A covert operation: How alumna Eva Dillon learned a Cold War secret

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

As a child, Eva Dillon (B.M.’82/A) moved all around the world. She and her six siblings would fall in love with a country, and a few years later, her father’s job would take the family somewhere new.

“I was born in Berlin, Germany, four years before the [Berlin] Wall went up,” she says. “I remember being frightened by the guards, the barbed wire and German shepherds, but our parents felt it was important that we see it.”

The family also lived in Mexico City and Rome before returning to the States shortly after the conclusion of the Cuban missile crisis. When Dillon was 17, the family moved to New Delhi. It was 1975, the year a bombshell, tell-all book called “Inside the Company: CIA Diary” was published. The book listed the names of 250 CIA officers, and her father, Paul Dillon, was on that list.

“We always thought he worked for the State Department, but when we saw a news article identifying him, we learned the truth,” Dillon says.

The book was written by former CIA officer Philip Agee who worked for her father when the family lived in Mexico City seven years earlier. In it, Agee revealed that Dillon’s father was an operations officer in the Agency’s Soviet division.  Eventually Dillon learned that he handled the CIA’s highest-ranking double agent, Gen. Dmitri Fedorovich Polyakov.

Going her own way

A year later, Dillon returned to the U.S. to attend the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, graduating with a music degree focused on composition and theory. Though music was her passion (she still sings to this day), Dillon realized that she wanted to go in a different direction.

“Five of my siblings attended VCU. We all lived in the Fan,” she says. “Just about all of us worked at Strawberry Street Café. It was how we worked our way through college. We had an amazing experience!”

After graduation, Dillon worked as a roving assistant at National Geographic, where she eventually landed in the advertising department. She loved the publishing industry and decided to pursue a career in business operations. She moved to New York City and got a job at a trade magazine in advertising sales, marketing and circulation. From there, she worked at TV Guide, Glamour, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and other publications, later becoming president of Reader’s Digest.

Putting pen to paper

With 25 years of experience in the publishing world, Dillon was ready to write her own book, one that told the story of her father and Polyakov. After learning that the general’s son, Alexander Polyakov, had emigrated to the U.S., she sought him out, and he was willing to share his stories with her.

She began to collect material written about Polyakov from newspapers, magazines and various books, and with his son’s help, she also gained access to information from Russia that she had translated. Combining that information with interviews she had from her father’s former colleagues and friends, she filled in the details of the story.

The resulting book, “Spies in the Family: An American Spymaster, His Russian Crown Jewel, and the Friendship That Helped End the Cold War,” paints a broad picture of the Cold War, the issues and the political environment and tells various stories about government operatives and assets. The book also delves into further detail about what life was like for both the Dillon and Polyakov families unknowingly growing up in the family of spies.

“With [Alexander’s] help, I was now able to tell the story from two sides,” Dillon says. “General Polyakov worked on behalf of our country for 18 years. I felt it was important people know what he did for us.”

Dillon returns to VCU on Dec. 6 for a talk at James Branch Cabell Library to discuss the book and reveal additional insights into Cold War politics. The talk will be followed by a Q&A, book-signing and a reception.

In new book, VCU alumnus reveals 190-year history of Richmond’s notorious, iconic Virginia State Penitentiary

Serial killer Henry Lee Lucas was incarcerated at the Virginia State Penitentiary for five years in 1954 on grand larceny charges.

A new book by Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus Dale Brumfield (B.F.A.’82/A; M.F.A.’15/H&S) reveals the history of the Virginia State Penitentiary, the Richmond prison that was built in 1800 and that the ACLU at one time called the “most shameful prison in America.”

Virginia State Penitentiary: A Notorious History” is the latest book by Brumfield, who earned a B.F.A. in painting from VCU’s School of the Arts in 1981 and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from VCU’s Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences in 2015.

Brumfield is the field director for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, as well as a digital archaeologist and the author of eight books, including two histories of the underground press — “Richmond Independent Press” and “Independent Press in D.C. and Virginia: An Underground History.”

