Making the Future

A Glimpse Inside CPA’s Creative Futures Artist Residency 

By Michele Lynn 

The process of making art can be a powerful catalyst for creating community. With that in mind, in summer 2018, Carolina Performing Arts (CPA) launched Creative Futures, an initiative funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Creative Futures brings together four visionary artists—Helga Davis, Shara Nova, Okwui Okpokwasili, and Toshi Reagon—to collaborate with UNC faculty, local community members, and one another.  

Christopher Massenburg, Rothwell Mellon Program Director for Creative Futures, says the fellowship “intentionally fosters a deeper collaboration among different communities of knowledge and insight that don’t always have the opportunity to work together.”  

“Artists such as our fellows are always exploring questions in their work, which is similar to how UNC’s faculty—as well as people outside of academia—approach their own research,” says Amy Russell, CPA’s director of programming. “But artists and academics use different means for discovery, which makes them brilliant collaborators.”

Toshi Reagon looks off into the distance for a headshot.

Toshi Reagon is a force of nature.

Toshi Reagon, a Brooklyn-based singer, composer, musician, curator, activist, and producer, has already spent significant time at Carolina since 2017, thanks to her role as CPA’s inaugural Mellon Foundation Discovery Through Iterative Learning (DisTIL) Fellow in 2017/2018.

“I’m grateful that Creative Futures will let me stay in this community, which I love,” says Reagon. “Chapel Hill has a strong black community oral tradition, leading scholars, amazing activists, and great artists, and I’m excited to continue to work with all of them.”

The economy, survival, and music are the threads that Reagon is braiding together during her Creative Futures fellowship. By facilitating dialogue in the community and in classes on campus, Reagon will create connections by exploring what can be learned and listening to the stories told and conversations had.

“Chapel Hill has a strong black community oral tradition, leading scholars, amazing activists, and great artists, and I’m excited to continue to work with all of them.”

Toshi Reagon

One of Reagon’s planned projects is a series of musicals, each of which will “explore something thematic around the issues related to the economy and survival,” says Reagon. She plans to expand on discoveries from her DisTIL partnership with UNC associate professor Renée Alexander Craft and collaborate with other faculty, students and “the amazing musical family in the Triangle,” researching pressing issues and making art that will spur a conversation with the public. This semester, she is collaborating on a UNC course with Alexander Craft and professor Joseph Megel that will culminate in a performance by students. 

“There are going to be a lot of public offerings that will foster communication,” says Reagon. “I hope to bring a deep level of in-depth conversation and interaction that can serve as a point of transformation for this community.”

Okwui Okpokwasili is building a sonic landscape.  

Okwui Okpokwasili, whose 2018 MacArthur Fellow biography describes her as a “performer, choreographer, and writer creating multidisciplinary performance pieces,” seeks to use the practices of art and performance to build bridges and bonds. Holding space where community members can be in dialogue with each other and learn from one another is critically important to her.  

“My project is to build a platform for the creation of an ongoing improvisational song,” she says. Okpokwasili, who is cultivating relationships with local community artists, “develops strategies and exercises that allow us to engage in conversations with people we know and people we don’t know. And from these conversations we start to build a sonic landscape.” 

“I hope that this work builds deeper connections…”

Okwui Okpokwasili

“That landscape could be lyrical, melodic songs, cries, shouts,” she says. Working with local artists—including Murielle Elizeon  and Tommy Noonan, co-directors of the Saxapahaw-based performing arts collective Culture Mill—Okpokwasili and her collaborative partner Peter Born will create a space to create an “improvisational public song comprised of sounds and movement.”  

Okpokwasili believes that this work is the perfect way to integrate CPA’s “desire to reach out into the community in a deeper and more sustained relationship.” She says that building community and having individuals communicate with one another are at the heart of her work.  

“I hope that this work builds deeper connections with the artists who are part of the larger Chapel Hill community who might find that they might not be seen or feel welcome in some of these spaces,” she says. “I also hope that this fellowship with other incredible artists will help the Chapel Hill community recognize how vital arts practices are to a strong, sustainable and healthy community.”  

Shara Nova wears a white collared shirt, her bright red hair in a bun.

Shara Nova wants to explore how to find our common humanity.  

There are three branches to the musical life of Shara Nova: composer, singer/songwriter for My Brightest Diamond, and singer for music by other composers. With Creative Futures, Nova and fellow artist-in-residence Helga Davis—who have been friends for more than 20 years—are creating a piece with the choirs at Durham’s Northern High School, working with choir director Rachel Spencer alongside faculty partner Tanya Shields, associate professor of women’s and gender studies at UNC. 

