Pulitzer Center Update

Executive Director Jon Sawyer on 'NewsArts' Launch in North Carolina

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Jon Sawyer speaking on the launch of NewsArts in the auditorium at Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA). Image by Fareed Mostoufi. United States, 2016.

Pulitzer Center Executive Director Jon Sawyer speaking on the launch of "NewsArts" in the auditorium at Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA). Image by Fareed Mostoufi. United States, 2016.

Editor's Note: At the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) on November 17, 2016, in Winston-Salem, NC, Pulitzer Center Executive Director Jon Sawyer spoke about the launch of NewsArts, which included a visit by photographer Tomas van Houtryve. The following are his remarks.

Thank you, Tomas. And thanks to Gordon Peterson, to Cora Fisher, Debbie Randolph and the wonderful team at SECCA who have put together this extraordinary exhibition, aimed at using the arts to engage and inform the broadest public in the big global issues that affect us all.

I want to speak a moment about the initial inspiration for NewsArts—a bequest to the Pulitzer Center from my aunt and uncle, Lucille and Carl Harris, who were much beloved members of the Wake Forest faculty—in music and classics—for over four decades.

When Lucille died two years ago she left money in support of the Pulitzer Center’s work. It was unrestricted as to purpose but we wanted to do something with those funds that was true to her own passions—for education, for arts, for this community—and something that would become such an important part of our work overall that it attracted the additional support it would need in order to become a permanent feature of the Pulitzer Center.

As to Lucille and Carl, I’d like to quote a few words from my wife, Kem Knapp Sawyer, a contributing editor at the Pulitzer Center, a children’s book writer, and a very dear friend of Lucille and Carl – who knew Kem from the time we were in college, who led the service and music at our marriage, and who gave us and our family their wholehearted love and support in everything we have tried to do.

Kem very much wanted to be here tonight. I’m quoting from what she said a few weeks ago when we launched NewsArts at Wake Forest:

As a lover of music and an accomplished pianist and teacher, listening was a necessary skill, and for Lucille highly honed. Who among us who knew Lucille did not always find her willing and eager to hear us out? She made each of us feel we held a special place in her heart and—what’s more—that we had a special role to play on this earth.

And then there was Carl, the Greek professor, who held knowledge and education in the highest regard. Who said that teaching was “not so much an occupation but a way of life.” Who wished nothing more, he said, than “to awaken and stimulate joy in the use of the mind.” Who took great pleasure in intellectual activity—all the while hoping to instill in his students a feeling of self-worth. Who—like Lucille—believed that “human knowledge must be integrated with some high moral purpose or spiritual ideal if it is to be a blessing and not a curse to mankind."

So tonight we thank Lucille and Carl both for their support of the NewsArts initiative and for their inspiration.

But to get from inspiration to a real-life initiative required something more—the serendipity of common interests among our journalist grantees, our national news-media partners, our educational networks across the country and, not least, the extraordinary arts and education community of Winston-Salem.

It started last winter when Tomas reached out to us from Paris, seeking support for a project he wanted to do on the flow of refugees across Europe. He had strong interest from the New Yorker, he told us, but he said that he also had a commission to create an installation for a museum in North Carolina – a place called SECCA. I said I was quite familiar with that museum, having grown up a mile or so away, and that Winston-Salem was also home to Wake Forest, one of the Pulitzer Center’s strongest Campus Consortium partners.

That led to our introduction to Gordon, Cora, and Debbie, and through them to SECCA’s educational connections with the WS-Forsyth County Public Schools, the Arts Council, UNC School of the Arts, Wake Forest, and more. As it happens I already was familiar with one of those partner institutions, the arts magnet program at R.J. Reynolds High School. I had attended Reynolds way back when, in the 1960s, and had met arts administrator Karen Morris and principal Leslie Alexander during a reunion visit last year. I knew Reynolds was a perfect match for us, a place where we could pilot innovative arts engagement with journalism that we could then make available to all schools, everywhere, through our online curricular tools.

So we agreed to fund Tomas’s project. As it happens there are three other Pulitzer Center photographers represented in the Dispatches exhibit too – Larry Price, Sim Chi Yin, and James Whitlow Delano, with projects on the environmental and health effects of mining and climate change. If you haven’t yet studied their work in the exhibit I hope you will.

You’ve just heard Tomas describe his own remarkable projects for “Dispatches,” on drone warfare and on refugees. He has been sharing that work all week—with students at Paisley, Parkland, the Arts-Based School, and more. Other “Dispatches” artists will be in the schools in coming weeks and hundreds of students have already been to SECCA to explore “Dispatches” first hand.

This afternoon Tomas and Reynolds photography teacher Phil Bennedetti worked with students on drone photography. Five dance classes at Reynolds are preparing artistic responses to the “Dispatches” show, with similar initiatives under way from music and English literature classes.

Some of you were with us at Wake Forest last month, for the talk by Scott Anderson on “Fractured Lands,” our project on the Middle East with the New York Times that took up an entire issue of The New York Times Magazine this past summer. That was part of 
“Dispatches” too, with Wake Forest theater students exploring how to make dramatizations out of the characters so richly detailed in “Fractured Lands.” And students at the Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago, meanwhile, have just devoted eight weeks to a study of “Fractured Lands” and the creation of beautifully written children’s books on the characters Scott profiled.

And this is just the beginning. Next spring we’re bringing another Pulitzer Center journalist, Jason Motlagh, to Winston-Salem. He has undertaken nearly a dozen reporting projects for the Pulitzer Center, among them an award-winning exploration of the Rana Plaza textile plant collapse in Bangladesh that claimed nearly 1,100 lives. At Reynolds he’ll be working with local educational consultant Diana Greene and two journalism classes, leading students through a three-week curriculum aimed at creating video documentaries on the history of textiles in Winston-Salem and around the world—and on the very specific connections between the clothes we wear and the lives of people far away.

I hope you can tell how excited we are about NewsArts and the potential we think it has –- here in Winston-Salem and around the world. The political campaign we have just experienced is a sobering reminder of the need for informed, civil debate, and for reaching out beyond our own choirs to explore together the common challenges we all face.

I said at the beginning that a bequest from Lucille and Carl had made it possible for us to get NewsArts under way. For it to become the permanent presence we seek, with Winston-Salem the hub for educational engagements that reach the world, we need your support.

I’m grateful that Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, the IPLACe arts initiative at Wake Forest, and the Arts Council via its support for SECCA, have all contributed to our activities this first year. I’m hopeful that as NewsArts touches lives across the region, and beyond, that others will join us in this work.

And meanwhile many thanks to Tomas, to our friends at SECCA, and to all of you for being with us tonight.

Visit WFDD to listen to Tomas van Houtryve's interview with David Ford.