White woman with curly light brown hair and blue eyes, head and shoulders, wearing a teal and black dress in front of a shingled wall

Abigail Washburn

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation DisTIL Fellow 2018–20

Exploring the ways we can disperse and share power through the co-creation of silence

Grammy award-winning vocalist, songwriter, and clawhammer banjo player Abigail Washburn is a 2018 – 2020 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Discovery Through Iterative Learning (DisTIL) Fellow at Carolina Performing Arts. A fluent speaker of Mandarin with profound connections to communities and traditions both global and local, she is known for creating inventive cross-cultural takes on folk and old-time music.

During her DisTIL residency, Washburn has collaborated with a wide range of faculty, students, and community partners to cultivate intercultural exchange and promote active listening. She established relationships with faculty from the departments of History, Music, Asian Studies, Psychiatry, and American Studies. Exploring the power of sound and silence, her research and collaborations with these partners developed into an investigation of how contemplation and silence can heal communities. 

As an artist who has used storytelling throughout her career to forge connections across cultures, Washburn used this fellowship to empower and facilitate the stories of those whose voices have been historically marginalized. Early in her residency, Washburn became interested in research and discussions about humanity’s impact on the environment. She connected with the Anthropocene Carolina Seminar to further explore the topic of inclusivity, and also worked with Malinda Maynor Lowery (Director of the Center for the Study of the American South) and Michelle King (Associate Professor of History) to organize workshops for Chinese students and to develop context-specific land acknowledgements in collaboration with Native students. 

One of the outcomes of this work was the “Sound + Silence” event series, which integrated silence with music in various public spaces throughout the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, including the iconic Fearrington Reading Room in Wilson Library. These events provided inspiration for the formation of a collaborative group of UNC faculty, students, and community partners called the Sound + Silence Collective. Co-facilitated by CJ Suitt, Poet Laureate of Chapel Hill, the group’s meetings became an experiment in non-hierarchical organizing and exchange. 

The collective planned a series of events for spring 2020 to explore how intentional silence can create space for otherwise unheard voices to speak. The events, which were postponed due to COVID-19, included a walking tour of Chapel Hill monuments and other spaces related to unseen or unheard voices, a dinner prepared by local chefs meant to be enjoyed in silence, an archival exhibition highlighting UNC-Chapel Hill’s LGBTQ+ community archive, and a spoken word performance showcase.

PLANNED EVENTS: SPRING 2020

A Bite of Silence
A unique dining experience that offers the chance to experience food meditation and learn more about the voices of the food system in Chapel Hill, with meals prepared by Chapel Hill community members, who also filmed a series of short videos about the stories and cultures behind the dishes. In collaboration with Rumi Persian Restaurant and individual chefs.

A Day of Silenced Archival Voices
A reflection on the long histories of silenced voices on Carolina’s campus via UNC’s archives. In recognition and solidarity with Carolina’s LGBTQ communities, this archival showcase in Wilson Library presents voices from the Carolina Gay Association Records, 1974–2014. 

Walking Tour 
This walking tour of monuments and spaces of unseen and unheard voices of the UNC and Chapel Hill communities includes dance, music, and poetry performances. Tis event was planned in collaboration with professor Heather Tatreau’s Annual Flashlight Tour of Campus Monuments, Sound + Silence Series Collective, Chapel Hill’s poet laureate CJ Suitt, local artist Meredith Haggerty, UNC American Indian Center, Affordable Housing Musical, Community Empowerment Fund, Marian Cheek Jackson Center, Countering Hate Initiative, UNC Campus Security, and Arts Everywhere.

Are You Listening?
This event featuring spoken word, dancing, and other performances will give a voice to those who have been marginalized and silenced and amplify their voices through art and other forms of self-expression.

In spring and fall 2020, Washburn and Suitt also pivoted their activities to a digital space and produced a series of short films about the impact of COVID-19 on sectors of the Chapel Hill community, including front line workers, members of religious communities, and artists. 

In 2019, Washburn and her son also performed in Affordable Housing: The Musical, a co-production of the Marian Cheek Jackson Center and Community Empowerment Fund, which was created and performed by Chapel Hill community members.   

Washburn also worked with the UNC World View Fellows, who developed K-12 music curricula for public schools throughout North Carolina inspired by Washburn and her collaborator Wu Fei’s album, Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn (2020), recorded for Smithsonian Folkways. 


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