Interview with Musician, Artist, and Polymath Kimaya Diggs

By Deborah Krieger

When it comes to music and performance, Kimaya Diggs does it all—composing songs, playing guitar and piano and cello, crafting poetry, directing choirs, writing plays, singing songs in twenty-seven languages—and now she can add recording her debut album, Breastfed, to that hefty list. I first met Kimaya Diggs as a student at Swarthmore, where she graduated one year before I did; our first-ever conversation took place stuffed into the balcony of the college’s concert hall, with me recording and scribbling furiously as Kimaya discussed her approach to playing the iconic Bloody Mary in an upcoming concert staging of South Pacific. Needless to say, her thoughtful and nuanced understanding of the role came through on stage, capped off with her rich, warm vocals, making clear her natural affinity for performing and sharing her heart and soul with an audience. After graduating, Kimaya traveled the world with the Northern Harmony performance group. She has since settled down in Western Massachusetts, where she’s busy composing, performing, and teaching high-school students songs from a variety of global musical traditions, as well as placing the finishing touches on her record.

Photo by Jo Chapman.

Photo by Jo Chapman.

How did you get started on your path to becoming a musician? Why music, as opposed to another art form?

I was lucky enough to grow up singing, and playing piano and cello, but I also loved performing in any way! Singing came very naturally to me, and because I have two younger sisters, we sang together all the time. To me, singing with someone is the best way to get to know them and maintain closeness with them, and it feels like a universally appealing storytelling medium. I also love singing because creating a sound with your voice feels like a form of intimacy with oneself. Second to singing, I love playing cello, because resting it on your chest is the next-best way to experience resonance. There’s something really special about being able to experience the movement of sound physically, firsthand or secondhand. 

What musicians, mentors, or teachers have influenced you? 

I’m lucky enough to have studied with Benita Valente for a summer, and learning from her was completely life-changing. Even at eighty-three years old, her voice has so much strength, and her technique is unmatched. Studying with her made me take my technique much more seriously, which set me up well for my second tour with Northern Harmony, the professional ensemble I traveled with performing and teaching international folk music. Switching gears among South African, Balkan, and Georgian music, to name a few, requires immense vocal stamina, and having classical technique to protect my voice was a huge help. I credit that technique to Benita and to another teacher of mine, Sally Wolf. 

Other musicians who inspire me daily are Corinne Bailey Rae, Lianne LaHavas, India.Arie, Esperanza Spalding, Janelle Monae, Solange, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and more recently, Carmen McRae. 

Can you take me through the process of creating a song? Do you write music first, or lyrics? What subjects inspire you? 

I’m not super versatile on guitar, so I tend to mess around with some chords and then start mumbling a melody on top. And then when my voice wants to go somewhere my guitar won’t go easily, I stop and struggle out the chord I want note by note. Lyrics usually come next, but finding the topic feels really passive to me. I just sing the melody until suddenly a word  or two falls out; I try to let the melody direct that moment. I write poetry and prose a lot, so it’s always a little strange struggling so much with chord structure and then being able to write ten verses, but I try to live by a “quantity over quality” rule, because in the process of paring down ten verses into two or three, the quantity usually distills down to quality(ish). Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about family dynamics, and also working through my most depressive period in years, so those subjects come up a lot in my writing. 

What is your ultimate ambition or goal as a musician? For example, do you want to sing at Carnegie Hall?

So many goals! I’m really excited to release my album—that’s been a longtime goal that I didn’t think I’d see realized so soon. I also really want to sing for a Cirque de Soleil show. Their shows use original music that draws from so many cultures, and with my love of international folk music traditions and my classical training, I feel like it would be an incredible challenge and a really amazing experience. Someone call them, and tell them to call me. 

Photo by Jo Chapman.

Photo by Jo Chapman.

Can you talk about the development of Little Town in the Hills

I wrote the libretto for this children’s opera a while back. It had been written for Guerilla Opera in Boston, but production has stalled for a bit at the moment. The story is based on Chelm stories from the Jewish folklore canon, and is a story about two children born into a town in which all the adults are foolish! One morning, the kids wake up to find that all the adults have vanished, and they go on a quest to find them, encountering scary animals and solving riddles along the way. 

Was it daunting to try and compose music for Scarlet Letters—to turn a classic novel into a musical? How did you approach the project with regards to honoring the original work while still making it your own? 

I would characterize Scarlet Letters more as a “play with songs” than a musical. My writing partner, Patrick Ross, and I have been writing together for almost four years now, so our collaborative process works very smoothly. I don’t know much about writing plays, and he doesn’t know much about writing music, which has led to a process that allows for a lot of growth, because feedback we give each other is never based on aesthetic disagreements, but is focused on moving towards cohesion and trusting the other person to have the same goal.

We wanted to write a story that explored the ways in which shame and sexuality manifest as cultural concepts, both in the nineteenth century and now, which is why I used texts by Isaac Watts in an attempt to mirror the tone of condemnation and searching that the novel held while placing it in a contemporary context. Additionally, I created six loops in D minor, all inspired by different baroque guitar and recorder pieces, marrying older music and tonality with technology, as the entire play is underscored by these loops, which blend in and out in sync with the whole script. 

As the election cycle turned from entertaining train wreck into a legitimate horror show, what was it like chronicling all of that with Hillary the First?

