Connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’

September 16th, 2014 No comments

Zoë Hitzig ’15, a resident of Quincy House concentrating in Mathematics and Philiosophy, was awarded an Office for the Arts/Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Artist Development Fellowship to work on a collection of poems exploring the wrongful convictions and subsequent exonerations by DNA testing of death row prisoners, and to participate in the Ashbery Home School writer’s conference. Hitzig has contributed poems and artwork to The Harvard Advocate and served as its publisher in 2013. She has been a fellow in the Program for Research in Science and Engineering, a staff writer for The Harvard Crimson and a member of The Harvard Generalist art collective. Hitzig, who plans to pursue a career in research and writing, contributed this blog post about her experience this summer at the Ashbery Home School writer’s conference.

One of my favorite poems of all time is Elizabeth Bishop’s “Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.” My poetry professor at Harvard recently told me that this is also one of John Ashbery’s favorite poems though I have a feeling we like it for different reasons. In the first two stanzas of the poem, Bishop recounts travel memories from Marrakesh, to Dingle Harbor, to Volubilis and the Vatican City. The final stanza begins with a lament for the discordance of these juxtaposed memories: “Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’”, the poet writes.

Poet John Ashbery '49 (left) chats with Zoë Hitzig at the Ashbery Home School.

Poet John Ashbery ’49 (left) chats with Zoë Hitzig at the Ashbery Home School.

I thought often of this line from Bishop’s poem in the second week of August, during which I had the privilege to attend the inaugural Ashbery Home School writer’s conference in Hudson, New York. The week often felt like a string of events connected only by “and” and “and.” The conference attracted poets looking to reinvent their practice through collision with other arts—sculpture, painting, dance, film—and collide we did; the events of the week slid into each other like the memories of travel Bishop recalls in her poem, explosive yet precise, fragmented, eerily enmeshed. The whirlwind week found its force within Ashbery’s collage-home, and spiraled outward in the form of workshops, artist talks, poetry readings, and film screenings, curated by poets Adam Fitzgerald, Dorothea Lasky, Timothy Donnelly and Tracy K. Smith.

My many exchanges of ideas with poetic and artistic luminaries as well as peers will stick with me like the rich images Bishop recalls from her travels. Ashbery, the wizard of the week, came out for a reading from his forthcoming book. Afterward, I traded tales of Advocate lore with him, as he edited the magazine roughly 65 years before I did. On that same day, I met a longtime hero of mine, visual artist Kiki Smith, who came to AHS for an artist talk. I first encountered Smith’s work early in high school, when my primary medium was sculpture. I remember the day my art teacher gave me a book of her work. It was the so-called “abject” pieces that struck me—I thought to myself: this, this is what art is, this is what I am trying to do!

Throughout the week, I got to know fascinating poets with practices that differed radically from my own. In a workshop with Lasky, I sat to the right of one brilliant poet—Nick Sturm from Florida—who brought in multiple poems called “Flowers and Money,” and a long poem that might have been prose. To my left sat novelist and poet Jason Reynolds of Bed-Stuy, who wrote a poem imagining that one of the ceramic pots above Ashbery’s fireplace was filled with semen. The room heated up one afternoon when scholar-poet Andrew Field questioned the ethics of another poet’s writing.

I love that Bishop poem because the speaker communicates a deep yearning for cohesion, while I think Ashbery loves the poem for the speaker’s failure to achieve it. At week’s end, my mind was whirring. I had a few new poems and a lot of new friends but I found myself thinking, how does this all fit together? What, concretely, could I take from the cacophony of others’ poetic and artistic practices and harmonize with my own? I stopped myself, realizing I was seeking concordance, as Bishop’s speaker does in that poem. Concordance is “serious, engravable,” to use Bishop’s words, while the week at AHS was fun, fleeting: more colored-pencil palimpsest than burin woodcuts. The brilliance of the week was the opportunity to—in the spirit of Ashbery, and Ashbery via Bishop—revel in discordance, and see what might come of it.