He will give a reading and sign copies of “Virginia State Penitentiary: A Notorious History” on Sunday, Oct. 29, from 4–6 p.m. at Babe’s of Carytown’s back room, 3166 W. Cary St. in Richmond.

Brumfield recently discussed his new book, and explained what made the Virginia State Penitentiary so notorious.

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‘Richmond Potluck’ benefits Puerto Rico hurricane victims

Steven Casanova’s exhibit, “The Richmond Cookbook,” at the Anderson.

A Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts alumnus has quickly turned his existing exhibition at the Anderson into a benefit for Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria last month.

VCUarts will host Steven Casanova’s (B.F.A.’15/A) “Richmond Potluck” on Friday, Oct. 6, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Anderson, 907 1/2 W. Franklin St. Casanova is one of six recent alumni featured in the “Reach Out and Touch” exhibition, on view at the Anderson through Oct. 8.

Casanova’s work, “The Richmond Cookbook,” is a submission-based citywide cookbook showing the diversity in culture and background through Richmond, while contrasting living situations and food access throughout the city.

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Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts launches Arts Research Institute

The Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts announced today the launch of its Arts Research Institute, which will serve faculty in their creative research and interdisciplinary practices across the university. Through supporting faculty projects, catalyzing interdisciplinary collaborations, and facilitating public dialogue about the role of artists in society, the Arts Research Institute will be one of the few arts research offices to employ a spectrum of artistic practices as rigorous research methods on par with science, directed at responding to current issues of our time and a complex future.

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Alumna transitions from blackhawks to block planes

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Alicia Dietz (M.F.A.’16/A), a former Army pilot, is a woodworker, craftsman and adjunct faculty member in the Department of Craft and Material Studies in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts. If she’s not at her Richmond studio creating functional and concept art, she’s traveling up and down the East Coast doing art projects with military veterans. Follow along with her next week as she takes over the VCU Alumni Instagram account.

What was your time as a pilot like?

I have wanted to fly since I was 6 years old and watched medevac helicopters land on the roof of the hospital that my mom worked at. When I got to high school, I talked to as many pilots as I could and asked them how they learned to fly. The overwhelming majority said they learned in the military so that’s why I joined the Army. I earned my undergrad in advertising and journalism at Ohio University, going through the Army ROTC program while I was there. I graduated in 2001 and was just entering flight school when 9/11 happened. I was in flight school for just over a year before getting assigned to a unit stationed out of Germany that was already deployed to Iraq.

I was in the Army for just over 10 years, flew as a maintenance test pilot and commanded two different companies, one in Alaska and one in Egypt. I took aircraft on flights after repairs to test their airworthiness before releasing them back onto the flight schedule. That feeling when the wheels just lift off the ground is one that never got old for me.

How did you get into woodworking?

My father and grandfather had always done woodworking in their spare time. My dad had a little workshop in our basement and over the course of a decade, built our entertainment stand and coffee and end tables. Then, while in the Army, they had Morale, Welfare and Recreation centers where you could learn how to frame things, throw a pot or build a table. I would go in during my downtime and play in the shop. It was a great way to de-stress and learn something new.  I got addicted!

After I got out of the Army, I used my GI Bill to go to a very traditional woodworking school in Vermont for two years, learning dovetails, mortise and tenon and traditional wood construction. I had the amazing opportunity to go to San Diego and do an internship with Wendy Maruyama, who studied at VCU for a bit and who was a real inspiration to me and introduced me to concept in my work. She was the one who encouraged me to go to grad school.

Why did you choose VCU, and what’s your favorite memory of being on campus?

Wendy had many positive things to say about VCU, and even though I was in Vermont, my partner was living and working just south of Richmond. I knew that when school in Vermont was over I was moving back to Richmond. It was extremely convenient that one of the best art schools in the nation was right in my backyard!