At first, writing a farewell song for every candidate was hilarious—especially because with the sheer number of Republican candidates, I often had to say goodbye to more than one candidate in a single song! It was also a treat to write new music to pair with Patrick’s Shakespeare-style recaps of the week’s election events. But as things went downhill, we were constantly preparing for any possibility—so I would write more than one farewell song just in case. I was deeply reluctant to write Hillary’s farewell song, and in fact, the version that we ended up using is a recording of me improvising at the last minute with an abridged excerpt of T.S. Eliot’s East Coker, the poem she quoted in her speech at Wellesley—I think I recorded it half an hour before Patrick needed to post it online. To me, that song is less for Hillary herself and more a portrait of the strange, surreal bleakness of the morning after the election. (My favorite songs from Hillary the First are here). 

How did your album Breastfed come together? Why this title? What’s it like recording a whole album? 

I had always assumed that recording would be expensive—and it is!—but my husband’s band recorded two albums in their practice space, and I was lucky enough to use their setup to record (thank you, LuxDeluxe!). It started as a bunch of acoustic songs with guitar and voice and lots of cello tracks, but expanded to include some of the things they had in their space—a Wurlitzer, this old, raunchy-sounding piano, etc. For me, it was like being immersed in a magical world of infinite possibility, and it was really overwhelming and exciting. 

I did discover that I suck at playing guitar when I’m not singing, which I had to do for recording, and also that I get pretty anxious and critical while recording my voice, and that my sense of rhythm vanishes into a black hole once there’s a mic near me. Jacob (my husband) was really good at stopping me when I wanted to do a sixteenth take of a vocal, and came up with several parts that supported my guitar parts really beautifully. 

Most of the songs were written during an extended period of serious family illness. During this time, I developed an extreme irrational fear of contracting a serious illness, which manifested in intense scrutiny of my body, unhealthy eating habits, and an obsession with plastic surgery before-and-after photos, which I would look at for hours every day. Through it all, the strange shifts in caregiver/caretaker roles were changing my family dynamics, which was jarring, and I kept returning to this image of being near my mother’s heart, breastfeeding, and the jealousy I felt when my sister was born and needed that nurturing more. To me, the growing pains of shifting family needs really captured the essence of my health anxieties, which led to the title Breastfed.

Photo by Jo Chapman.

Photo by Jo Chapman.

Can you talk about your teaching work? What are the twenty-seven languages you sing in? 

Right now, I direct middle school and high school choirs, and I do a lot of foreign-language music with them, because I feel like one of the best ways to learn about another culture is to sing its music! I’m lucky enough to have had many years of study under teachers from the countries whose music I teach most frequently, and I’m always trying to tie in current cultural information and keep the music living and respected—a pet peeve of mine was being in chorus when I was younger and having South African choral music or a Bulgarian song be “the fun song” and be treated really topically, as if the only thing it had to offer was syncopation. Additionally, I work really hard to keep up to date with the evolution of a song, instead of presenting it as a historical artifact. 

My teaching philosophy revolves around singing as curative and connective—hat there’s nothing like resonating with someone else to help you understand them and gain a type of intimacy that has nothing to do with romance or sex. I think that learning to develop intimacy in this way is really important to school-age children who often struggle to connect with one another amid the maelstrom of hormonal weirdness.

Some of the languages I’ve sung in are Sotho, Xhosa, Corsican, Bulgarian, Finnish, Wolof, Ladino, Spanish, French, Italian...the list goes on. I like to seek out songs in languages I haven’t sung in before because I love learning how to fit new sounds into my voice!

Is your poetry related to how you write lyrics for your music, or is it a totally different process or mindset?

I’m very craft-oriented when it comes to poetry, but as a newer songwriter producing a song still feels like magic to me. Somewhere in my mysterious brain I’m probably slowly connecting the dots between poetry and songwriting, but I haven’t been let in on it yet. 

Many of your bigger projects are collaborations. Is that how you typically like to work? If so, why?

I frickin’ love collaborating! Anyone who makes anything can probably identify with the terrible spiral of self-correction that can happen when you work alone. Finding your dream collaborator is extremely tricky, but once it happens, being able to be vulnerable really opens me up to going in so many directions I’m too afraid to go on my own. It’s really hard to have an accurate self-perception, so having another mind and pair of ears and eyes is an incredible gift, whether they’re yay-ing or nay-ing ideas. I am unbelievably lucky to have collaborated with Patrick Ross on so many projects, and also with my husband Jacob Rosazza, who recorded my album and pushed me out of my self-critical comfort zone into creating something I absolutely would not have been able to even conceptualize on my own. 

What musicians are you listening to these days? Who has you excited? 

I’m hopelessly addicted to Lianne LaHavas, but it’s a very love-hate relationship, because her guitar playing her voice are amazing, but every time I sit down to write a song I find myself playing one of her songs instead. Lianne! Please leave me alone! I’m also inspired in so many ways by Solange. Her approach to musical experiences as immersive aesthetic and political moments is really incredible, and unlike anything else I’ve seen lately. 

What has been the biggest challenge as you develop your career as professional musician? Have you found support in this endeavor, or has there been pushback? 

One of the biggest challenges has been trying to figure out if I should focus my performance a little more or not—currently I perform my singer-songwriter stuff solo and as a duo, but I also sing jazz and classical music regularly, and I’m always wondering what I could accomplish if I just stuck to one thing. It’s also challenging having an income that can increase or decrease by more than fifty percent each month depending on how many shows I have and the fact that I teach freelance at four places and bartend on weekend nights. My precious, highly-educated parents, bless them, have been fantastically supportive, and have only mentioned that I should consider graduate school once or twice, because they know they got me into this situation by encouraging vain little three-year-old me to sing for their friends at dinner parties. They created this monster!

