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Giving Graduating Artists a Head Start

Kahn Awards honor a musician, stage designer, and painter

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Graduates often face a dreaded catch-22: you can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience until you get a job. Classical music performance graduates sometimes confront a slightly different version of the dilemma.

“You cannot get a good job without a good instrument,” says Ivana Jasova (CFA’15), who graduated with a Doctor of Musical Arts in violin performance from the School of Music, “but you cannot get a good instrument without the money and security of a job.”

Now, thanks to the $10,000 she’ll receive as one of this year’s three recipients of an Esther B. and Albert S. Kahn Career Entry Award, intended to help College of Fine Arts students transition from school to career, Jasova will be able to buy the violin she needs. The two other Kahn Award recipients are Courtney Lynn Nelson (CFA’15), who earned a Master of Fine Arts in scene design in the School of Theatre graduate design program, and Josué Rojas (CFA’15), who completed a Master of Fine Arts in the School of Visual Arts graduate painting program.

“I am so lucky to get this award,” says Jasova, who expects to spend as much as $25,000 on an instrument. “With the money I have saved up and the award, I’ll be able to afford an instrument, which is something so rare.”

A native of Serbia who came to the United States for college, Jasova earned a Master of Music from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and a bachelor’s from the University of California, Los Angeles, Herb Alpert School of Music. While at BU, she performed regularly with the Boston Civic Symphony and the Cantata Singers and Ensemble. This summer, she will travel to Tanglewood as a fellow of the Tanglewood Music Center.

“I find myself drawn to 20th-century music, also romantic repertoire, pieces that require a lot of passion,” she says. “I also like composers like Bartók, because he incorporates folk tunes into his compositions. Those folk tunes, some of them are familiar to me because I am from Serbia. Those compositions—it’s like a modern setting for something that is ingrained in me, that I grew up with.”

The instrument she’s played for the last several years is on loan, along with a bow, from the Maestro Foundation in Los Angeles. “I am really grateful to them,” she says, noting that all she has to do is pay the insurance on the instrument, which was made in Vienna in 2009.

“The more I play this violin, the more I like it,” she says. “Over the years, it’s just been opening up. The sound has been becoming warmer, richer. It started projecting more. It has a really lush, dark sound. In its lower range, it’s similar to the sound of a viola.”

Normally, Jasova would have to return the instrument upon graduation, but now, she says, she may buy it. “It’s not set in stone yet, but unless I find something else that’s spectacularly spectacular…”

Established in 1985, the Kahn Awards are funded by a $1 million endowment from the late Esther Kahn (SED’55, Hon.’86). They are presented each year to three College of Fine Arts students who are in the final semester of their undergraduate or graduate studies.

Recipients were chosen by Deborah Kahn (SED’67)—a daughter of Esther and the late Albert Kahn (SED’59,’62)—and her husband, Harris Miller, along with a panel of local arts leaders; this year’s panel includes philanthropist Jane Pappalardo (CFA’65), actor Will Lyman (CFA’71), and Anne Hawley, director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Decisions are based on the artists’ statements about how they would use the award to launch their careers as well as the their concern for social issues and the artist’s role in contemporary society.

Stage designer Nelson hopes to use her award to jump-start meaningful productions in places that lack arts organizations. Nelson lights up when she talks about an independent study project that took her and four other CFA students to Charleston, W.Va., in spring and summer 2014 to stage Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People on a floating dock in the Elk River.

The setting was chosen because earlier that year a chemical used in coal production spilled into the river, leaving thousands of residents temporarily without potable water and raising questions about inspections and enforcement. Ibsen’s play is about a small town whose local leaders discover than the town’s health baths are contaminated and disagree about how or whether to reveal the truth.

Working under the auspices of New York City’s New Brooklyn Theatre, the four spent weeks in the area, staying with local residents, learning about their lives, and crafting a production that featured locals as performers.

Nelson says she may use her Kahn Award to create a theater workshop in a nearby part of West Virginia. “For me the Kahn is permission to prioritize these idealistic projects,” she says.

Painter Rojas shares a similar commitment to community and to giving back.

“I am a product of community arts,” says Rojas. “I wouldn’t be doing it had someone not taken the time to give a kid a bucket of paint and a wall.”

He credits the Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center in the Mission District of San Francisco with helping him find his path. A native of El Salvador, he came to California with his mother and three older brothers when he was just a toddler. His introduction to painting came at a fortuitous time: he was 15, and his father, who had remained in El Salvador, died that year.

“I grew up not knowing much of my origins, just a little bit, food and culture,” says Rojas. “Through the arts I was able to find a lot of my own history and origins. So storytelling on the walls via murals really appealed to me. I learned a lot from that.”

Ample evidence of his explorations could be found in his cheerfully cluttered 808 Commonwealth Avenue studio: pictures that blend traditional painting with elements of collage, cartoons, and street art. He has returned to Central America for public art projects, and in Boston, he led a School of Visual Arts partnership with Roxbury Prep Charter Middle School students, teachers, and staff to create a 175-foot street-side mural at the school.

Now Rojas wants to give back, through teaching and community and public art programs, what art has given him.

“I want to tell stories, stories of Americans, international stories, and transnational stories,” he says. “I think it’s important right now, in our era of globalization, for us to understand ourselves and understand other people, those who are interested in coming here and those who are not. As the world is becoming more connected, it’s important to know who we’re connecting with and how we relate.”

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Joel Brown, Staff Writer for BU Today, Bostonia and BU Today Marketing & Communications
Joel Brown

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@bu.edu.

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