the opportunities that aligned more with community, aligned more with education, aligned more with finding ways of diversifying. And it's not like there aren't problems within the arts itself, right? But for me, coming to the arts means that I can help message with intention the things I truly believe in. I can come to work every day knowing that at the end of the day, the goal is art and the diverse voices in art and sharing that out. I think I can utilize my skills from the consumer sector and turn them on their head.

"I'm really excited about working to help get more local attention, you know? And help that inform the way we talk about our programming. It is weird that we're pretty much right on High Street, that we're essentially the city's entrance to campus and it's like, 'Oh, what's that thing?'"
Laurel Hilliard

Would you say that you were also looking for a way to have maybe a slightly bigger impact through working with a larger institution?

LH: Absolutely. I've been wanting to work at the Wex since my freshman year of undergrad. I got work study and I remember going to the Wex Store for the first time and being so excited because there was a work study position open, and I really wanted to work at the Wex Store. It seemed so cool and cute in there, with so many amazing books. I was like OMG, but then no one ever got back to me. [laughs] So I was like, well, never mind.

I guess my first trip to the Wex was actually because of a class. And since I graduated, seeing all that the Wex is doing now, I really wish that I would've taken advantage of it more when I was a student. We really do have some amazing programming and it's just getting better and better, I think. And I really wanted to be a part of the work that you all have been doing to get engagement. Not just spotlighting, big-name artists, but also community artists. Even just our coworkers. I've come to really see the hidden gems in Columbus that I didn't realize were there before, because of being engaged in the arts here. And I want to help connect the community with this really great resource. Also help put the word out to the students—not just OSU. Like I said, I really wish I would've taken more advantage of that, and I feel like I just didn't really know it was for me. I didn't really know all that it had to offer.

Now that I do know, I'm really excited about working to help get more local attention, you know? And help that inform the way we talk about our programming. It is weird that we're pretty much right on High Street, that we're essentially the city's entrance to campus and it's like, 'Oh, what's that thing?'

AD: Another [reason] this position was so exciting to me is like, how can we utilize social to provide that right gateway to come into the center? Because there is an intimidation factor that can come from contemporary arts. I've been thinking about this metaphor for a minute. I almost imagine us as like hermit crabs in the Wex, and we've co-opted this shell and made it this nice homey space inside. And if you just come inside, you can join our little hermit crab party.

[Laughs] I love that metaphor.

AD: So how can we show that warmth and how can we create that community online as well? Just reach out through the screen and make someone feel welcome and break down the barriers that come with contemporary art and learning about contemporary arts, and really engage in a meaningful way, both in person and online.

What are you looking forward to right now? It could be something that you're exploring with your work, or just something on the programming calendar.

LH: Well, what Austin was just saying kind of ties into what I'm excited about and what I'm really trying to think about in terms of, like, breaking down those barriers. I know our staff is very much thinking about how to continue working towards more access, and as the digital content editor, I have been training to be a digital accessibility coordinator. I had a very basic understanding of digital accessibility just from being the content editor for the history of art department and just having to do alt text. But now that I'm working here, I've learned so much in a short amount of time to enhance accessibility on the website and in our emails. And the littlest things can make such a huge difference, like descriptive links and having links open in a new window. All these things that I just didn't know about before I began learning and working to implement on the site.

I'm looking forward to continuing work toward making the Wex more accessible digitally, but also thinking outside of the digital sphere. Editing copy for the programs, I'm trying to think how to make language more accessible. Can we make it less intimidating so that it's accessible for everyone while also ensuring that we're not changing artist intent, or whitewashing language and gatekeeping language? That's a really difficult thing to navigate.

"I'm always of the mindset that art can be very cerebral, but then we don't have to keep it so lofty all the time. We can allow ourselves to laugh. A lot of great art comes with great laughter. I am looking forward to finding ways that we can not only make things ourselves, but maybe see if there are other people who can engage with the Wex online in a creative and fun way."
Austin Dunn

Well, you're dealing with a living entity. How do you set those things in place with something that is constantly moving?

LH: That's something I'm going to just have to keep thinking about.

AD: Laurel's doing so many cool things with accessibility. But yeah, things I'm looking forward to. That's a very good question. I mean, social's interesting because there's always something fun happening with it. I'm looking forward to the creativity, but I also think part of my interest is kind of aligned with [Laurel's] interest, too. Like, how can we make our social platforms more accessible and stretch the boundaries that platforms put upon us? We have accessibility webinars coming up. I'm excited to learn more about that and just understand the platforms from that side. I'm also excited for how we can create that messaging that's a little bit more friendly and not too serious.

I'm always of the mindset that art can be very cerebral, but then we don't have to keep it so lofty all the time. We can allow ourselves to laugh. A lot of great art comes with great laughter. I am looking forward to finding ways that we can not only make things ourselves, but maybe see if there are other people who can engage with the Wex online in a creative and fun way.

LH: I was just going to add, I'm really looking forward to Jennifer's Body. Props to Layla [Muchnik-Benali, Film/Video curatorial associate] for putting that together. It just makes me think how we can showcase work that may not be deemed as high art. How we can reclaim work that is dismissed, especially like Jennifer's body, by white cishet men. How we can break down the kind of box that contemporary art is in.

AD: I was just reading an article about how Jennifer's Body was advertised for the male gaze, but then ultimately didn't fit within the male gaze.

LH: It's why it didn't take off.

AD: Why the response was that way.

My final thing is that I'm really excited for Carlos Motta. I'm super excited for that. The intersection of Indigenous, Latin American and LGBT art is just really exciting.

Oh, and you had mentioned favorite books and films earlier and I got to thinking about what fits in with what we've been talking about. Everything Everywhere All at Once. Like, that's the greatest film I've seen recently, if not ever.

LH: Yeah.

AD: I've been thinking about that film a lot. I love it, and I think that is because it really fits with what I love about art: it can make me laugh and cry and do everything in between, and touch on these really important emotions. You can feel everything everywhere all at once with art, and it can be inherently silly, and amazing and serious at the same time. Yeah. And I think that perfectly encapsulates that.

LH: Love it.

AD: Yeah. I want them to make posters of every universe of hers. All those outfits. I would buy them.

LH: I literally am obsessed with those outfits.


Laurel Hilliard and Austin Dunn photo: Melissa Starker

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