It was a musical evening at the Zenner House in Athens. Rows of chairs were set up on the lawn for the many guests in between the perfectly manicured garden and the Tudor style mansion. The a capella group, The Wiffenpoofs, were up front displaying their musical talents. The Yale University singing group had one familiar face to many from Athens. Derek Demel (pictured) grew up in Athens and was one of the featured singers on this musical evening.

Hundreds gathered at the historic Zenner House on the Athens east side Friday evening for a cultural evening featuring work from the Athens Photographic Project and America’s oldest collegiate a cappella group, The Yale Whippenpoofs.

The skies were clear and the air was warm at the historic Zenner House as people gathered for an evening of a cappella music featuring a variety of genres and artistic traditions, as well as an art gallery presented by the Athens Photo Project.

Displayed photography was scattered about the pristine, enclosed grounds of the Zenner House, where nearly 200 guests strolled and admired the photography. The event was a fundraiser benefit, with proceeds split between the two organizations.

Athens Photo Project is a community of artists dedicated to using photography as a tool for self-expression, personal growth and social change. Several of the APP artists were in attendance, either selling prints of some artwork they had taken, or otherwise were photographing the event.

Deanna Farnsworth, 40, said photography gives her the opportunity to express herself. She said she was fortunate to have the opportunity to be recognized publicly as an artist.

“It means a lot to have some recognition as an artist in the community,” Farnsworth said. “And try to, you know, bring some light into others’ lives through photography and artwork.”

Kay Giffin, 61, has been involved with APP for eight years. She said photography has offered her a new perspective on the world.

“And just looking through the lens, I see the world in a whole different way that I haven’t seen before,” Giffin said. “

APP was founded in 2000 by photographer and mental health advocate Elise Sanford in response to the marginalization and stigma she felt followed individuals into the community after the deinstitutionalization of state hospitals such as the Athens Mental Health Center (previously known as the Athens Asylum).

Farnsworth said the mental health benefits of photography are a guiding philosophy of the program.

“Mental health is a big part of the project,” Farnsworth said. “You know, to get out and do something and feel better — it’s very valuable to me.”

Another artist, Steve Edinger, said photography helped him with chronic mental health issues like Post-Traumatic Stress, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and anxiety.

He said photography not only helps him manage his mental health, but also allows him to express some of the vision loss he experiences from glaucoma.

“It helps me to concentrate on something that’s a little more closer to home,” Edinger said. “It kind of grounds me.”

The Athens Photo project is also seeking to turn the program into a business experience for participants.

In 2019, with support from Buckeye Hills Regional Development Council, the Osteopathic Heritage Foundation and Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, APP piloted a new program offering artists the opportunity to work as photographers with training and support.

Erin Labelle, social enterprise coordinator, said the enterprise program works with members of the project alongside local nonprofits and businesses to provide

Rather than expressive photography like the artists typically practice, the enterprise program focuses more on professional photography that businesses can use — and offer the photographers experience, Labelle said.

“So what we’re really trying to do is create financial well-being for our artists,” Labelle said.

She added the partnerships can also benefit nonprofits that may not necessarily have the funding for artwork.

Edinger, who was photographing the event, said he knows he can do as good of a job as anyone, regardless of circumstance.

“I’m still able to cope with what society gives me,” Edinger said. “Even though some in society may say I’m slower or not as capable — I can still do the job.”

The Yale Whiffenpoofs is the oldest collegiate a cappella group in the country. Founded in 1909, the “Whiffs” began as a senior quartet that met weekly at Mory’s Temple Bar near Yale’s campus. Today, the group has become one of Yale’s most celebrated traditions, a release said.

The Whiffenpoofs perform more than 200 concerts across six continents each year, and sing a mixture of old Yale tunes, jazz standards, and other hits from across the decades.

The current Whippenpoofs have an Athens connection, Derek Demel, a 2017 graduate of Athens High School.

He said he tried to organize this event at the Zenner House last year, but the onset of coronavirus in America spelled an end to any talk of a 2020 performance right as they arrived in town in March.

“It was really painful to like, have this whole group and perform and pause,” Demel said

However, Demel said his 2021 return to Athens with the a cappella group was going to be a memorable experience.

“This is extra special — I’ve had a whole year to make this performance work,” Demel said. “And because now there’s the real local connection with the Zenner house and the Athens Photo Project, it makes it that much more special.”

He added it was good to see familiar faces, especially those he remembers from growing up, in the stands and supporting him.

Nate Thompson, executive director of APP, said he believed the event was a remarkable success. He said the amount of people who turned out to support local artists and the Whippenpoofs was a testament to the support the community shows for the project.

“You know, I think the pandemic really got a lot of people reassessing where their values are, how they want to spend their time, what they want to support,” Thompson said. “An event around the culture and the arts says a lot about the values of our community.”

Thompson also said he would like to thank the owner of the Zenner House, Jeff Chaddock, proprietor of Envisage Wealth.

Renowned Pittsburgh architect Brandon Smith, who specialized in the design of museums and libraries around the world, designed the Zenner House in 1927, and the building was completed two years later.

Chaddock now is responsible for the Zenner House, and often uses the house as a venue for nonprofits. Before the Whippenpoofs performed, Chaddock addressed the crowd and thanked them for supporting both groups on display.

“Little old Athens can draw on some amazing events,” Chaddock said.

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