The route to Jennifer Vanderpool’s Fulbright scholarship traveled through her hometown within Mahoning Valley, a rural area between Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio. Vanderpool, who holds an independent, interdisciplinary PhD in art critical practices in trauma studies, from the University of California, Santa Barbara, has been an instructor at Mount Saint Mary’s since 2017.
Vanderpool creates community-specific, site-responsive exhibitions that she researches the way an art historian goes into a museum or an archive and reads about the type of work that they’re going to cover in an article.
When she finished her PhD, Vanderpool was offered an exhibition at the Butler Art Institute of American Art, a large museum in Youngstown, Ohio, that was started by the family that founded U.S. Steel. “I took this opportunity to start doing research on this city which was very close to where I grew up yet really knew nothing about,” she says.
She discovered that Youngstown’s Mullins Manufacturing made steel kitchens that were the epitome of modern architectural design during the decades following WWII. Vanderpool worked with elements from the Mahoning County Historical Society to include parts of a kitchen in the exhibition, as well as historic films, TV commercials and print advertisements. “I made my own works sort of tongue in cheek in response to this historic material,” she says.
The exhibit created a response that Vanderpool wasn’t expecting. “At the opening, families came that had a grandparent who had worked for Mullins Manufacturing or U.S. Steel, and they came with their children and grandchildren to tell their stories about working there.”
Thus her project "Untold Stories" was born, which are case-study exhibitions of disinvested communities. Vanderpool uses her own photographs as well as historic photojournalist imagery and ephemera advertisements that she finds in archives as well as textile designs from relevant time periods to create prints. She also created documentary films, storytelling to be seen in the exhibition. “My idea was that the people and workers in communities like Youngstown should tell their own stories about how they’re rebuilding or reimaging their cities in the postindustrial era.”
In the fall of 2019, Vanderpool applied to the Fulbright Commission to do a transnational narrative with the deindustrialized cities in the industrial north of England. “The thing about applying for a Fulbright is that it’s not like getting a grant from the Ohio Arts Council which funded the development of the Untold Stories exhibition,” she says. “You have to have a project that is related to the community where you’re going to be doing the research, and you have to have an affiliation with an institution in the country. Your research has to have a very specific narrative; it’s not just going to study abroad. What they’re asking is have you done enough work so that you can take advantage of this great opportunity.”
Vanderpool is working with the department of art, esthetics and philosophy at the University of Liverpool. For now, the work is all remote because the Fulbright has been deferred because of the pandemic, but likely will take place sometime in 2022.