“We interview choir members, ask them questions to better understand their life and use that to create the work that will be performed,” says Nova. “The students are from lots of different places and have varied experiences and backgrounds. That was appealing to me because I want to explore how we cross these divides and where we find our common humanity.” Nova says that the job of artists is to provide a safe environment for people to say what they are feeling and talk about their experience. 

The work will be incorporated into Body Vessel, a piece Nova and Davis are creating based on their friendship and lives as people with different skin color and different experiences. “I’m from the South and Helga is from Harlem,” says Nova. “I’m 5’2” and she’s somewhere around six feet tall. The reality is that because of our skin color, we’ve had to learn a practice of community in our friendship that’s not taught. We want to share with people the love that we have for each other and create a space to have what can be hard to do in this country: to self-examine and to listen.” 

Nova says that the personal nature of the work is important. “We’re not trying to have a big conversation about skin color that is outside of ourselves,” she says. “It’s a very personal examination.” 

Helga Davis wears a textured white sweater and stares intensely ahead.

Helga Davis dislikes labels. 

“I live in many fields of saying ‘yes’: yes, I will work on that film; yes, I will curate this conversation; yes, I will write a song,” says Helga Davis. Often described as a vocalist and performance artist, Davis sees her work as a mirror for people.  

“This is an opportunity to see what the community is holding and to help them hold it.”

helga davis

Davis believes that developing a piece with Shara Nova about their relationship will be valuable for the larger community. “Shara and I have a lot of conversations about being women of different races, and how we experience those things in the world as performers and as people who are concerned about the communities in which we live,” says Davis. 

“We’re not coming from the outside to tell people what to do, how smart we are, and what we know and they don’t,” says Davis. “This is an opportunity to see what the community is holding and to help them hold it.”  

As visiting curator for performing arts at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Davis has experience in commissioning people from the community to create work and conversations around a myriad of topics. “That experience has fattened me up for understanding the importance of how to do it somewhere else, and I’m looking forward to bringing that to Chapel Hill,” she says. 

Davis and Nova’s work will include a piece that involves local musicians and community. “The work will manifest itself in song and there will be dialogue,” says Davis. “The big thing for us is to take our concerns for our society and for ourselves and bring that into the work and include as many people as we can into that dialogue. We want to make something that serves as a snapshot and as a place on a road that we might be able to take as a society.” 

The Gift of Fellowship 

Massenburg says that Creative Futures is designed to “lift up the voices of women in art, to make sure that they are supported not only in acclaim for their work but also in terms of resources and capacity.”  

“To create amazing work, you need the opportunity to have funding, space, and support to be able to create sustainably,” he says. “We have the opportunity to do that with this project, especially for women of color.” 

Reagon agrees. “Getting support, not just so that you are able to function in your life, but support for the vision that you have is exciting and beautiful,” she says. “This fellowship allows me to be in another part of the country I adore, to expand community, to learn and receive from people, and produce new work.” 

She appreciates that Carolina Performing Arts is bringing artists into the community for “in-depth conversation and interaction as a point of transformation.” She says that CPA’s ongoing commitment to fostering these collaborations can help dissolve boundaries. “This deep investment continues to increase the possibility for art to have an impact on education, both on campus and in the community,” says Reagon. 

The duration of the grant is unprecedented, in Nova’s experience. “To be able to spend four years with a community is very different than coming in to do a big event and then leaving,” she says. “Having the opportunity to be in a community with the time to figure out how you can best serve that community is a unique experience.” 

Okpokwasili is grateful to have support in a way she hasn’t experienced before. “Having the space to make more mistakes, to really push, to be completely liberated from some idea of a finished piece and to dive deeply into the rigors of the practice is a gift,” she says. “This partnership—the university, the resources, the rigor of the academy in creating a space that feels really wild—is exciting.” 

“This fellowship gives us an opportunity to work over a period of time and figure out how to continue the conversations we start,” says Davis. “That’s a huge thing for me as an artist, and as someone who cares about the sustainability of the work. It’s such a tremendous opportunity for the four of us to be resources for one another, to be mirrors for one another, and to be in deep sisterhood and friendship.” 

Creating the Future 

In conversation, Reagon mentions the giant garage door that is part of the theater space at CURRENT. 

“That signifies something at the heart of how CPA would like to impact this community. It says that this door is open and anything is possible.” 

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