Willamette students explore the cost of art through Shuchat Projects
Coming back into the room, Parker Jones (‘23) knew that the mannequin would be there. He’s the one who put it up–just a foam head on a broomstick and a box, dressed in one of Jones’ hoodies, with a hefty bottle of apple juice for structural support. The mannequin sure looked different, however, in the darkness outside his window: “Actually recording it,” he said, “and creating the spooky ambience, became something totally new, became fear.”
Upon jumpscaring himself, Jones realized that all was going according to plan. His final project for the Shuchat Arts Fellowship Program was to create six works of art which represented Paul Ekman’s six basic emotions. He presented the mannequin and other works from late August to early September of this year. Shuchat is a program which provides annual $5,500 stipends to Willamette students majoring in art, music or theater.
The stipend covers eight weeks of work, time in which this year’s Shuchat fellows created their projects.
For Mia Apodaca (‘24), their project was a story that needed to be told: “I started noticing that we did a lot of dead white man plays [in theater classes]... but how do you find those people you don’t hear about? We tend to be like, ‘oh, my story’s already been told. I don’t have to make a space for myself. I can observe.’ But as a POC in a white-dominated school, in a white-dominated industry, I had to realize that I had to push for my story.”
Apodaca’s project is a play titled “Ladybug: What More Can I Be?” The protagonist Ladybug navigates life, love and loss, and under-represented voices are at the play’s heart. Apodaca wanted a play by a Latine playwright, played by Latine actors and made with a Latine audience in mind. The decision to have a nearly all-Latine cast was a difficult one, but anything less, they said, would be a disservice to their work.
When she and her family moved to Oregon, Emerald Russell (‘24) realized a similar need to tell her own story. Russell—just a kid at the time—was thinking about how happy she was to be escaping racism. “Oregon is liberal”, she was told. “It won’t be so bad there.”
Then she was told of the Oregon sundown towns. “I got warned,” she said, “like, you better watch out.” She saw the murder of George Floyd and other innocent Black lives: “Especially at college, I saw performatism at its best when it comes to social issues. I have seen racism in settings both small and large, [and] ever so sly it is not thought to be racist…as long as someone stays under the guise of being woke, it is deemed to be good enough.”
Seeing parallels between 2020 and the 1960s, Russell looked to the life of Aretha Franklin. Already, she was taking notes for what would eventually become her final project: a concert chronicling the history of Black activist music from the 1940s to the present, with racial violence across the nation and tokenism and microaggressions at home forming the backdrop to her artistic process. After a lot of work and a long time coming, Russell’s concert What Moves Your Soul has a debut date of November 6 at 3 p.m. in Smith Auditorium.
Other Fellows saw their visions change as they worked: “Initially I just wanted, like, a string quartet and to add some synth,” Matthew Quirarte Valencia (‘23) said, “but as I kept going I figured, okay, maybe I wanna expand my instrumentation, I wanna write for a whole symphony maybe. Then I started writing this piece…and I started writing that with every orchestral instrument under the sun.”
Quirarte Valencia’s project is a soundtrack for a fantasy videogame. The game itself doesn’t exist, but that isn’t important. “You don’t even have to play the video game, you just listen to the soundtrack,” he said. He plans on a release of the project’s website in the coming weeks and hopes the project itself will soon follow.
About his hopes for “The M.I.D.I. String Quartet,” Valencia said, “I feel like, if I can get somebody to cry [with my music] or just feel inspired, I feel like I’ve done my job.”
In contrast, Oak Phoenix (‘23) found his successes more in participants’ happiness. Perhaps the greatest of these successes was seeing his participants hugging. He also loved adding more souvenirs to his and Jones’ studio.
Pulling out one such souvenir, he said, “It’s just an ass.” He chiseled it out of a sheet of metal, and it now sits to the right of the mannequin. “That was one of the pieces that inspired this summer project, because like, let’s make it fun, let’s make intimacy less taboo.”
That’s what Phoenix’s project is all about. Inspired by his Catholic school sex education—or lack thereof—he explored the ways in which young people have been misinformed about sex, and ways to improve the conversation around sex. He presented the project from late August to early September. It consisted of intensive conversations, anonymous confessions, interactive art and introspection.
One of Phoenix’s pieces made it to his final presentation, but he doesn’t know whether it was successful. “Because the concept for it was…you play music that you like, that makes you feel confident, and just dance in the space where no one else can see you. And truthfully, I don’t know if anyone did it, because I never walked in and saw someone doing it…maybe it’s not my place to know if anyone actually did it.”
So why did the Shuchat Fellows do it? Why do many continue to do it—this grueling process of making art, sometimes art that just gets thrown away, or that risks going unseen after so much effort? Why, to make Phoenix’s example a metaphor, do six people spend their time setting stages on which they can only hope people will dance?
To change the world. To create something beautiful. To bring people together. To make mistakes.
Jones hesitated when asked how he imagined the perfect version of his project. Then, with a confident grin, he said, “I think failure was the perfection.”
Note: Danny Davis (‘23), another of the Shuchat fellows, did not respond to an interview request. Her project includes voiceover work for advertisements, audiobook narration, corporate training and descriptive audio for film and television.