Humorous journalism vs. serious comedy

September 11th, 2014 No comments

Alexis Wilkinson ’15, a resident of Leverett House concentrating in Economics with a secondary concentration in Psychology, was awarded an Office for the Arts/Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Artist Development Fellowship to support an internship with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette while researching and writing a television pilot and screenplay. Wilkinson is president of The Harvard Lampoon and a former staff writer/columnist for Manifesta magazine. Her written work has been published in New York Magazine, and she served as a research intern for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” during the summer of 2013. After college, she hopes to pursue a career as a comedy writer. This is her second dispatch from Pittsburgh this summer; to read the first, click here.

This is the newsroom! It is a very serious place full of serious news things. I work there.

This is the newsroom! It is a very serious place full of serious news things. I work there.

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with one of my editors here at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about a piece I had written. It was a feature commentary and I took it as an opportunity to rant sassily about one of my favorite topics: television.

We came to butt heads slightly over a couple of rhetorical questions I posed sarcastically to the reader in an early draft about future content of the new Kickstarter-funded Reading Rainbow. I actually had interviewed LeVar Burton shortly after I wrote the piece for an unrelated feature story about a Comic Con he’d be attending.

“Is this really true?” the editor asked looking over my teasing paragraph.

“No. Not at all. It’s hypothetical. I’m kidding,” I responded, a tiny bit peeved that words I saw as clearly sarcastic had been misunderstood.

“People might not get that,” said the editor. “Look, I get it. You’re a jokester. But our readership might have a tough time getting your humor, especially when it’s surrounded by serious content.”

I immediately understood and, despite me feeling like the offending paragraph was the funniest in the whole piece, the lines were cut before print. The challenge for me thus far at the Post-Gazette has been both editorial and conceptual. I am so used to writing fiction, comedy in particular, that even my breaking news sounds like narrative prose. I use too many adjectives. I’m sarcastic when I should be serious. My opinion oozes into everything, no matter how much I try to be objective.

I spend all day interviewing, researching, and trying to craft informative stories that a random grandma in nowhere, Pennsylvania can enjoy. I spend all night tweeting and working on a screenplay about a girl who writes semi-erotic fan fiction about Jesus Christ.

This is my impromptu desk in my sublet. I write penis jokes here mostly.

This is my impromptu desk in my sublet. I write penis jokes here mostly.

Despite how hard it is sometimes to try to keep everything straight, that’s the whole reason I decided to spend my summer this way. I’m forced to write every single day without exception, whether it’s a Sunday gardening feature or a penis joke. I’ve gotten so much better at just putting words on the page, no matter how I’m feeling, what’s going on, or whether the topic is funny, sad, extraordinary, or mundane.

My challenge has been getting the fusion of comedy and journalism just right, finding a way to be narrative and expository, but most of all clear and concise. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m working on it.

Scene painting, translucent-style

Christina Rodriguez ’15, a resident of Cabot House concentrating in Visual and Environmental Studies Studio Art Track, was awarded an Office for the Arts/Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Artist Development Fellowship to attend a scenic painting course at Cobalt Studios in Bethel, New York. Rodriguez has served as scenic designer and/or master painter for over 15 Harvard theater productions and last summer she was a scenic painting and props intern with the Wolf Trap Opera Company. After graduation her goals are to work in the professional theater world as a scenic painter. This is the final post in a series written by Christina about her learning experience at Cobalt Studios this summer; you can read the other two posts here.

At the end of my third and final week, I was very sad to leave Cobalt. I will walk away from this experience with not only a greater and more improved skill set, but also with one or two friends who I am sure will prove to be life long friends.

At Cobalt Studios, Christina Rodriguez adds sunset colors to the back side of her translucency.

At Cobalt Studios, Christina Rodriguez adds sunset colors to the back side of her translucency.

During our final week, we worked on several projects. We did a brief but enjoyable foliage project, where we jabbed at the muslin with a large brush to create background foliage, and used foam stamps on rollers to create foreground foliage. We then worked on a project where we experimented painting on surfaces other than muslin, because in the scenic painting industry, you just never know exactly what the designer might ask you to paint on. I think perhaps I lucked out. I had to paint on linen, which I had done one other time, so it wasn’t as frightening to me. Linen has it’s own challenges, but I was glad I didn’t have to paint on polyester or the like.

