Periodically, we pose questions about issues artists face in their work and lives.
This month, we wanted to revisit a question we first posed in April 2016: What role does research play in your creative process?
Writer Justine Dymond, composer Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, and visual artist Naoe Suzuki respond.
Naoe Suzuki, visual artist
Curiosity leads me into research. I’ve been working on drawings based on maps of the Adirondacks. My curiosity was aroused from looking at maps of the Adirondacks and noticing many names of animals being used for places. I studied digital collections from the Levanthal Map Center at the Boston Public Library and also looked at original maps in person. Looking at originals gives me a sense of scale, time, and history, and that’s important to me for shaping my ideas.
Reading helps shape my view on a subject I’m working on. On the Adirondacks, I’m reading about the history and thinking about relationships humans forge with the land and its species. The Adirondack Park is a part of New York’s Forest Preserve. It was established in 1892 for “the free use of all the people for their health and pleasure” and the move to preserve the wilderness was initially for watershed protection. Learning about the subject creates a conceptual ground for me to keep engaging with it, but I also learn a great deal from looking and tracing maps or sometimes texts. My research and studio practice go parallel. It’s a learning process on both ends that I find pleasure in doing.
Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, composer and music scholar
I often find inspiration for new compositions due to the research I have been conducting as a scholar. One significant example would be my “coffeehouse opera,” Othello in the Seraglio, in which I have reimagined Shakespeare’s Othello as an Ottoman eunuch. Had it not been for the research I was conducting on a variety of Ottoman musics and their intertwined relationships with Europe, I would have never developed the idea of weaving together Italian Baroque and Turkish sources with my own newly-composed music within this unique musical drama. Furthermore, as a result of my research I came to realize that such a new score could be composed for a mixed ensemble of European period instruments, traditional Turkish instruments, and singers from both traditions, which is exactly what Othello in the Seraglio is scored for along with a dramatic storyteller. In the end, even the idea of scaling an opera production to the intimate, informal setting of a coffeehouse in 17th century Istanbul was a direct result of my research which enabled this production to be performed a miraculous 20 times within 3 years since its premiere!
Justine Dymond, writer
My current novel project, set in 1733 Boston, centers on Rebekah Chamblit, a real person, who was tried for infanticide. I first came across her story in an article by the scholar Laura Henigman and the few known details of Rebekah’s life haunted me. I needed to understand how an unmarried female servant in early 18th-century New England could end up on trial for the murder of her infant.
I spent several delightful sessions at the Massachusetts Historical Society to study old maps of Boston and read The New-England Weekly Journal from those years. The ads are just as revealing as the articles. I consulted the diaries of Salem witch trial judge Samuel Sewall and Maine midwife Martha Ballard. Jill Lepore’s book on Jane Franklin Mecom, Ben Franklin’s sister, was also instrumental. I returned to these voices again and again for the language and culture of the era. Black and Native voices, particularly women’s voices, are harder to find in the written record but I found glimpses in visits to Historic Deerfield and exhibits by the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association.
Of course, all the research in the world does not guarantee a good story. Ultimately, research must serve the imagination and the craft, not overwhelm the process.
What Role Does Research Play in Your Art? from April 2016
What Do We Owe to History in Our Art?
Justine Dymond (Fiction/Creative Nonfiction Finalist ’20) is an award-winning writer and professor who lives in western Massachusetts. Her short story collection, The Emigrant and Other Stories, won the 2018 Eludia Award from Hidden River Arts, and is forthcoming with Sowilo Press.
Mehmet Ali Sanlikol (Music Composition Finalist ’19) is a composer, music scholar, and educator whose many awards include grants from New Music USA, the Aaron Copland Fund, and The Boston Foundation’s Live Arts Boston. The full length film version of Othello in the Seraglio can be streamed for free on Tubi.
Naoe Suzuki (Drawing & Printmaking Fellow ’06) is a multidisciplinary artist who was recently the Artist-in-Residence at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. The artist had a solo exhibition titled Mapping at the Rivers School in Weston, Massachusetts this fall. Due to the pandemic, it was only open to the Rivers School community and not to the public. You can visit the virtual exhibit site.
Ann M Davidson says
When my American-born children were of school age, I developed a passion for researching the history of the Acadian French people. They were early settlers in the Annapolis Valley area of Nova Scotia where I had grown up and their population grew to cover what is now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. For three generations “Acadie” had grown into a thriving population of thousands. Frequently caught between the European power struggles of England and France for domination in the colonies, they maintained their neutrality.
However, in 1755, a plan was about to be implemented by British and Colonial Military leaders; the Acadians, whose faith was Catholic, would be ripped from their lands in what some historians call the first ethnic cleansing of colonial America. Families would be split up and placed on transports, then scattered throughout the English Protestant colonies.
I grew up in a village very near Grand-Pre, and learned in school about the “Expulsion of the Acadians.” The tragedy of it was imprinted on me at an early age, and it was also imprinted on the geography surrounding my village. The “aboiteaux” or dykes the Acadian farmers had built were still there to claim that they had lived there before us. They had become allies of the indigenous Mi’Kmaq tribe.
When I moved to Massachusetts and began raising a family, I worked in the public school system where I took the opportunity to design several lesson plans to teach middle school students about this history. The research I did for this short introduction was eye-opening and inspired me to delve deeper. I realized how much there was to learn about their story, including how a small group of Acadians settled in Louisiana in 1765, growing into the Cajun culture.
Characters began to form in my mind, both Acadian and Cajun. They would be part of today’s rich culture of South Louisiana Cajun music, French language and cuisine, and their cousins would be Acadians with their own distinct French culture in the Canadian Maritimes. Scholarly study by Professor David Broussard would present the ways in which the deportations continue to ripple through their collective identity.
I utilized the research of Dr. Jeffrey Alexander of Yale University regarding how cultural trauma impacts ethnic identity and ripples down though the generations. This became incorporated as a theme to be further explored in the sequel, “Answers From The Past.”
Catherine’s Cadeau was published in 2008 by Texas Review Press. It was a collaborative effort with Dr. Terry M. Thibodeaux, professor at Sam Houston State University.
The sequel, which I wrote on my own, continued the story of a few Acadians who hid in the woods and formed a militia to try and get their homelands back from the English. This story is yet to be published.