Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

The Painted Word: The Art Association curates a vibrant future

Rachel O’Connor

TheBurg’s crossword puzzle for the month starts with eight letters across, with the clue reading, “the state of being full of energy and life.” It intersects with three letters down: “a form of non-verbal communication as an expression of human skill.”

Get started and soon the picture will come into focus. See the key at the end for the answers.

Almost five years ago, Rachel O’Connor became the newly appointed curator for the esteemed Art Association of Harrisburg (AAH). At the time, TheBurg interviewed Ms. O’Connor about the task ahead, and she shared her excitement and enlightenment about the art scene in Harrisburg. In her words, she wanted to make Harrisburg an even more vitally alive art community, which became her mission.

That was then and, even more so today, Harrisburg is chock full of artists. I often joke with the members of the art community that the latest census revealed that one of three Harrisburg residents are artists—and there is a foundation of truth in that. Starting immediately with the association’s semi-annual “Member’s Show,” Rachel hit the ground running, gaining momentum with every exhibit thereafter. A neophyte curator, O’Connor learned from a master who not only knows the ropes but has been the life force at the AAH for four decades—CEO and President Carrie Wissler-Thomas.

O’Connor’s art education, gained at Messiah University and the New York Center for Media and the Arts, became even more intense under the mentorship of Wissler-Thomas. The combination proved to be beneficial for all parties, especially as the venerable institution successfully navigated the perils of the pandemic. For many fans in the art community, Rachel carved out a name for herself in recent years with a portfolio of groundbreaking exhibits.

The curator’s role includes selecting artists, formulating a cohesive theme and then mounting an exhibit. Beyond those duties, Rachel still maintains her adjunct professorship’s schedule of teaching art history at her alma mater, Messiah University. This provides access to a reservoir of art students, flowing freely with new approaches and ideas, embellishing a core of established, Harrisburg-area talent.

As the year winds down, with special shows to close it out, O’Connor is now a seasoned veteran. She embraces the major challenges of growing an institution approaching its century mark and helping to develop emerging artists. If the turn of global events has taught this young achiever a lesson worth learning, it is that we are only as good as those who surround us.

O’Connor is gracious and sincere for the education she has received at AAH. From the guidance of Wissler-Thomas to the collegial relationships forged with gallery gurus Nate Foster, Randy Miller, Crista Sanfilippo and Jonathan Frazier, learning has been an ongoing adventure. In bringing new ideas and exhibits to the existing foundation, the future of the AAH is on firm footing. For her part, Rachel imparts wisdom that spotlights a commitment to the bigger picture.

“I’d like to expand the AAH in its creative endeavors,” she said. “Growth is always important. Over the decades, the association has grown and reached different stages of achievement. It’s time to reach the next stage. There is a lot of untapped potential here.”

Assembling a collective group of artists who bring fresh “art” and “vibrancy” to this vaunted institution is tantamount to success. These words constitute the solution to our puzzle, and no one knows this better than curator O’Connor.

The Art Association of Harrisburg is located at 21 N. Front St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit

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