The final project we worked on was one I had never before endeavored to produce. We painted translucencies. Essentially, the image would change from one thing to another depending on whether it was lit from the front or from the back. This was made possible by the many layers of barrier starch applied to both the front and back sides of the muslin which prevented the paint from soaking through from one side to the other. The piece I painted was an image of a set of ruins. From the front it appeared as if in daylight, but when the front light drops and the back light comes on the scene appears as though seen at sunset.

There were two main challenges with this piece. First, the light source within the realm of the image itself changes, so I had to account for that in my front and back coloration, but also, because much of the paint needed to remain transparent or translucent, layering paint as I am used to was not an option. Frequently I will not worry much about mistakes, because they can be painted over and fixed, but for this project, there was no painting over mistakes. In the end, I was not totally happy with the piece I produced, but it was only my first time working on a translucency, and I am very very glad to now have the knowledge, so that I may try again at a later point.

Work and play in Pittsburgh

Alexis Wilkinson ’15, a resident of Leverett House concentrating in Economics with a secondary concentration in Psychology, was awarded an Office for the Arts/Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Artist Development Fellowship to support an internship with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette while researching and writing a television pilot and screenplay. Wilkinson is president of The Harvard Lampoon and a former staff writer/columnist for Manifesta magazine. Her written work has been published in New York Magazine, and she served as a research intern for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” during the summer of 2013. After college, she hopes to pursue a career as a comedy writer.

Alexis Wilkinson

Alexis Wilkinson (photo by Mark Olson)

“What are you doing in Pittsburgh?”

Since I arrived here a little less than a month ago, some version of that question has been posed to me at least 50 times. Every time I explain where I go to school (Harvard, not UPitt or CMU), what I study (Economics and Psychology, not English or Journalism), what I want to do (write for TV or film, not necessarily for newspapers), and where I’m originally from (Wisconsin, not anywhere in Pennsylvania and I’ve never been to Pittsburgh before), I’m met with the same wide-eyed confusion about what exactly brought me to Steel City for the summer.

How I ended up here is a serious of lucky coincidences. I had a great summer last year working at “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and happened to simultaneously land a gig through the Institute of Politics to work for journalists Mark Halperin ’87 and John Heilemann KSG ’90. In both jobs, I was doing more researching than writing, which made me determined to spend my next summer not looking up figures or transcribing, but putting pen to paper, for what or where I couldn’t be sure. In the fall, I happened to meet David Shribman, the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who told me about their amazing internship program. And now here I am, in the City of Champions, living in a sublet with a cat named Lennox and trying to figure out the ‘Burgh’s unique brand of slang when I still haven’t mastered Boston’s.

My first Pirate's game and my first alcohol, honest.

My first Pirate’s game and my first alcohol, honest.

My day to day life is an odd hybrid of various creative pursuits. I work 9 am-6 pm downtown at the Post-Gazette building. I have my own desk and everything. When I’m there, I interview people, write feature stories, and spend too much time at the water cooler. I recently had a piece on the front page of the “Magazine” section which focused on Jesse Andrews, who happens to be a Harvard grad, class of ’04. He’s shooting a movie in Pittsburgh. I’ve also interviewed Bill Maher, LeVar Burton, and Judah Friedlander. My editors do a really great job of throwing assignments my way that involve my interests and are also pretty fun.

When I get “home,” a sleepy three-bedroom sublet tucked in the West End of town, I usually try to spend at least another two hours writing, sometimes Lampoon-related pieces, sometimes tweets, sometimes freelance stories for other magazines and websites. I also work on my screenplay and TV pilot.

On weekends, I like to explore the city. After being introduced to the local comedy scene, I’ve gotten to be a guest on the radio and even did stand-up for the first time in over a year as part of comedian John McIntire’s “Dangerously Live Comedy Show.” I also saw the Pirates play in one of the most picturesque stadiums I’ve ever seen.

