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Profiles: Award-Winning BU Prof and Students

CLIENT: Boston University | BU Today, Spring 2014

Ha Jin (GRS’94) came to the United States to earn a doctorate at Brandeis, but chose to stay here after Tiananmen Square. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Ha Jin (GRS’94) came to the United States to earn a doctorate at Brandeis, but chose to stay here after Tiananmen Square. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Ha Jin Elected to American Academy of Arts and Letters
Highest US recognition of artistic merit for CAS prof

Ha Jin remembers the flames, the piles of books burning in the night. And he remembers the smoldering ash in the yard the next morning—nothing more was left of the volumes that once lined his father’s shelves. “It was a common sight,” says Jin, who was 10 years old when the Cultural Revolution swept through his native China. The fires always started the same way—with a knock on the door. “And then the Red Guard demanded that you surrender all your books, and everything was hauled out and burned.”

The author of nearly 20 books, Jin (GRS’94), a College of Arts & Sciences professor of creative writing, was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. “I was very pleased, very surprised,” says Jin, who joins eight other new members of the academy, writers Wendell Berry, Denis Johnson, and Tobias Wolff, artists Robert Adams, Ann Hamilton, and Bill Jensen, and musicians David Lang, and Alvin Singleton. Membership in the honorary academy is among the highest recognitions of artistic merit in the United States and is limited to 250 individuals, with new members elected only as vacancies occur. Jin was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2006.

Jin is modest about this accomplishment, the latest in a string of awards marking a writing career that began in the face of nearly impossible odds. When the revolution closed schools in China, 14-year-old Jin enlisted in the army and was sent to the Russian border. Determined to get an education, hepored over any book he could get his hands on, eventually making his way to college, where, at 20 and for the first time in his life, he met someone who spoke English. Learning the new language was so difficult, Jin recalls, that it made his mouth hurt. (Some of his fellow students resorted to painkillers.) Today, Ha Jin, the pen name of Xuefei Jin, writes award-winning works in English, his second language. All but three of his books are banned in his homeland.

He didn’t set out to become a writer. He had a good job as a translator at a university in China, where he had completed both undergraduate and master’s degrees. He came to the United States in 1985 to pursue a doctorate at Brandeis, planning to return to China and continue his career. Then, in 1989, the tanks rolled into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to quell student-led demonstrations against China’s repressive regime. “I realized I had to learn to live here,” Jin says. “It’s a loss, but loss is a part of growth.”

Jin, who had only recently begun writing in English, published his first volume of poetry a year later, in 1990. In 1999 his novel Waiting, based on his experience in the Red Army, won the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. His second PEN/Faulkner Award came in 2005 for War Trash. His latest books are A Good Fall (Vintage, 2009) and Nanjing Requiem (Pantheon, 2011). Along the way, Jin taught for nearly a decade at Emory University before returning to BU, where he teaches a course in migrant literature and a novella workshop. “Teaching takes lots of time and energy from writing,” he acknowledges, “but when I teach literature, I feel nourished and reminded of good books. It’s a chance to study them carefully to see how they work.”

Current BU faculty who are members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters include Robert Pinsky, a CAS professor of English and three-time US poet laureate, and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel (Hon.’74), BU’s Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities. Alums composer Samuel Adler (CFA’48) and painter Brice Marden (CFA’61, Hon.’07) also are academy members.

2014 Kahn Career Entry Award recipients Kayleigha Zawacki (CFA’14) (from left), Beth Willer (CFA’08,’14), and Hoda Kashiha (CFA’14). Photos by Dave Green

2014 Kahn Career Entry Award recipients Kayleigha Zawacki (CFA’14) (from left), Beth Willer (CFA’08,’14), and Hoda Kashiha (CFA’14). Photos by Dave Green

Three CFA Grads Receive 2014 Kahn Awards
$10K prizes go to conductor, lighting designer, and painter

Except for her hands, Beth Willer is nearly motionless, back to the audience, a quiet presence in the midst of swirling, ethereal sound. But her hands, as she conducts the Lorelei Ensemble, are in constant motion, looping and circling, lifting the music upward.

When Willer (CFA’08,’14) founded the female vocal octet seven years ago as a BU master’s student, she knew she was taking a risk. Today, the group, which presents both new and early music, has a loyal following. They also have critics scrambling for adjectives—mesmerizing, hypnotic, pitch-perfect, pristine, adventurous, eclectic—to describe their sound.

Willer, the ensemble’s artistic director, says she hopes that people find the Lorelei experience “ear-opening,” that they will be so immersed in listening that they will be shocked to discover time has passed—and will completely forget to check their electronic devices. “It’s getting harder and harder to hold the attention of an audience,” says the new doctor of musical arts, whoblends the sounds of past and present, ancient and modern, in projects rooted in community and social issues.

