“It’s What Fills Me Up”—A Conversation with Director of Visual Arts and Design Danielle Picard-Sheehan

Danielle Picard-Sheehan is all about relationships. In her work as an artist, family is often her focus—immediate family members and family across generations. In her work as an educator, her relationships with her students are what “fill her up”—and what help students grow as artists and individuals.

As a junior in high school struggling to find her path, Danielle had an art teacher who spied her talent—and her need for mentorship. “She said to me very simply, ‘You have a gift, and I am going to help you.’ She became a second mom to me. We began meeting regularly, and she helped me prepare my portfolio. That’s how I became an artist.”

Danielle has spent her career committed to paying that experience forward, and many of her students become life-long friends. This past fall, one of her former students was struggling to settle into her first year in college in Boston, MA. “She is a talented and very hard-working student in a dual-degree program; she is an international student and hadn’t been able to go home for several years due to COVID-19, and just hadn’t found her people yet.” So Danielle, familiar with the Boston area as a Mass Art alumnus, flew up for the weekend and showed her former student around the city to help her feel more at home.

Current senior Max Forstein ’23 refers to Danielle as his “campus mom” and says that it was her guidance and care that helped him manage life as a boarding student during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I spent a lot of time in the studio that year,” Max said. “It was my comfort space. Even now, if I need something or have a question about a project I’m working on, I’ll call her and she always has time for me. I don’t consider myself an artsy person, but Danielle is the reason I’ve stuck with photography for four years at GS.”

Helping students discover what moves them is critical to the development of their skills as artists and their growth as human beings. In both her introductory and advanced courses, the curriculum is enriched by Danielle’s commitment to learning what inspires each individual.

Students interested in exploring photography at George School take a one-term course that defines the aesthetics of an image through the formal elements of vantage point, form composition, detail, light, and timing. Through the study of artists like Henri Cartier-Bresson they discover what it means to capture a moment in time, creating a “decisive moment,” which Danielle describes as one of the most challenging concepts for students at this level. If they choose to continue in the discipline, they can take two successive terms to learn how to effectively communicate through the art form.

“The growth these students exhibit between term one and two is tremendous,” Danielle says. “In term two they really learn how to express their individual interests, and they get excited to produce work that speaks to the world. They’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m thinking about metaphors and symbolism now,’ and it just gives me chills to see this process of self-discovery,” Danielle says.

Those who choose to continue the study of photography move to coursework in advanced digital imaging or photography. They can take up to three years of these courses, and the curriculum changes regularly to accommodate the individuals enrolled. Advanced Digital Imagery is a thorough course on Adobe Photoshop that culminates with the creation of a fantasy landscape incorporating multiple images, which highlights both tactical Photoshop skills and the ability to think in more conceptual ways. Advanced Photography is a hands-on darkroom-based course. Students learn the history of photography and how to use historic processes like hand-applied emulsions, such as cyanotype, van dyke brown, and salt printing.

Historic processes are Danielle’s particular passion; in her current work, she creates narratives using some of these processes with old photographs given to her by a family member.

As a young photographer, Danielle used her family members as subjects, photographing them in very real, raw ways. Having lost her father to ALS as a young child, she grew up watching her single mother grieve and grappling with that loss herself. Photographing her mom and brother “was kind of therapeutic,” Danielle says. While she hasn’t focused entirely on family and relationships throughout her career as an artist, she does consistently return to this theme.

“I’ve been collecting old photographs for as long as I can remember,” she says. “My current series weaves collected images into my own personal narratives. While some of these images touch on themes of loss and transcendence, they all explore the dichotomy that complex relationships, real and perceived, bring to these subjects.” Her work is currently on display through February 14 at the bi-annual faculty art show at the Class of 1956 Gallery located in the Mollie Dodd Anderson Library.

She continues to work, mostly over breaks and in the summer (and with some help from faculty enrichment grants), to advance her craft and learn new techniques. She is inspired by her students, and often asks them for constructive feedback.

“The amount of time and reflection students spend in these advanced courses amazes me,” Danielle said. “We are in the middle of critiques now for a visual metaphor assignment, and it’s remarkable to see how students’ vocabulary improves and how they learn to delve in and dissect and analyze an image. It makes them uncomfortable at first, but then they realize that it’s a loving and safe space.”

Danielle was an adjunct professor at the college level earlier in her career, but teaching at the college level didn’t allow the depth of relationships that occurs with her current students.

“I fell in love with high school students,” she said. “They’re so funny and impressionable and their minds are sponges. The connections I’ve made are truly incredible; when you teach a student for four years and see them grow and change—I cry every year at Commencement. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

Favorite George School photo ops:  The path to the outdoor auditorium when the cherry trees are in bloom; the meetinghouse when flowers are in bloom; campus blanketed in snow.