Restoring Queer Narratives in Art with Re-gayze

Interview by Deborah Krieger.

When I heard that Blake Oetting, a member of the Swarthmore Class of 2018 and an art historian, was working on a project that aimed to shed a light on queer artists’ identities within the contexts of their works, I was immediately intrigued. Featuring artists ranging from Mickalene Thomas to Jasper Johns to Michelangelo, Re-gayze uses Instagram (and an eponymous website) to share thoughtful, informative blurbs on these artists whose queerness has been erased or censored by time, by history, or by design, in the world of academia and education. I reached out to Blake to talk about his development of Re-gayze, and why the project is vital and necessary for art historians, artists, and art enthusiasts alike.

How did you come up with the idea for this project?  

The project arose chiefly out of my own frustrations with my own art history education not making room for queerness as a thematic consideration within the work of queer artists. Often, an artist’s sexuality is offered as a coincidental and biographical tidbit of information that stands separate from their works’ meaning. Intuitively, I assumed that this was reductive and chose to investigate whether there was any scholarly work standing at the intersection of queer theory and art history. There certainly is, but that work exists within the work of academia mostly, so with Re-gayze, I was hoping to disseminate that information done by scholars in a more democratic fashion. 

What made you realize that there was this pedagogical and historical gap, and how did you decide on this project to fix the problem? 

I also saw a number of articles and talks given by Jonathan David Katz who presents queer art historical work within the context of censorship from museums and other arts institutions. I thought that distilling that spirit of his work, of exhuming the importance of queerness to queer artists’ work, and presenting it as a form of resistance to institutional censorship on a widely available platform like Instagram could potentially get a discussion started around issues of representation in museums for not only queer and trans people, but also for women, people of color, and any marginalized community that falls outside of the dominant milieu. 

On a larger note, how do you feel like queer artists and their lives should be better incorporated into existing canon? (I know women in art history have this kind of question thrown at them all time.)

I think that part of this movement will naturally “out” artists who are deceased, which often stands against the wishes of these artists’ foundations and families but nevertheless must be done. It seems that this process of “outing,” however, has been appropriately centered on understanding their work more fully and not about making a spectacle of their closeted live just for the sake of it. More importantly than focusing on the outing of individual artists, however, is that curators must center shows on issues of queerness in an unabashed, fearless manner. Because of course, the issue of queer censorship in museums is not only a lack of representation, but also the idea that queer identity can not be mapped onto artwork in the same way that issues of race, ethnicity, gender, etc. are done freely.  

Due to the lack of this kind of focus on queer artists specifically in traditional education, how did you begin your own investigation into the lives of these artists like Johns, etc? 

There really is a lot of scholarship on queerness and intersections of verbose queer theory and aesthetics, which is fascinating. Much of what I do on the blog is try and read as much as I can on a specific artist or queer theme within artistic production and distill that into a succinct caption. So, in general, I would say that process of researching the work to producing a blog post is figuring out to best democratize rather esoteric scholarly work.  

How did you come up with the title? 

Every art history student will (hopefully) learn about the male gaze at some point in their career. At some point though, after hearing the term so many times, I began to think people were saying “the male gays,” so the name really came from a joke! On one hand, it reference the queer gaze, which comes up throughout the blog, but also be re-casting this gayze, by re-gayzing, I am making explicit the idea of the blog being a revisionist consideration of modern & contemporary art with a queer lens.  

How do you choose which artists to feature? 

I have a whole set of books in my room that I consult every day to seek out potential artists, but I also receive ideas from my friends and professors about people to feature. I highly encourage submissions! There are so many amazing queer artists that, as a product of their erasure by the art world, are not discussed as widely as they should be, so I depend on people sharing their knowledge with me. 

How far in advance do you plan posts? 

I don’t plan posts ahead of time at all! Every day is a bit of a scramble to fit all the moving pieces together. It really is a lot more work than I thought it would be when beginning the project and I can’t post every day, but I try to. 

Do you want to move Re-Gayze into a more physical form, such as an exhibition or installation, or do you think it really relies on being digital? 

At this point, I think it is most appropriate to stay digital. While it would be amazing to publish a physical production at some point, the platforms on Instagram and Facebook are the most able to reach a large audience I think. 

What made you choose Instagram as a platform? Have you considered Tumblr? I think it might be really good for getting people to share the posts (better than Instagram anyway). 

I chose Instagram and Facebook as the initial platforms to pursue because I was most familiar with them as places where other social campaigns functioned. I have definitely considered expanding to Tumblr, the only issue being I don’t know how to advertise there as effectively. 

As you amass more images and posts in your collection, do you plan to curate it further in any way (creating a section related to AIDS art/activism specifically for example)? 

I have definitely considered doing special projects as offshoots of Re-gayze once I assemble enough material, but I don’t think I’ll know what those will look like thematically until farther down the road. 

Are there media you find yourself drawn to more than others for this project? 

While I have definitely tried to maintain a fairly equal distribution of painting, photography, sculpture etc., the medium that I have become the most invested in is performance, mostly because it is brand new for me. I find that the performance pieces I have looked at are able to articulate entirely new meanings through their incorporation of movement and space in ways that are impossible in a static context. Similarly, video pieces [like those by] Jacolby Satterwhite have been highly influential for this project. 