So, what am I doing in Pittsburgh? I don’t exactly know, but I’m definitely having a good time.

Me with the other guests on stage at John McIntire's "Dangerously Live Comedy Show."

Me with the other guests on stage at John McIntire’s “Dangerously Live Comedy Show.”

Land of milk, honey and conflict

Ethan Pierce ’14, a resident of Lowell House who is concentrating in Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) Studio Art Track with a secondary concentration in History of Art & Architecture, was awarded an Office for the Arts/Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Artist Development Fellowship to curate a transnational, transcultural discourse between Harvard students and Israeli and Palestinian artists. His work has been shown in a number of exhibitions on campus and he is the head curator of the Monday Gallery and the bbp gallerie. Pierce has also been involved in set design for over seven Harvard theater productions and is a member of the Signet Society. In addition, he has served as a curatorial intern at the MIT List Visual Arts Center and at Klosterfelde in Berlin, Germany. He plans to pursue a career in studio art and curating.

Ethan Pierce '14

Ethan Pierce ’14 (photo by Mark Olson)

{Re}orientation: The Art of Reflexive Revision

While at Harvard, I  have devoted a significant amount of energy to exploring national memory, trauma, diaspora, and exile through the lens of art. I’ve  focused particularly on 20th-century German art history, but over the past year, a related narrative—that of Israel and Palestine—came to occupy more and more of my attention. Last March, I leaped at an opportunity to join 52 peers on a 10-day spring break trip to the land of milk and honey.

Instinctively, I began to explore methods of documenting this forthcoming trip and ways in which I could incorporate the experience into my studio practice. Well before hitting the tarmac, I decided to bring “The Walker” and “The Poet”—two of my fictional personae—along on the trip. Their project: to create a book of braille poetry embossed on top of visual images, which would be known as Silence, and which would explore the conflict and the dialectic between visual, tactile, and auditory.

My first venture to Israel and Palestine challenged this predetermined format. Dialogue—the antithesis of the silence I sought to grapple with—required partnership. Days after returning, I began recruiting collaborators for an expansive artistic project which would pair Harvard students and alumni with Israeli and Palestinian artists.

Sifting through photographic representation from Israel, May 2014.

Sifting through photographic representation from Israel, May 2014.

In May, a group of 40 participants—a diverse body, including an Iranian filmmaker, a prominent South African poet who lived through 23 years apartheid, and a number of VES graduates—embarked with me on an artistic journey to encounter, and hopefully better understand, Israel and Palestine.

Shifting Circumstances, Changing Foci

The experience of my Artist Development Fellowship has been one of rapid reorientation, which only intensified as my project moved forward—both in relation to rapidly shifting circumstances, and to my own budding awareness of the ethical complexities facing an artistic collaboration of this scope.

Since that point of departure, much has changed:

  • Silence fell to dialogue, and “here, without ” was constructed in its place. A fragment of a sentence which can be read as  “here” and “elsewhere,” the new title—like its subject—is purposefully opaque. (The New Museum‘s newest exhibition, coincidentally titled “Here and Elsewhere” after the Jean-Luc Godard film by the same name, features work by Arab artists and deals with many of the ethical dilemmas that I am now facing.)
  • The project has been emancipated from the original format of braille poetry on top of visual images, freeing participants to explore other modes of representation.
  • The deaths of three innocent Israeli teens and the subsequent chain of events have added layers upon layers of complication to an already complex and difficult project.
  • The direct pairing with the Israeli and Palestinian artists has fallen away completely, as we have become increasingly aware of the ethical complexities of involving them.
Early morning walk through the Old City, March 2014.

Early morning walk through the Old City, March 2014.

These changes have caused me to hearken back to the roots of this project, and to understand its real strength as a durational process of introduction and reorientation. These changes have challenged me to refine and articulate the goals and purpose of this project, strengthening it artistically and conceptually in the process:

  • To inject complexity and eradicate simplifications regarding Israel and Palestine.
  • To examine the outsider in relation to conflict, paying particular attention to the elephants in the room, including cultural colonialism and the fetishization of conflict.
  • To rigorously examine challenges of representing conflict and non-derivative narrative complexity in artistic discourse.