My favorite memories would have to both being a TA and now teaching [woodworking at VCU]. To see the spark ignite when a student falls in love with woodworking is truly magical.

VCU School of the Arts, ICA, Department of African American Studies announce racial equity initiative

In fall 2017, the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, one of the nation’s leading arts schools; the new Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, opening in spring 2018; and the VCU Department of African American Studies will launch the Racial Equity, Arts and Culture Transdisciplinary Core, an initiative founded through the VCU Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation, known as iCubed.

Artists Meghan K. Abadoo and Paul Rucker, and scholar Onaje X.O. Woodbine will join the group as it explores efforts to redress social disparities and inequities within VCU and the broader Richmond community while drawing on the transformative potential of arts and culture.

“VCU is committed to recruiting faculty of exceptional quality who can help to reshape our educational landscape through their teaching, scholarship and service,” said Aashir Nasim, Ph.D., director of iCubed. “Meghan, Paul and Onaje will contribute to a pedagogy that promises to advance student learning in meaningful and productive ways, and encourages the community to become engaged as part of the process, leading to new findings relevant to our city and beyond.”

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Humility, hunger pave alumnus’ way to new Netflix series

VCU graduate Jason Butler Harner in “Ozark.” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)
Ozark

More than three decades later, Jason Butler Harner (B.F.A.’92/A) still remembers a few things he learned in Mrs. Rubin’s fourth-grade class at Lemon Road Elementary School.

He learned how to play mahjong, which he still plays on airplane flights to this day.

He learned a lot about Christmas pageants, and appreciates the irony considering his teacher was Jewish.

And he learned that he loves performing.

“We had to do book reports in her class where we dressed like the character and then reported on the book,” Harner recalled. “And I was, and I still am, a huge procrastinator — a lot of creative people are. And I had only half-read the book. So I dressed up as the guy from the book and got really nervous presenting in front of the class.

“And then discovered that I kind of liked it.”

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Painting the Town Fashion

Sometimes the best way to tell a story is with a picture.

Students in the Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising have painted a mural on the side of the former Urban Farmhouse building, on the corner of Broad and Gilmer streets. The mural shows three women dressed in stylish denim outfits. This is the second mural painted in Richmond under the guidance of Patricia Brown, chair of the fashion department. Brown’s concept for the murals is to “Paint the Town Fashion.”

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Across the world: Alumna’s passion for art spans three continents

Guido Alvarez, Ph.D. (M.F.A.’04/A; Ph.D.’15/H&S), teaches typography, motion graphics, visual expression and studio skills at Wenzhou Kean University in Wenzhou, China. He’ll be taking over VCU Alumni’s Instagram the week of May 29, giving you a look into what it’s like to teach and live in the city of Wenzhou.

What sparked your interest in art?

Well, my father is a professional watercolorist and was a professor of architecture at the University of Cuenca [in Ecuador]. He also served as dean of the schools of architecture and arts at the university and founded a local school of design.

I grew up in an environment where art was always present and that pushed me to attend a painting academy as a child.

What was your journey to VCU from Ecuador?

When it came time for me to choose a career, I wanted to become a photographer but, to this day, there are no schools of photography in Ecuador The closest professional path to follow was architecture, but after a semester of studying it, I decided that it wasn’t for me and transitioned into studying design and English at the University of Cuenca.

I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship in 1999 and was given three program choices: the Art Institute of Chicago, Yale University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Chicago told me I didn’t have the skills, and Yale told me I didn’t have the money, but VCU said, “Come over and have a partial scholarship.” That was enough for me, so my wife at the time and I packed what we owned and moved to the States. I arrived to a city I knew nothing about and a university completely unknown to me in a country that I loved but knew nothing about except the language. Little did I know, it would become such an integral part of my life, education and identity.

What was your time at the university like?

Odd, weird, strange and unique in its own way. My first semester in the M.F.A. program was rough. I knew what I was capable of, but I wasn’t ready for the different expectations. Each professor was unique and challenged me, helping me transform from a designer and computer operator to a design thinker, culture-maker and conceptual thinker.