Do you hope to continue Re-gayze after Swarthmore? How does this kind of academic work factor into your future goals?

I would absolutely love to continue the blog after graduation, as I think there are many avenues to expand and improve it when I have more time. After Swarthmore, I definitely plan on getting a doctorate and working to be a curator of 20th century art, so Re-gayze is also, in some sense, preparing me for my professional life but it chiefly a project for the art world and queer communities searching for representation throughout visual history.  

Photo courtesy of Blake Oetting.

Photo courtesy of Blake Oetting.

What kind of feedback have you received on your work so far? How have you taken it to heart, if at all? 

I have received a lot of support from friends, professors, and some of the featured artists. It seems that my suspicion, that queer people have been looking for an account (like I was) is indeed the case. This support has been so encouraging because, again, the entire point of the blog was situating queer people within art history, so the fact that this made queer people in and out of the art world is incredibly satisfying for me. 

What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with Re-gayze? 

The goal with Re-gayze has, and always will be, dissemination and (an attempt) at education. It is absolutely crucial that queer people understand themselves as a part of art history, both as subjects and artists. Beyond the important issue of representation, however, Re-gayze also hopes to literally and metaphorically queer the art world as a means of bringing queer themes into formal art history discourse. The reason the captions are quite lengthy and attempt to cover a lot of scholarly ground is that this account is really aimed at speaking in the language of the art history discipline to show how queerness has been and can be a part of that discussion. 

Artist Profile: Noah Morrison

When I co-organized a fall student art show at my college’s student gallery during my sophomore year, one of the artists who submitted work and immediately caught my eye was Noah Morrison. Morrison’s sophisticated black-and-white photography belies his age, drawing from a well of emotion and empathy to evoke a heightened sense of melancholy. Hailing from New York City, Morrison takes a cinematic approach to his chosen subjects of quotidian street scenes and his friends, striking a fine balance between the posed and the candid. He has exhibited at the School of International Center for Photography in New York, among other venues, and enjoys experimenting with digital and video art, as well as documentary and narrative filmmaking.

All photographs courtesy of the artist.

How did you get started making art?  Have you always focused on photography, or did you experiment in other media? 

I began taking photos during a rough time in my sophomore year of high school. I had reached out to my doctor asking for solutions to my boredom and unhappiness, and she advised me to find a hobby outside of school to pursue. After a short discussion, we settled on photography, and the next day my dad and I went to J&R and he bought me a DSLR and lens. For a long time after this, I would bring the camera with me everywhere, and spend hours after school walking around my neighborhood taking photos. My focus has always been on photography outside of basic painting classes in high school. I have made some videos (documentary and narrative) for various classes, and am always experimenting with video making on various digital platforms. I would love to expand this focus in the future.

What subjects do you find yourself drawn to as a photographer? Why? 

As a photographer, I find myself broadly drawn to ephemera. I find that focusing on items, emotions, and situations that only last for a brief period of time helps me reflect deeply on myself. Maybe even, photographing ephemera in various ways is a true reflection of myself, or the pursuit of such a truth. In photographing my friends, I tend to understand the level of intimacy between us through photos I take of them. I try to capture personal moments from which I can see the relationship between the camera, the setting, and the person’s mental and emotional state, as well as myself at the moment. Photographing in the street is more is much more of a personal exercise, and connected to the reasons why I began to photograph in the first place. My discovery of photography coincided with my discovery of a love for being outside by myself, and a need to leave the confines of my small apartment. I found that, initially, photography gave me a good excuse to get out for a few hours and walk around aimlessly. However, after some time, the act of walking itself became connected with the act of photography, and one became inseparable from the other. Through constructing parts of my self on the streets, I began to photograph objects and situations that I felt were connected to this self. The act of walking was inherently lonely, and thus much of my subject matter reflected this outwardly. The catharsis in photographing this subject matter on the street was in being able to see myself in the world around me.

To what degree are your compositions posed or candid? Which do you prefer? Do you like to take your camera around with you and capture your friends in particular in small moments, or do you stage shoots with them? 

I genuinely try to make every composition candid, and I would say that the majority of my images exist somewhere in between posed and candid, depending on my relationship to the subject. I feel like candid and posed are on a spectrum, not in opposition to each other, but in constant conversation. For example, sometimes I will allow a subject to pose themselves in a way that is recognizable, such as smiling, putting up a peace sign, etc. Yet in this situation, I will usually hold the camera ready to take a picture until some façade of the pose falls, and something else is revealed. There is often a particular moment after people pose themselves that they begin to question the pose, and that is where I try to insert the image. All this being said, the majority of my photos can be read as candid, and I think this has something to do with the ephemeral nature of the emotions or moments that I try to capture with my subjects. I rarely stage shoots with my friends unless I am working on a specific project. Even if I am working on a specific project, I tend to focus around real, lived situations of the subject. Often these photos exist on the spectrum between candid and posed as I mentioned above.

Why do you focus on black-and-white photography? What kind of equipment do you use? 