Moving forward, I am working with a tremendous planning team to develop programming for participants in the fall, including a weekend trip to New York to speak with artists, curators, and writers about working in relation to conflict. In the place of collaborators, we are working to create a really solid mentorship team of writers, scholars, artists, curators etc. who can help each of the Harvard participants work through their individual projects.

The End Product

For me, the “product” of this project is the process itself. The byproducts of this project will be an exhibition and publication, forthcoming May 2015.

  • The exhibition in the spring will highlight the participant’s artistic process, as well as the process of coming to terms with the complexity of the conflict. I think that it will be important to highlight the continued reorienting of the project in relation to new information, input, and the constantly changing landscape of the Middle East.
  • The publication, as I imagine it in this moment, will consist of an introduction, transcribed interviews with notable artists, curators and writers, commissioned essays, and documentation of the project as a whole and the disparate works within it. The publication would be broken into sections based on the themes for our fall seminars, including: Encountering Otherness, (Mis)Representation: Documentary Subjectivity, and Liminal Spaces.

Concluding Thoughts

My initial ideas have now long been discarded. The process—though trying—has been immensely and intrinsically rewarding.

If I were to define my experience so far in a tweet, I would say “@artists: Embrace change. Don’t be afraid to abandon ideas. It’s painful, but it gets better. #artscomplicated.”

Visiting a Jewish settlement in the Occupied Territories, March 2014.

Visiting a Jewish settlement in the Occupied Territories, March 2014.

 

Competing with the hammer

Reylon Yount ’16, a resident of Lowell House concentrating in Environmental Science & Public Policy and East Asian Studies, was awarded an Office for the Arts/Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Artist Development Fellowship to attend the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing to study yangqin (Chinese hammered dulcimer) with master Huang He. Yount has performed on campus as a soloist at Harvard Foundation’s 2013 Cultural Rhythms, with The Harvard Undergraduate Drummers, at the Chinese Student Association’s Chinese New Year’s Banquet and at the 2013 Asian American Association’s event FEAST. Additionally, in the fall of 2013 he was a featured soloist with the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra. After graduation, he plans to pursue a professional music career and development work in China. This is the second of his blog posts about his studies in Beijing this summer.

Yangqin master Huang He (left) and Reylon Yount '16.

Yangqin master Huang He (left) and Reylon Yount ’16.

When living in China, one gets used to plans changing at the last minute. I originally thought that I would be staying in Beijing for the entirety of my yangqin study. But Professor Huang invited me a week in advance to join his students on a trip to Inner Mongolia where we would attend the 2nd Annual Chinese Dulcimer Arts Festival—a conference and competition that brings together the yangqin community from across Asia.

We spent a week under the clearer skies of Baotou alongside 700 yangqin students and 100 teachers. I got to meet many well-respected professors and students throughout the conference, including renowned composer Wang Se and famous performer Wang Yujue, both of whom were Professor Huang’s former students and left me star-struck.

When I first arrived at the competition site, I was stunned by a storm of metallic sound blasting out of the first floor. I walked into the wide rehearsal room to find dozens of young people hammering away at brand new dulcimers, mothers by their sides using pamphlets to fan them while they played. It was astonishing—I had never physically encountered so many yangqins in one space before. Walking through the hallways, I could hear students of all ages practicing an array of different pieces, most of which I recognized, including “Spirit of the Yellow Earth” and “Falling Flowers, Night,” which were my competition pieces. I noted that about two-thirds of the pieces being played were ones composed by Huang He or Wang Se. This observation affirmed for me that Professor Huang is arguably the most influential person in the yangqin world at present, making me even more grateful to have the opportunity to study with him.

The competition was long and grueling, but ultimately very rewarding. According to my teachers, I’m the first American to have ever entered a professional yangqin competition in China. I competed against 98 full-time yangqin undergraduates and managed to get a silver prize. To be able to participate already made me plenty happy, and I really enjoyed observing and learning from other competition entries.