Outside of the classroom, things weren’t easy. Money was scarce, and we often had to live off of credit cards. We had our first child during my first year in the U.S. and trying to live within the salary of a teaching assistant was hard. However, the experiences I had in Richmond and the people I met made a radical difference in our lives. I still consider Richmond to be my true home. It’s where I met the people I call my American parents, Bob and Wilma, who embraced me and my family and gave us unparalleled generosity.

I moved back to Ecuador for five years after completing my master’s degree and worked as director of the design program at a transnational university, but it wasn’t the right fit for me so I returned to VCU for my doctorate [in media, art and text].

My second time at the university was much more demanding. From writing with the rigor of academia to commuting two hours a day from Louisa County, where I took care of a property and two lap dogs in exchange for living space for me and my family, it was extremely different. I left Richmond in 2006 to teach at St. Olaf College in Minnesota but returned to VCU twice to defend my Ph.D.

Where did you go after earning your Ph.D.?

Well, during the time it took me to defend my thesis I applied to jobs all over the world. When I was finished, I moved back to Minnesota to be close to my kids, and while I was there, I was offered a position at Wenzhou Kean University. Without any other options, I said yes and flew into the unknown once again.

Being in Wenzhou has been an extremely transformative experience. It wasn’t an easy path, but it was worth pursuing. China is a beautiful country, with a rich culture and great food. The problem is that many aspects of the country are unknown to the rest of the world, and I wish that were different.

What projects are you working on now?

When I’m not teaching, I’m learning Chinese, word by word, character by character. It’s a beautiful language, yet nearly impossible to master.

I’m also preparing a presentation for the World Design Summit in Canada this October called “Typography Education with Multicultural Perspective,” where I plan to show the gaps between Western and Eastern cultures from the perspective of visual communication and, particularly, graphic design.

I’ll also be back in Richmond starting in June conducting research at Cabell Library while preparing for an exhibit of my drawings that will take place in Ecuador in July. It will integrate a robotic drawing device with my handmade work with the subject matter being China, of course.

How has VCU made an impact on your career?

It made everything possible. I recently got a red paper dragon tattoo on my arm while in Shanghai, a first for me. I’ll get my next one while in Richmond, and it will be “VCUarts.” It means that much to me.

An interview with Anna Journey, author of ‘An Arrangement of Skin’

When Anna Journey (B.F.A.’04/A; M.F.A.’07/H&S) was a student in the master of fine arts in creative writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University, she attracted international news coverage for her discovery of an unpublished poem by Sylvia Plath in the archives at Indiana University. The poem, “Ennui,” was published in November 2006 in Blackbird, an online literary journal of the VCU Department of English and New Virginia Review Inc.

Today, Journey continues to attract attention, but it is her writing rather than her research that is the source of her renown. Journey is the author of the essay collection “An Arrangement of Skin” (Counterpoint) and three books of poems: “The Atheist Wore Goat Silk” (LSU Press), “Vulgar Remedies” (LSU Press) and “If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting” (University of Georgia Press), which was selected by Thomas Lux for the National Poetry Series. Her poems have drawn praise from such luminaries as the film director David Lynch, who called Journey’s poetry “really magical,” and the poet Erin Belieu, who said Journey “brings me surprise after surprise in language so vivid, peculiar, truthful, and moving, that I gulp the poems down, a glutton for their strange energies and observations.”

Journey holds a B.F.A. in art education from the VCU School of the Arts, an M.F.A. in creative writing from the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences and a Ph.D. in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston. She’s currently an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern California. “An Arrangement of Skin,” which was published in March, is Journey’s latest work. In his praise for the book, Mark Doty, the National Book Award-winning poet, said Journey “might be our first Southern Gothic essayist, and she invigorates the form with both a poet’s lyricism and the distinctive signature of her character: a vulnerable heart wedded to an acute, comic, unsparing eye.”

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