I focus on black and white photography because I appreciate what I can capture in terms of light in black and white as opposed to color. I believe I know how to understand contrast, highlight and shadow better in black and white. I love how people photograph in natural light in black and white as well. In terms of equipment, I usually use a Nikon F100 to shoot 35mm, but when I was in Jordan, my camera temporarily broke. In a wild turn of events, I found a store right near my school that was selling a cheap, Fujifilm point and shoot camera, the Zoom Date 90SR, so I used that for a lot of my shots in Jordan, and in Philadelphia over the summer. But now the Fujifilm camera’s almost broken, so I’ve begun to use my Nikon again. When I’m shooting medium format (6x7), I use a Mamiya RB67.

What teachers, mentors, or other artists have been influential and inspirational in your development as an artist? 

Some of the teacher’s I’ve had the privilege of working with at the International Center of Photography have been some of the most influential in my photographic life. Taking a class with Bayeté Ross-Smith helped me understand the importance of identity in my work, and aided in making my work even more personal. His project, Question Bridge: Black Males, which deals with asking questions related to perceptions of blackness and masculinity to Black males across America, was being exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum when I took his class. Seeing this kind of photographic/video work in a museum inspired me to continue down a path that would bring my identities and my work closer together. Additionally, working with different instructors, including Josie Miner, Charulata Dyal, and Nona Faustine, during my time at “Teen Photo Fridays” at ICP helped me develop extensive photo editing and darkroom skills that have been immensely helpful to this day. Finally, I got the opportunity to TA for master printer Jim Megargee at ICP two summers ago, and the lessons he taught me (even as I assumed the position of teacher myself) about printing processes and preservation of image detail during the course of that class were some of the most important things I’ve learned related to photography. On a more personal level, the work of Bruce Davidson, Carrie Mae Weems, Australian photographer Trent Parke, Caravaggio, musician Dean Blunt, and the films of Alfonso Cuarón inspire me.

Do you hope to work professionally as a photographer and artist? Would you want to work commercially?

I do hope to work full-time as an artist as soon as that is possible. Whether that means making work and getting it exhibited and sold, or teaching art, or working on community arts programming, or some combination of all of the above. I don’t see commercial work in my future per say; yet I’m not ruling out anything, as long as I can continuously develop my skills.

What has been your proudest moment as an artist? 

My proudest moment as an artist was most definitely having my photo series on my identities exhibited at the School of the International Center of Photography to culminate the yearlong class I took there. Besides having my photos featured in this exhibit, I also delivered the commencement speech for the program. Seeing and hearing artists from different walks of life react to both my photos and the speech was validating and inspiring.

Can you talk about your experience as an artist on Swarthmore's campus? Do you find that students, faculty, staff, and/or the institution have a positive view of the importance of art on campus?

In all honesty, Swarthmore is not a great place to be a practicing artist, especially a photographer. The nature of the space is such that less value is placed on pursuits that are not academic and nature. Additionally, I’ve found every class here to value analytical and critical thinking over visual narrative and ways of complicating and understanding the world. This way of work combined with the quantity of work assigned leaves little room for artistic practice, especially if you are not a studio art major. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because critical thinking about various issues related to society and self needs to be a part of artistic practice. This being said, I have had the privilege to take a photography independent study class, and I will be taking an alternative processes class in the spring. There are pockets of acceptance and encouragement, including with our photography professor Ron Tarver, and among a selection of studio art majors. However, I’ve found that I can really only practice at my fullest outside of Swarthmore.

What is the most challenging aspect of your practice? 

The most challenging aspect of my practice is aesthetic consistency. This could have to do with the fact that my photos often are reflections of my self as much as they are reflections of the world around me, and both are in constant flux. I’ve found the pursuit of a certain aesthetic to be an endlessly difficult process, which seems to have an equal amount to do with editing, the negatives themselves, when you shoot, who you shoot, what you shoot with, and how you relate to your photos. Additionally, I often oscillate between wanting consistency in my photos and thinking that I do not need to be aesthetically consistent to be true.

What do you hope people who see your photographs take away from them?

For me, photography is a systemizing tool for the organization and understanding of beauty in relation to shifting notions of self. I hope that people can recognize that beauty is conceptualized in diverse and ever-shifting ways just as each person’s self is, and that all photography has the power to make these connections [a] personal truth. 

Artist Profile: Alicia DeWitt

While I dabbled in making art during my schooling days, it was always painting and drawing and the occasional collage for me--I was always intimidated by the computer know-how and skill required to learn something like graphic design. I could appreciate what I thought was good design, and cringe appropriately at ugly fonts and bad kerning, but I never really learned that much about the medium itself--both as a fine and popular art form. So when I had the opportunity to speak with graphic designer and fellow Swarthmore alumna Alicia DeWitt about her practice as an artist and her approach to her medium, I took it with enthusiasm.


Alicia DeWitt is a Boston-based MFA candidate in graphic design at Boston University, but originally studied biology and painting at Swarthmore. Her personal graphic design manifesto, which is discussed in the following interview, contains the five key points: "We are engineers, We are artists, We are mediators, We must teach ourselves, and There is room for everyone." Viewing her works and style in light of these five statements is particularly illuminating. She has designed poster campaigns, organization logos, and creative re-imaginings of literature and the form of the book, deftly using both positive and negative space for maximum effect and impact, combining the "artist," the "engineer," and the "mediator" roles in a way that is effective and engaging. 

Deborah Krieger: How did you get started as an artist? What made you decide to do it professionally?