Reylon Yount '16 performing on the yangqin.

Reylon Yount ’16 performing on the yangqin.

The biggest reward of this experience was connecting with Huang He’s other students, who are incredibly dedicated artists and kind people. They inspired everyone with their performances and took home the top prizes in each category. Offstage, we moved instruments together, took turns practicing in each other’s hotel rooms, and played games to pass the time. In Chinese, you address friends with whom you share a mentor as your “study brothers” or “study sisters.” Exchanging these terms with my new friends made me feel like I was truly a part of the Huang He yangqin family.

Every once in a while, I would remember that these humble kids are going to be tomorrow’s Huang He, Wang Se, and Wang Yujue. They hold the future of this rare art form in their hands, and I trust that they will take it far. It feels utterly surreal to have suddenly become so close to my idols, and it makes me excited to see how far I can take my music, too.

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From faux to factual

Christina Rodriguez ’15, a resident of Cabot House concentrating in Visual and Environmental Studies Studio Art Track, was awarded an Office for the Arts/Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Artist Development Fellowship to attend a scenic painting course at Cobalt Studios in Bethel, New York. Rodriguez has served as scenic designer and/or master painter for over 15 Harvard theater productions, and last summer she was a scenic painting and props intern with the Wolf Trap Opera Company. After graduation her goals are to work in the professional theater world as a scenic painter. This is the second in a series of posts written by Christina about her learning experience at Cobalt Studios this summer (click here to read the first).

For a faux wood piece, the base coat is applied...

For a faux wood piece, the base coat is applied…

My second week at Cobalt Studios was thoroughly enjoyable. We spent much of the week applying the texturing and paint application techniques we covered during the first week to create a variety of faux finishes. We painted old weathered wood, and finely stained wood, marble cornices, and patterned drapery. It is truly amazing how paint can transform a flat surface into a seemingly dimensional piece.

...texture is added...

…texture is added…

The steps to each of these projects are really quite simple. First we apply an appropriately blended base coat, either directional or scumbled, depending on the intended finished product. Then the desired texture is added to the piece, and finally the highlights, shades, and shadows are added to give the piece shape.

...and final highlights are added.

…and final highlights turn it from faux to almost real.

One of my favorite pieces to work on was the fine faux wood piece. The figuring of the wood grain was so much fun. We all practiced on brown paper for a good 20 minutes to a half-hour, simply making concentric squiggly shapes with our sash brushes at the end of our bamboo sticks. I found that there are certain ways of holding a bamboo that afford a much greater amount of control. It also became apparent that once you push the brush away from your body, it is unwise to try to swing it back toward your body. For this reason, circles, and other closed oblong shapes must be made with at the least two strokes.

Through the living room

Reylon Yount ’16, a resident of Lowell House concentrating in Environmental Science & Public Policy and East Asian Studies, was awarded an Office for the Arts/Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Artist Development Fellowship to attend the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing to study yangqin (Chinese hammered dulcimer) with master He Huang. Yount has performed on campus as a soloist at Harvard Foundation’s 2013 Cultural Rhythms, with The Harvard Undergraduate Drummers, at the Chinese Student Association’s Chinese New Year’s Banquet and at the 2013 Asian American Association’s event FEAST. Additionally, in the fall of 2013 he was a featured soloist with the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra. After graduation, he plans to pursue a professional music career and development work in China.

Reylon Yount '16 in Beijing

Reylon Yount ’16 in Beijing

I walked through the modest gate of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, listening to the wet clack of my flip-flops against the muggy air. After I pressed a button at the base of his building, I could hear another student’s yangqin arpeggios emerge from the call box as he buzzed me in. I felt like I was in a time warp as the dim elevator sporting an advertisement I recognized from two summers ago took me swiftly upward (a different kind of rabbit hole). I waited quietly at the threshold of the apartment and finally heard the yangqin music crescendo as Professor Huang opened the door.