The Esther B. and Albert S. Kahn Career Entry Award that Willer recently received will help propel her musical vision. “What got me excited is that the judges were interested in art that was crossing boundaries into other disciplines and in projects that were focused on outreach,” she says. “They wanted to hear about innovation, and that’s at the forefront of our mission.” Willer plans to use the $10,000 Kahn Award to devote more time to building the ensemble and designing innovative programs.

Established in 1985, the Kahn Awards are funded by a $1 million endowment from the late Esther Kahn (SED’55, Hon.’86), and are presented each year to three College of Fine Arts students in the final semester of their undergraduate or graduate studies. This year’s other recipients are Kayleigha Zawacki(CFA’14), who has completed an undergraduate degree in lighting design at the School of Theatre, and Hoda Kashiha (CFA’14), who graduated Sunday with a master’s degree in painting from the School of Visual Arts.

Each year, the directors and faculty of the Schools of Theatre, Visual Arts, and Music choose eight finalists, and the CFA dean and the school directors select three from each school as finalists. Winners are chosen by a committee, this year comprising actor, director, and producer Robert Walsh; Jane Pappalardo (CFA’65), cultural philanthropist, member of the MIT Council of the Arts, and a recipient of the 2013 Commonwealth Award for Cultural Philanthropy; John Harrington (CFA’85), the founder and chief mission officer of Advanced Practice Strategies and a board-certified medical illustrator and contributor to the New England Journal of Medicine, the Boston Globe, and Fortune magazine; and Linda Green (SED’63) and Deborah Kahn (SED’67), the daughters of Esther and Albert Kahn.

Winners are chosen based on several criteria: artistic talent and personal statements about their role as an artist in society, their concern for social issues, and their vision for how they will use the award to help launch their career.

“It’s so gratifying to have this institution underwriting some of the most important work I’ve done,” says Willer, whocame to BU with a bachelor’s in vocal music education and trumpet performance from Luther College because she wanted to study with Ann Howard Jones, a CFA professor and director of choral activities. Willer appreciated the opportunity to share her proposal with the judges. “It was fantastic to present my contribution to the field to this elite group,” she says, “and have them validate that it’s something I should continue.”

For Zawacki, the Kahn Award is a confirmation that she should follow her dreams. “I’ve always known this is what I wanted to do,” she says, “but I didn’t think it was an option yet—the steel and other materials I use are so expensive. The award has given me the push I need to keep going, to start getting my work out into the world.”

Zawacki brought two examples of her sculptural welding to show to the awards committee, one a five-foot metal piece titled Tyger that rode the MBTA with her en route to her presentation. She also presented a small stand of trees, lit so that it grew to a giant forest of shadows on the wall. “I consider light another artistic medium,” she says. “It’s not an addition; it’s a component of the pieces. Without light, they don’t exist.”

The trees were part of Zawacki’s thesis project, an exhibition titled Light Conversations, designed to spark discussion on social issues. Every work on display incorporated light as an integral element, giving the static forms a sense of movement. And the tree sculptures included more: first, a soundscape of wind and rustling leaves, then a looming shadow—a performer’s giant hand extinguishing each tree, one by one. The sound of chainsaws. Darkness. A forest destroyed.

“Lighting is storytelling,” says Zawacki, who blends multiple art forms, which have included glassblowing and photography, in her work. Whatever the medium, the goal is the same. “We all know there are changes we need to make,” she says. “Whether it’s deforestation or rampant consumerism, until we talk about the issues and acknowledge them to each other, nothing will change.”

The work of painter Hoda Kashiha grapples with issues of identity in the midst of constant change, both social and political. “There’s always a challenge to find your true identity,” Kashiha says, thinking aloud about her life in Iran and here in the United States, where she feels she is always explaining herself to others, trying to help them understand who she is.

She  came to BU to study with painters John Walker, a CFA professor, Dana Frankfort, a CFA assistant professor, and Richard Ryan, a CFA associate professor. She says she was thrilled to be at a school where she could focus fully on her painting—and where she could experiment. “Before, I just worked with watercolor on paper,” she says. “Then I tried oil on canvas. It was like a performance. I had to move; it was completely physical. I could discover different angles of myself and make mistakes and sometimes magic happened.”

Kashiha, who has exhibited in Tehran, Brussels, and Athens, plans to use the award money to set up a studio in New York City and continue her explorations of masked and true identity, people and power. Each time I go to my studio, it’s like a journey inside of myself,” she says. “I discover new things.”

“Beth, Kayleigha, and Hoda are deeply committed and thoughtful artists, devoted both to the pursuit of excellence in their chosen medium and to meaningful contribution as citizens of the world” says Benjamin Juárez, dean of CFA. “Beth is surprising audiences with a fresh take on vocal music, old and new, with intense emotions and stories. Kayleigha is bringing social issues to light—literally. And Hoda is challenging viewers to think more deeply about identity and globalization.”

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