Lewis Center Summer Awards Signal Princeton’s Emphasis on Research in the Creative Arts

Annabel Barry

The front wall of the abandoned warehouse was a tangle of brightly colored geometries, mustard triangles on top of fuchsia triangles, a silhouette in profile with red hearts bubbling from his head, cartoon clouds and gears, and emoji-style smiley-faces, one with a single yellow hand held up in a peace sign. Across the top, in block letters, the mural declared #DERRYHAPPY—a lighthearted hashtag for a newly optimistic Derry, Northern Ireland. Notebook and iPhone camera in hand, I walked around to the back of the warehouse, where white and orange letters commanded, “Join the I.R.A.”—the Irish Republican Army. This older graffiti was a remnant from Northern Ireland’s Troubles, the sectarian violence of the 1960s through the 1990s.

During my week in Derry, I realized that the mural reflected the city itself. Historically, Derry has been defined by its divisions: perilously close to Ireland’s North-South border, it is itself bisected by the River Foyle and partitioned along Catholic-Protestant lines. In the last decade, the city has turned to the arts, to colorful murals and commemorative sculptures, as a way to heal from and blur these divisions. As in the case of the #DERRYHAPPY mural, it has done so without painting over its difficult history. Derry was one of several Irish border communities I visited this summer, with Tim K. Vasen Summer Research Funding awarded by the Lewis Center for the Arts. I wanted to see the ways in which records of division persist in Ireland, even though Ireland’s physical border is no longer strictly enforced, and to understand how the Brexit vote has affected those who live on the United Kingdom’s frontier. The memories I recorded, including the mural, became the material for a small collection of literary essays.

This summer, the Lewis Center awarded over $100,000 in summer funding to 43 students, according to a May press release. This funding supported creative thesis research, summer courses, and a variety of independent projects in dance, theater, music, creative writing, and visual arts. Princeton Program in Theater Director Jane Cox, who supervises the allocation of Lewis Center summer research money and also serves on the advisory board of the Princeton Undergraduate Research Journal, says that people don’t often mention art and research in the same sentence. According to Cox, “The Lewis Center summer research grants are intended to support our students in undertaking creative research to support their artistic growth and development as human beings. This past summer, students took on projects with this funding that ranged from creating dances in small-town America as a way of investigating the relationship of dance to the nation, to interviewing refugees in Ghana in support of writing a play.”

While research is as important in the creative arts as it is in other disciplines, creative research can be more fluid than other types of research in its methodologies. During my six weeks in Ireland, I approached the topic of division in a variety of ways. I read government reports on border security in the Irish National Archives in Dublin, attended an open mic on Brexit at the Dalkey Book Festival, hiked for miles through farmland to find ancient megalithic monuments, completed an ascetic pilgrimage, interviewed a cartographer who mapped the border’s length, and talked to a performance artist who ran along the border in protest of Brexit. Ultimately, creative research is as much about collecting impressions and images as it is about collecting information. This type of research presents a unique challenge: like all research, it must be compiled and recorded, but it must at the same time, it must be immersively experienced.

Creative research projects are almost always interdisciplinary, and they often seek to find new approaches to some of the same questions posed by more traditional academic disciplines. For example, through the Mallach Senior Thesis Fund, the Lewis Center supports senior thesis projects that “incorporate historical research and create an alternative path to learning history.” One of last summer’s two recipients, Emma Watkins ’18, an English major pursuing certificates in Theater, Music Theater, and Environmental Studies, hiked through the mountains of Wales visiting natural and historic landmarks, attended Welsh folk music festivals, and took Welsh language classes. She is currently writing an immersive musical theater piece retelling the mythological story of Rhiannon, an empowered woman who meets a tragic end in the Mabinogion, a medieval collection of Welsh prose stories.

As do most creative research projects, Watkins’ thesis has a personal component. In exploring Wales’ countryside, Watkins sought to better understand her own Welsh background and to determine how Welsh stories, disseminated through literature and folk music, might reflect the physical landscape of Wales. In her finished performance, Watkins will honor the personal nature of this journey through a soundscape composed from her own recordings of Welsh landscapes and festivals.

Creative research gives young artists the opportunity to grow individually by giving articulation to personal experiences, but it simultaneously requires young artists to contextualize those experiences and engage with a broader community. “I believe that exploring interests inside and outside of the classroom simultaneously is of great importance in any field; in the performing arts it is of paramount importance, because creative works for live performance exist only in the context of the relationship between the artists and their community and audience,” says Cox. “Creative research for specific projects in theater often involves diving into other people’s lives through their manner of speech, their belongings, their clothing, their behavior, their furniture, their homes. This kind of research involves understanding how people live through the physical details of their lives, which gives our students an opportunity to walk in other people’s shoes for a period of time.”

Nicolette D’Angelo ’19, a Classics major pursuing certificates in Creative Writing and Gender and Sexuality Studies, was awarded summer funding through the Sam Hutton Fund for the Arts. D’Angelo plans to write a book of “found poetry” to grapple with the problems surrounding eating disorder treatment and institutionalization in the United States, drawing on sources as diverse as Homer’s Odyssey, C.D. Wright’s One Big Self, and the voices of eating disorder survivors and treatment providers. D’Angelo used her funding to visit treatment facilities as close as Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey and as far away as Remuda Ranch in Wickenburg, Arizona. “A big part of my research was figuring out how people with different regional vocabularies, in facilities with different lexicons, give voice to their lived experiences,” D’Angelo said. “My research is largely collecting phrases. As someone who writes found poetry, I find that the best research is listening.” D’Angelo’s work is intended to promote new considerations of medical and institutional processes by synthesizing and highlighting the oft-neglected perspectives of the patients themselves.

Not only do creative research grants support artistic engagement with communities beyond Princeton’s gates, but they also facilitate dialogues within Princeton’s academic community. The Lewis Center encourages students to share their works in progress and completed projects through exhibitions, readings, and stagings throughout the academic year. These events typically reach large audiences of students and faculty members. My essays on border communities will be published in campus publications, including The Nassau Literary Review, in addition to small travel magazines. Watkins’ performance will be staged in the new Lewis Center Black Box Theater in May. D’Angelo hopes to use her research as the basis for her senior independent work in creative writing, which may be developed through small workshops and public readings.

The Lewis Center Summer Funding Program is not the only way for students to pursue research in the arts. Upper-level courses in the creative arts, including Professor Cox’s Theatrical Design Studio (THR 400), guide students through significant research projects that culminate in the creation of original works of art. Fia Backstrom’s Art as Research (VIS 322) explores how “visual artists have taken up the process and methods of academic research as an impetus for works of art,” according to the course description. This semester, Princeton is exploring its own troubled institutional history through an Atelier course by Peter Mills ’95 and Cara Reichel ’96, founding members of the critically-acclaimed Prospect Theater Company in New York City. The course, entitled, “Who Owns a Song? A Theatrical Investigation of Princeton and Slavery” (ATL 400), encourages students to create original short-form musical theater pieces based on the research of the Princeton and Slavery Project. This project, led by Professor of History Martha Sandweiss and sponsored by the Princeton Histories Fund, seeks to uncover and document the ways that Princeton has profited from and promoted the practice of slavery historically.

Princeton is, first and foremost, a research university, and its focus on producing experienced and imaginative researchers is a real strength of its artistic programs. Coursework in the Lewis Center equips students with the skills and methodologies to approach creative research. Summer funding opportunities, moreover, give students the space, time, and freedom to pursue creative research in its most effective form: immersive, interdisciplinary, in a new environment, and at the edge of a comfort zone.

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