Huang He is a professor at the Central Conservatory of Music and a renowned master of the yangqin. Also known as the Chinese hammered dulcimer, the yangqin is a 400-year-old instrument that evolved from the Persian santur, which was brought to China along the Silk Road. The yangqin world is defined by Huang He’s work almost as essentially as the Chinese landscape is defined by the Yellow River, after which he is named.

Professor Huang has composed a significant portion of the standardized repertoire taught to students throughout China. As a tenth grader, having only seen him in instructional videos on YouTube, I was thrilled when my teacher in San Francisco, Yangqin Zhao, told me she could put me in touch with him. Throughout the summers of 2010 and 2011, I studied several pieces with him, two of which were his compositions. This summer, I’ve returned to Beijing to pick up where we left off.

He is more patient with me than he is with students from the conservatory, who have devoted their entire lives to studying, practicing, and performing yangqin. While I played, three of his students watched me, slapping away on their knees with weighted practice mallets, and in turn, I watched them when they played. There are few opportunities to watch people my age playing yangqin at that level in the U.S. Their renditions of brand new compositions often leave me breathless.

Reylon Yount '16 playing "Journey to Lhasa" by He Huang on the yangqin.

Reylon Yount ’16 playing “Journey to Lhasa” by He Huang on the yangqin.

It is exciting to know that tucked away into Beijing’s vast skyline is this small apartment, through which some of the best yangqin players in history have passed. This living room has suspended between it’s glossy walls some of the most immaculate and innovative yangqin music ever played. It is Huang He’s home – decorated with potted plants, portraits, and teddy bears – and he indeed takes care of his students as he does his family.

After the lesson, Professor Huang took me through the living room to the back window, where, bathed in the hazy white light of Beijing summer, we discuss our plans and prospects. During these chats, he invariably slides the door shut and lights a fragrant cigarette. After I get used to these confining conditions, a sort of whimsical intimacy sinks in; we discuss my strengths and weaknesses, important learning opportunities while I’m in China, and the responsibilities that come with being his only student from beyond Asia.

I can’t help but feel inspired as I sit there, cloaked in caterpillar smoke, and listen to the divinations of this legendary man.

A scenic setting for creating scenery

Christina Rodriguez ’15, a resident of Cabot House concentrating in Visual and Environmental Studies Studio Art Track, was awarded an Office for the Arts/Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Artist Development Fellowship to attend a scenic painting course at Cobalt Studios in Bethel, New York. Rodriguez has served as scenic designer and/or master painter for over 15 Harvard theater productions including Pirates of Penzance, Twelfth Night and Little Women. In the summer of 2013 she was a scenic painting and props intern with the Wolf Trap Opera Company. After graduation her goals are to work in the professional theater world as a scenic painter. This is the first in a series of posts written by Christina about her learning experience at Cobalt Studios this summer.

Christa Rodriguez applies paint to a backdrop using the "bamboo ballet" method.

Christina Rodriguez applies paint to a backdrop using the “bamboo ballet” method.

My first week at Cobalt Studios was simply incredible! It’s truly a one of a kind living and learning space. When I arrived on the first day I was given a tour of the residence, an old white house with peeling exterior paint and cracked walls. There was artwork everywhere. It nearly seemed as though the house was being held up by the artwork—artwork on the walls, doors, windows, floors, and in one bathroom there was a painting helping to hold the ceiling up. The visible age and texture of the house was nothing but pure inspiration for a brand of artists who are constantly trying to paint newly built structures to look as though they are very old or aging. And the location couldn’t be more picturesque. Cobalt is nestled among hay fields in the very, very small town of White Lake, New York, not far from the original Woodstock festival site.

This beautiful old house is a temporary home for the ten students who are here for a three-week course in scenic painting. We live together, paint together, cook together, and eat together. Each bedroom has its own theme or name. I am staying in the marble room, and in true scenic painterly fashion, every inch of wall in my room has been painted with a faux marble treatment. Each of the five panels on the door to my closet display an excellent execution of a different type of marble.

