When she received a prestigious fellowship at the Dayton Art Institute earlier this year, 2022 Wright State University graduate Ashley Cheak wanted to push herself as an artist.
As a Yeck College Artist Fellow, Cheak was able to experiment with several alternative photographic processes and explore different techniques in the darkroom to elevate her understanding of photography.
She approached the fellowship by asking herself: “How can I challenge what I know about photography?”
As she experimented with techniques like layering, solarization, double exposure and infrared photography, her work evolved.
Cheak — who received a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies and minors in French and creative writing from Wright State and now works as a staff member in the School of Fine and Performing Arts — prefers to shoot with film and develop her photos in the darkroom.
Working in the darkroom, she said, forces her to slow down and be present with her art.
“You’re in a dark space, there’s nothing to do but focus on what you’re working on,” she said. “I can get so distracted by overthinking my process. But in the darkroom, it’s great to experiment and slow down.”
Cheak was among five students selected for the Yeck College Artist Fellowship at the Dayton Art Institute in early 2023. The fellowship provides young artists with opportunities to develop their art, learn about working as a professional artist and create a lesson for high school students.
The program culminated in a public art exhibition at the Dayton Art Institute.
Cheak displayed six pieces featuring photographs she shot at Eastwood MetroPark in Dayton. For each piece, she used a complex technique in which she flipped or reversed an image several times as she developed it in the darkroom, creating unique reflections of natural elements.
Her goal was to explore how she could change the space in the image. As she manipulated each print, she started to see patterns in the images that had structures or resembled parts of the body.
“I kept coming back to some form of structure and weird circular web-like shapes,” she said. “I had no idea it was going to turn out like that. It was really a great experience.”
Cheak, who worked in the photo lab in the Creative Arts Center as a student, produced the pieces in Wright State’s darkroom facilities. She received support and guidance from Tracy Longley-Cook, associate professor in photography and associate chair of the School of Fine and Performing Arts, and Ben Montague, associate professor in photography.
During the fellowship, Cheak participated in group art critiques with the other fellows and heard from guest speakers including the head curator, gallery preparation staff and Michael Roediger, the director and CEO of the Dayton Art Institute and a Wright State graduate.
Cheak enjoyed learning about the intricacies of running a museum and curating exhibitions. This experience made her realize her passion for arts management and directing.
“It helped me to figure out what I want to do,” she said. “I definitely see myself with a career in the arts, even if I am not quite sure what that looks like yet.”
Cheak is well on her way. In addition to participating in the fellowship, Cheak joined the School of Fine and Performing Arts as an administrative support coordinator during Spring Semester. She has become immersed in the school’s arts programs while learning the school’s administrative and financial operations.
She is also planning an exhibition in the Project Space in Wright State’s Robert and Elaine Stein Galleries this fall with Shannon Gallion, a fine arts and English major at Wright State who also received a Yeck College Artist Fellowship.
“Everyone in the community is really supportive, especially here at Wright State and in Dayton,” she said. “I feel like people want us to succeed.”
Cheak, who is from the Dayton area, started studying writing and darkroom photography as a student at Stivers School for the Arts.
The flexibility provided by Wright State’s liberal studies program allowed Cheak to pursue her diverse interests in photography, creative writing, film, literature and French language and literature.
“I love being in the arts even if I’m not always creating art,” she said. “There’s isn’t only one field I’m drawn to.”
Her attitude is simple: “Why not explore it all somehow?”