Alicia DeWitt: I think that it took a long time for me to think about myself as an artist, because it took a really long time for it to become a full time pursuit for me. At an early age, my grandmother taught me how to knit and my mother taught me how to sew, so I was always making things on top of all of my other activities the same way that they had. I kept it up. I’d always had sketchbooks and I was constantly gifted with art supplies by friends and family but it was never something I shared with people. I had school work that it seemed was more valuable to people, so that’s where I focused a lot of my energy. By the time I started formally learning about visual arts and making in college, I was surprised by how I was able to grow so quickly once I felt like I was allowed and encouraged to prioritize my artwork.

I’d had a really positive experience painting as an undergrad, but I didn’t quite feel like I’d found my medium. After college, I started working in arts communication, and actually worked a lot with designers. What I discovered, was that all along there was  this whole world of artists shaping my experience everyday and I was fascinated. I couldn’t believe the range of creative work open to graphic designers. So from there I had to re-work my portfolio; I started creating client work and inventing projects of my own relying heavily on my visual arts education. A labor of love really. I felt like design connected my undergraduate majors (visual art and biology) so perfectly.

DK: What teachers, mentors, or other artists were particularly inspiring to you?

AD: My undergraduate professors were constantly telling us not to be “precious” with our work, and that has really stuck with me. I think especially with design that you’re creating on screen, there is a ton of space to undo, redo, over-write, start over, so there is no reason not to erase something and try something different, or look back ten versions ago and pull out something that really worked. Syd Carpenter told me during my final critique that she saw “some elements of design in my work,” which I completely did not understand at the time, but just shows me how she truly understood how I was working.

IOtA: I read that at Swarthmore you exhibited painting and sculpture. Why the switch to graphic design? 

AD: Yes! I was predominately a painter as an undergrad. I was creating paper sculptures of my subject matter and then translating those reductive forms into my paintings. Once I actually discovered what design was, I thought, "wow, these people are working between so many fields, I’ve only scratched the surface.” I couldn’t help but work inter-disciplinarily and that was so at the core of graphic design. There isn’t one form. You’re constantly pulling in photography and illustration and typography and then you turn it into something else, a tactile object or an animation or a web experience. I just needed to be at that intersection.

DK: What are some of the particular challenges associated with graphic design versus more traditional media?

AD: There is this important element of communication that other artists aren’t bound by as much. So much of my work starts with, "what is the story" and "to whom is it being told", and I use that to inform every decision I make. If you aren’t working with your own content, it can be difficult to say the words in your voice. On top of that, there’s utility. You have to be sure that your work can be interacted with in the intended way. Maybe it’s a logo; can it be read as a favicon? Maybe it’s a postcard; can it legally go through the mail? When it’s your own work, sometimes you have to make up the form as you go. I created a piece this spring that involved my own poetry and I needed it to feel like there was an element of randomization and obfuscation to the typography so I decided to create a mobile. I ended up learning how to sculpt wire, use a laser cutter, and staining wood for the sake of that one story.

Part of communication also has to do with convention. People get used to seeing things a particular way, so when you change them, or disrupt them, you’re saying something. I love playing with that. There is an element of surprise and subtlety that can deeply impact someone’s perspective.

DK: How has your study of biology intersected with your artistic practice?

AD: I’ve always thought that I was so interested in design because it fits so neatly into the analytical and exploratory world of my interest in science research. I’m constantly looking for trends and ways to organize the content and data that I’m working with. There’s also so much problem solving, you start to feel like an investigator. A lot of research and play has to happen in order to uncover the right way to execute a piece. Outside of process, I like to use natural phenomena as visual metaphor to tell a story. A lot of these kinds of visuals resonate, because they start to feel familiar for the audience. It helps evoke a certain concept and maintains abstraction. In the end, you get a visually engaging composition packed with underlying meaning.

DK: I’m not familiar with Borges, but your project involving his Library of Babel looks fascinating. Can you talk more about that work?

AD: I’d read the Library of Babel for the first time a couple of years ago, and was stunned by how vividly so many of the descriptions of the world embedded themselves in my imagination. When I revisited the story for part of a project for my MFA program, I really wanted to break down what it was that felt so compelling to me without literally illustrating the plot. This major element, of course, are the books of the Library. There are infinite volumes all filled with indecipherable text. And I just kept thinking, this would be our story if the answers of the universe were just plopped down in front of us. It’s infinite, it’s bewildering, but it’s the underlying machinery that propels everything. When I thought about our “underlying machinery” I thought a lot about DNA and started filling the inside of the book’s French folded pages with this typography that felt both controlled and random. I started manipulating the text of the story to emphasize the fact that this too would become as indecipherable as the rest of the universe. For me, the result is both alien and familiar, and it’s part of what draws me to magical realism and science fiction and general.

DK: How would you characterize your style, if at all?

AD: I wouldn’t say that I necessarily have a style. Especially when it comes to client work, I can feel myself going through a familiar and practiced process, but there tends to me multiple answers to design challenges. I used to get frustrated with how disparate a lot of my work was coming out. A few days ago, I pulled together several pieces and said kind of frustratingly during a crit, “Look at this. I like all of these, but none of these look a like!”  My classmates pointed out similarities between them that I really took for granted, or just couldn’t see. I was suddenly being told that the visual motifs of these pieces showed off this visual tension between order and chaos. I was shocked at how right that felt. I’d had drawings and illustrations from years before where I was consciously thinking about this, and I guess I didn’t stop thinking about that when my medium changed.

DK: Can you talk more about your personal graphic design manifesto? What made you decide to write one? 

