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.
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.