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A Broader Spectrum of Perspective: Recognizing Gabriella Huggins

Posted By Salt Lake County ZAP
April 26, 2017

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outstanding emerging arts professional

Gabriella Huggins is the after school digital media arts mentor for Spy Hop Productions.  Her main program is Sending Messages—“a storytelling podcast created and entirely produced by incarcerated youth.  Gabriella’s nominator said of the program, “Under Gabriella’s lead Sending Messages has expanded to a vehicle that hopes to inform current policy reform, improve access to high quality step-down resources, and progress toward a restorative justice framework.” 

In addition to the sending messages program, Gabriella also works with marginalized youth through the multimedia programs SpyHop offers.  Gabriella has directed and co-direced two award winning documentaries, was a featured speaker at TEDx Park City, and has been heavily involved in Salt Lake County nonprofits.  Gabriella is, in the words of her nominator, “A skilled facilitator and forward thinking advocate, [who] strives to provide her students with the tools to think critically and the esteem to express themselves artistically.” 

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Here is more about our Outstanding Emerging Arts Professional.


When did you fall in love with the arts?

I’ve always been an avid reader, finger painting and crafting are some of the most vivid memories I have of childhood, and I have been dancing consistently since junior high. I am always walking around with headphones in, listening to podcasts and music, and I spend most of my weekends on the couch watching movies. I can’t pinpoint a specific moment when I realized art was important to me, but Spy Hop and my time dancing at West High School played a major role in shaping the creator within me. My Spy Hop mentors and dance teacher were excellent examples of what was possible as a working artist. They were always passionate and encouraging and taught me to be a critical consumer and creator.

gabriella huggins with community members

How have you seen the positive effects of the arts in your life or in the Salt Lake County?

Personally, engaging with the arts has equipped me to articulate my own perspectives. Every time I see or hear something from another community, from a person unlike me or a place I am unfamiliar with, I try to accept what I’m experiencing with an open mind. Art forces me to think about why I loved a piece, what I learned from a piece, what I hated about a piece, and what I can create in response. My curiosity, my willingness to talk to people I disagree with and try to understand, my interest in walks of life foreign to my own, comes from my exposure to diverse types of art from diverse places. 

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What do you imagine the arts community could look like in Salt Lake?

Salt Lake is a very interesting place artistically. There are great venues like Diabolical Records, there are dance performances on a regular basis, and zine and art pop-ups where newer or freelance artists are creating space for themselves to share their work locally. We have some great art institutions here as well that are bringing international and national works to this place. Unfortunately, there seem to be gaps that exist; who can see art, and whose art is being seen? Much of the publicly accessible work here, even in smaller galleries, is safe, sanitized, very palatable. Art should be accessible to many people and sometimes the easiest way to make that happen is to create uncontroversially. However, I would love to see art here exist on a broader spectrum of experience and perspective, especially in our galleries and museums.

gabriella huggins at work

What are some steps for getting there?

I go back to this idea of exchange. Art is created for conversation and there is so much being created here that the larger community doesn’t get to see, so much that is missing in our local conversations. Our established institutions should be highlighting what’s happening in those blind spots, especially since we live in a place centered around a sense of community. Our community artists should shape our art landscape, unapologetically and authentically. It would be great if art that was commissioned around the city was a way to employ younger or up-and-coming artists to contribute, from murals to public statues. It’d be incredible if galleries were more intentional about reaching out to artists working underground here and inviting them to share their work on a main stage. 

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How has your work impacted the Salt Lake community?

The best and most tangible impact I am having on my community is the quality time spent with these students to create pieces they can share on a platform others in their community can engage with.  My job is the best because I work in a place where teens show up for a new programming, skeptical and so aloof, and leave two hours later, smiling and laughing and thankful and making plans for what they’ll do if they can come back again. It’s exciting to work with young people who are stoked on a camera they’ve never used before, or energized by the finished product of a radio play they edited. I am proud to help some of these students escape the sharper edges and darker corners of their lives through puppet-film-making and stop motion animation. The environment Spy Hop provides is one that changes attitudes and helps us connect person-to-person, mentor-to-student, in a way that builds trust and encourages positivity, self-reflection, and excitement about the arts. That’s important in its potential to foster bigger and better things in young people, to encourage them to imagine what they can do and then attempt to complete something original. That’s agency, and agency is something we need our young people to have, to know they have power to do things that enhance and progress the world they live in.

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What energizes you in your work? What is your purpose?

Working with young people is energizing. Young people are often misunderstood and written off as uncaring, uninteresting, or unknowing. I learn things from my students every day, and it gives me a lot of hope as our global community grows, climate insecurity worsens, and economic disparities continue to pose challenges. When I was young, I benefited immensely from having many caring adults around me who set healthy boundaries, taught me the power of personal responsibility, and encouraged me to pursue the things I cared about through direct action. Mentorship is not something all youth benefit from, and I’m lucky to have grown up around creatives who inspired me to explore myself and the world around me through creative exchange. Community organizing is a creative endeavor, critical thinking is a creative endeavor, gaining self-esteem is a creative endeavor. My purpose in this work is to help students understand their influence and place in the context of this complicated world, whatever that means to them, to find innovative solutions to the issues they face personally and the issues they want to influence in the world. 

We are honored to present Gabriella with our second Outstanding Salt Lake Emerging Arts Professional award.

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Gabriella was interviewed by Rachel Cook.

Rachel Cook is a Masters Candidate with SUU Arts Administration and a member of the Salt Lake Emerging Arts Professionals advisory committee. She loves art, the mountains, and spends her spare time with her husband.