Well, the manifesto was initiated in my MFA program during my Design Theory class. Most of my classmates designed pieces that embodied the principles of famous design manifestos (like the Futurist Manifesto, Dan Friedman’s Radical Modernist manifesto, the Gropius' Bauhaus Manifesto, among others) but I wanted to work on my own. I’d been a self taught designer until I reached my grad program, and just needed to write out a lot of what I was feeling about the design world and where I fit in it. I think that in the end, it came out very inclusive, and I designed it as a poster book with tear away postcards, because I think art books are always so expensive and inaccessible. I liked the idea of it being torn to pieces and still having value in it being shared. The concept really embodies the idea of a design manifesto that tells all kinds of designers that they're part of this tough, layered culture of inventors and makers.

DK: Do you find any challenges getting people to take graphic design as an art form as seriously as more traditional media like painting, drawing, sculpture, etc? Or do you find that people are more open-minded about what forms art can take?

AD: It’s complicated. A lot of designers have a practice where they create highly visible client work and completely experimental personal work right along side it, and I think maybe that’s just how it is. So many design programs are in fine arts departments and are BFA and MFA programs, because it makes sense to use similar approaches focusing on craft and voice to create visual compositions. In the end, we have the tools and practice to go either way, so I think it’s really up to each designer how to present her body of work.

When I tell people outside of the the art world that I’m a graphic designer, they immediately think “so, you’re an artist" (or at least artsy) because they’ve interfaced with so much design work, and know there’s this major visual component. I’ve been getting charcoal pencil sets and sketchbooks (which I love) from coworkers and family members for years, because design feels absurdly artistic to them relative to their own work. 

DK: Are there any current or future projects that have you particularly excited?

AD: So I think I always have a ton of irons in the fire, but I’m trying to transform a lot of that energy into work for my thesis. My partner (also a Swattie) is a science journalist, and I’m working with him to create some data visualizations for an upcoming feature. I’m doing similar work for NOVA Next, PBS NOVA’s online news publication. A few classmates and I also received a grant to launch an online showcase for artists and educators looking for more inclusive discourse by underrepresented graphic designers, so we’re gaining traction on that too.

(All images courtesy of the artist.)

Artist Profile: Filmmaker Sarah Moses

By Deborah Krieger

When you add a college minor in a discipline as creative as Film and Media Studies, you're bound to run into filmmakers amongst critics and nascent media scholars. One such student, whom I met in my junior spring semester class on television and new media, is Sarah Moses, a Haverford College student my age who, through the cross-enrollment agreement among Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Swarthmore Colleges, majored in the Swarthmore College Film and Media Studies department. While she proved to be an engaging classmate, it wasn't until our senior spring, in the Film Studies Capstone course on Transmedia Adaptations, that I saw for myself just how talented a filmmaker Sarah Moses is.

Her project for this course was an interpretive music video for the SWMRS song "Figuring it Out," which managed to be both heartwarming and hilarious as well as visually dazzling. In her main filmmaking practice, however, Moses focuses on creating both documentary and narrative works, combining her interests in social activism with a knack for composition and editing. I caught up with Sarah Moses this past summer and decided to pick her brain about her work as a filmmaker.

How did you get started on your journey as a filmmaker?

I arrived at Haverford College as a freshman set on majoring in Political Science. After a couple semesters of dabbling in the department I started to realize that the way academia approaches politics and how I wanted to, didn’t mesh as well as I had anticipated. So I started looking around for other avenues that would blend my political interests with my academic studies. Around the same time I took an introductory film class, and since I grew up in a household of film buffs I enjoyed it immensely. That summer I realized I could major in Film and Media Studies at Swarthmore (thanks to the tri-college consortium among Haverford, Swarthmore, and Bryn Mawr), and started to look into the different course options. I saw there was an introductory production class and jumped on it. At the same time, someone recommended I take a production class with documentary filmmaker Vicky Funari at Haverford, and I (perhaps foolishly) enrolled in two production classes in the same semester. Over half of my workload became film related, and by the end of the year I started to consider pursuing film after graduation.

The summer after my sophomore year I was incredibly fortunate to be one of the four recipients of the inaugural Interdisciplinary Documentary Media Fellowship at Haverford. Through the IDMF I worked on the film WAKE (2014) which examines the presence of the oil industry in southern Louisiana following the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of 2010. We worked closely with Vicky Funari as an adviser, and got to travel down to the Gulf Coast twice to conduct interviews and collect footage. It was my first time really intensively working on a production full time, and it was by far one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my life. By the end of that summer, I had solidified my intention of pursuing a career as a filmmaker.

My next two years at Haverford were spent honing my craft and skills through intensive production experience. Along with my course load I was fortunate to receive a number of fellowships to support production related endeavors. In the summer of 2015 I received the Summer Research Fellowship from the Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities which allowed me to commence work on my thesis film, Southeast by Southeast, prior to the start of senior year. At the same time, I worked through the second Interdisciplinary Documentary Media Fellowship on the film Capitalish, which follows the growing worker cooperative movement in Philadelphia.

Southeast by Southeast explores the intertwined relationships between language, art, and community among South Philadelphia’s refugee communities and was completed in winter of 2015. 

So that was basically my trajectory. I just graduated in May, and the past few months have been a wonderful beginning to my full time career. I spent most of the Summer working for Vicky Funari on her upcoming documentary, and I also received a fellowship from the Hurford center to attend the prestigious Robert Flaherty Film Seminar at Colgate University.

