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Sundance and SXSW film festival award winner Phoebe Jane Hart found her passion at WCSU

Phoebe Jane Hart with her 'Bug Diner" set

Bug Diner posterDANBURY, Connecticut — Growing up in Redding, Connecticut, Phoebe Jane Hart had a fascination with film. She figured her entry into the movie business one day would be as an actress, so after graduating from Joel Barlow High School, Hart moved to New York City to attend an acting conservatory. In January, she received the Jury Award at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, and in March, she earned the Special Jury Award at SXSW, but it wasn’t Hart’s acting that led her to these prestigious awards – it was her animation skills – which she developed as a Visual Arts student at Western Connecticut State University.

Catching up with her after an exciting week in Park City, Utah, where the Sundance Festival was held, Hart said, “Attending Western Connecticut State University was the beginning of a big journey for me. I was working as a waitress in New York City while trying to find acting gigs, and I was drawing all the time. I ended up moving back in with my parents, who by then had moved to Newtown, Connecticut, enrolled at WCSU, commuted and paid as I went.”

A few years older than the typical freshman when she began her studies at WCSU, Hart said she had the maturity to appreciate the opportunities before her. “I was not that interested in high school,” she said. “Coming to WCSU when I did, I realized how much school can do for you if you take advantage of it. If you really use all the resources available to you, it can change your life.”

One of those resources was a personal introduction Hart obtained from WCSU Art Professor Darby Cardonsky that enabled her to intern with notable sculptor James Grashow. Another was the opportunity to create her own study-abroad opportunity in Florence, Italy, through Studio Arts College International (SACI).

“Up until that point, WCSU did not have a consortium with SACI,” Hart explained. “WCSU Art Department Chair Cathy Vanaria helped me with the necessary paperwork to create a collaboration that enabled me to go using my WCSU scholarship toward my study-abroad program, and it was an amazing opportunity.”

Hart, who could have cared less about her grade point average in high school, realized she did care, and became a member of WCSU’s Kathwari Honors Program. As part of the program, faculty from many disciplines teach Honors students enhanced classes. Associate Professor of Art and subsequent Kathwari Honors Program Director Sabrina Marques gave students a course in experimental animation, and Hart realized she had found not only her calling, but also her way into the film industry.

“Sabrina is the reason I became an animator. She changed my life,” Hart said. “I found my passion and it became everything to me.”

Soon, Hart was being pursued by out-of-state fine arts programs while still an undergraduate at WCSU. Marques told her there was no need to take out loans to attend any of those other schools, when WCSU would “make the program work for you.” Hart studied Studio Art, Color Theory and Painting in Marques’ classes. She also created her senior portfolio project “her way” with encouragement from Marques. That project featured the same kind of stop motion animation work that is featured in Hart’s Sundance Award-Winning short film, “Bug Diner.”

Due to the portfolio of work she created as a student at WCSU, Hart said she was offered the Lillian Disney Scholarship at the California Institute of the Arts to pursue an M.F.A. in Experimental Animation. The three-year program has enabled Hart to enhance the animation skills that she began developing at WCSU: “Bug Diner” was her CalArts capstone thesis project. It also provided the opportunity to receive a paid, post-graduate teaching fellowship, which has ignited her desire to teach art at the college level.

Simultaneously the writer, producer, model maker, cinematographer and editor of her film, Hart spent many solo hours in her studio. The dedication paid off. At Sundance, Hart said, there were more than 12,000 short films submitted and only 53 were selected. Of those, seven received awards, and only “Bug Diner” received the Short Film Jury Award for Animation.

For now, Hart is riding the wave of success. Prior to submitting her work to the Sundance Film Festival, she had submitted it to the South by Southwest Festival, where it also was accepted. They allowed her to proceed with her Sundance submission first, since SXSW wasn’t until March. Hot on the heels of her Sundance win, Hart also won recognition at SXSW.

“Technically, my Sundance Award makes ‘Bug Diner’ Oscar-qualifying,” Hart said. “It will be on the short list of films that could be nominated.” Regardless of the outcome, Hart said that since her January Sundance win, she’s receiving “tons of emails” from other festivals, producers, agents, PR people and others who want to work with her. “It’s exciting,” she said. “WestConn really changed my life.”


Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high-quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals and leaders in a global society. Our vision: To be widely recognized as a premier public university with outstanding teachers and scholars who prepare students to contribute to the world in a meaningful way.