Behind the house is a short path that wends its way through a small wooded area and leads right to the door of the studio, where we work during the days. Inside the studio there is the most terrific library of reference books, an office space, a paint mixing room, and the paint deck, which stretches a massive 40 feet wide by 135 feet long. Our two instructors, Rachel Keebler and Kimb Williamson, are truly masters at their craft. Rachel was one of the founders of Cobalt Studios and has been teaching scenic artists there for the past 26 years. Kimb Williamson is not only a longtime professor of theater and set design at Scottsdale College in Arizona, but is also a wife and mother.

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Practice paint piece created by Rodriguez, focusing on texture and techniques.

Our first week of classes focused on laying the foundation for a few of the pillars of scenic painting. We covered color mixing, the various pigments and binders that make up scenic paints, hue, value, geometry, and basic tools and techniques. We began the week by mixing paints to create our own color wheels, then practiced geometric drawing with highlights, lowlights, bounce light, and shadows, after which we all geared up for what the folks at Cobalt like to call the “bamboo ballet.” A great deal of scenic painting is done with brushes at the end of a long stick of bamboo so that painters don’t have to be on their hands and knees all day, and so that they can better see the larger picture.

This ‘Rhinoceros’ is a horn of plenty

July 24th, 2014 No comments

In rehearsal for Harvard-Radcliffe Summer Theatre’s 2014 show, Rhinoceros, a lead actor—Dylan Peterson ’17—raises his hand.

“It says here I turn into a rhinoceros,” he says. “Onstage. Is that going to be symbolic, or…?”

“No,” says Guan-Yue Chen ’17, the show’s director. “We’re building some rhinoceros heads, with horns. You’re literally becoming a rhinoceros.”

Eugene Ionesco, the French avant-garde visionary playwright responsible for Rhinoceros, is not one for subtlety. If there is a message or a metaphor he wishes for the audience to pick up on, he blasts it across the pages of his play, and then repeats it, and then underlines it, twice. Throughout the show, which features a cast of eleven Harvard students in fifteen roles, characters repeat, debate, and reiterate pieces of information at a dizzying pace. The audience is swept up in this flood of stimulation—appropriate for a show that contains central themes of conformism, groupthink, and the fine line between humanity, a herd, and a mob.

Rhino poster (finalized version)

“I first read Rhinoceros in high school and found it fun and thought-provoking,” Chen explains when asked why the time was right for the play. “And Harvard audiences seem prone to thought. The show allows each person to take something different away from it.”

As mentioned, the show features multiple instances of humans inexplicably turning into rhinoceroses (in a fashion both symbolic and, as stated above, excitingly literal). The glaring exception is main character Berenger, played by David Sheynberg ’16, who is jolted out of a lifelong stupor to rage against the transformation of the townspeople around him. Featured heavily in all four scenes, Sheynberg carries the show—but help from his co-stars makes this a true ensemble effort.

“So far, my favorite moment in the show…is the dialogue after the first rhinoceros runs through the town square,” Chen reveals, referring to the first scene, in which ten characters take the stage at once in a massive comic set piece. “The chaos that ensues makes it one of the most dynamic in the show.”

Words like “dynamic” and “flexible” tend to pop up when discussing the summer theater process. The free environment and open schedule ensures that cast and crew have the time and energy required to bring their A-game to a demanding piece of absurdist theater.

“I’ve really liked being able to dedicate as much of my time as needed to the show,” Chen elaborates. “The absurdity…also lends itself to a lot of flexibility in character choices, in turn allowing for a more collaborative director-actor relationship.”

Along these lines, each Rhinoceros rehearsal begins with meditation and yoga, and includes a question-and-answer session in which Chen asks her actors to think about how their characters would respond to certain stimuli, welcoming any suggestions the actors or even staff might have. It’s an admirable example of a group of humans working together to transform themselves: the exact phenomenon Rhinoceros will display for its audiences, though admittedly with much less yelling, and, thankfully, a couple fewer horns.

Performances of Rhinoceros are July 24-27 and July 31-August 3 at 7:30 pm at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge. Visit the Harvard Box Office to purchase tickets ($12; students and seniors $10; Harvard ID holders $8), and go to the Harvard-Radcliffe Summer Theatre website for more information.