What about both documentary and narrative draws you? How do these forms compare and contrast?

I think it’s easy to assume that documentary and narrative/fiction film are two entirely different genres with strict defining lines, but in both my theoretical studies and production experience I’ve found the opposite to be true. Plenty of films meld the two forms together in ways that subvert our assumptions about objectivity and subjectivity, and that is something I’m really interested in exploring in the future. That being said, my primary production training has been in documentary, and I have found it to be a profoundly powerful tool in extending empathy and understanding to narratives, issues, and lives that appear very distant from our own. I believe strongly that being an informed and productive citizen of the world involves a continued effort in broadening our understanding of the perspectives and experiences of those around us, and documentary can be a very concrete and useful tool in this endeavor. 

I think narrative films provide much of the same intellectual and emotional empathy as documentaries. The biggest difference I’ve encountered between the two forms is really in the logistical end of production. I did a lot of documentary work entirely on my own over the past few years. I would run in somewhere with a camera and an onboard shotgun microphone and just document what I saw, maybe conduct an interview or two. I quickly learned that in narrative filmmaking, trying to be the director, cinematographer, script supervisor, and gaffer at once only ends in frustration. I love the freedom involved in documentary filmmaking, but I think the logistical planning that goes into a successful narrative shoot is also incredibly rewarding.

Film still   from  Early Bird  (2015).

Film still from Early Bird (2015).

Do you ultimately hope to make Hollywood films, or do you want to stay more independent? Would you want to make films for a wide audience, or specifically for targeted, activist purposes, or both?

Ha, that’s a good question. It’s really hard to say right now. I think a lot of recent liberal arts postgrads would want to stick to a fight-the-system mentality but I also think a lot of productive change in the film industry can be conducted from within. There are unique benefits and drawbacks to both independent and Hollywood filmmaking, and depending on what’s best for the project I would be happy to be involved in either.

Who would be your dream creative and acting team to work with on a project?

This list could just go on and on and on. Tatiana Maslany is definitely up there in terms of actors but I honestly don’t think I can answer this without giving a list of 50+ people.

How do you view the relationship between your commitment to social justice and to making your art? What got you interested in creating this connection, and what inspired your interest in social justice work in general? 

Filmmaker Natalia Almada visited my documentary class once, and in response to a similar question said all seeing is political.” That really stuck with me, and I have been approaching my work with the same perspective since. No matter how much you try to separate yourself or your work from your sociopolitical environment, the implications of representation are inescapable. I don’t think artists have an obligation to make political” art with specific mobilizing intentions, but I do think it is important to recognize one's position in the world when making movies, while also recognizing that there are sociopolitical implications that extend beyond intention.

I have had a deep interest in politics and social issues for as long as I can remember, and so for me personally, film is a medium through which to explore complicated issues surrounding identity, representation, legislation, civil rights, economic policy, institutional racism, sexism, etc. But I think what is most important is recognizing that even a fun, silly, comedy has the ability to subvert or affirm societal beliefs and expectations about the world.

Which filmmakers have inspired your work? Which teachers and mentors?

Oh wow; just so many. I think every film I watch helps inform a new way of thinking and approaching the form in one way or another. I have always been a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, and Wes Anderson, but my influences since have become wide and varied.

Of course, I wouldn’t be where I am today without the mentorship of Vicky Funari, and she has played a huge role in my documentary education. I’m a big fan of the personal documentaries of Alan Berliner, Joaquim Pinto, and Naomi Kawase, and I would love to explore that genre myself in the future. 

Can you talk about your Harry Bertoia project? What other projects are in the pipeline?

I am really excited to announce that I am co-directing a feature documentary with my close friend and collaborator, Harlow Figa. The film, tentatively titled Bertoia, seeks to build a record of the work and legacy of artist, sculptor, and modern furniture designer Harry Bertoia. The film enters the world of Bertoia through his son Val, who worked closely with his father on Sonambient [sic],” a collection of metal rod sculptures that release deep and resonant sounds when manipulated either by hand, wind, or nature’s vibrations. Harry’s sculptures have continued to resonate with viewers and listeners far past his death in 1978. In the last several decades, the collection has remained on Harry’s home property in a secluded barn in Barto, Pennsylvania. This summer, a majority of the pieces were taken out of the barn in preparation for a move to their new home in a currently undisclosed museum. Along with capturing “Sonambient” in its last days as a full collection, the film aims to immerse the viewer in the resonant sounds and visuals of the sculptures, while tracing the international and inventive history of Harry Bertoia. Interviews with Harry’s children and collaborators will frame and contextualize the film, bringing together various aspects of Harry's work and life around the central themes of multi-experiential art, his relationship with nature, and the passage of time and place.

We are currently in the process of organizing a crowdfunding campaign to support the project. To stay up to date with the film and campaign, follow the film’s Facebook page here.

What do you hope your viewers take away from the stories you tell in your films?

I think the beauty of film and human consciousness is that there isn’t really one right answer or way of interpreting ‘truth.’ I like to think that my films leave a lot up to the viewer. I want viewers of my films to bring their own critical thinking to the table. Of course, I have my own set of beliefs and goals with any film I make, but when it comes down to it I am more interested in exploring the nuances of life (whether they be political, philosophical, social, or artistic) than imposing a specific viewpoint that has no room for debate or discussion.

Film still from   Southeast by Southeast   (2015)

Film still from Southeast by Southeast (2015)