A BU Professor, Two Alums Win City of Boston Fellowships

Filmmaker, writer, and artist receive $10,000 grants


Performance artist Marilyn Arsem (CFA’73) outside the Museum of World Culture in Sweden holding several gallons of melting peppermint ice cream. Photo courtesy of Marilyn Arsem.

Marilyn Arsem has been called the godmother of performance art in Boston.

Arsem (CFA’73) walked for miles across Svalbard, Norway’s thawing permafrost in the Arctic Circle, to deliver vegetables, and purified water for six hours in a coastal town in Taiwan, both for performance art pieces exploring environmental concerns. She screamed in unison with riders on the world’s tallest free-fall ride in Sweden. And she did it while cradling 11 gallons of melting peppermint ice cream in her arms.

“I am always trying to challenge myself to do something different and create something new,” says the Jamaica Plain resident. “I don’t get bored. There’s always something to discuss, to think about.”

Arsem is one of five winners of the city of Boston’s inaugural Artist Fellowship Awards, administered by the Boston Cultural Council and honoring “exceptional original artistic work.” Also receiving one of the $10,000 grants are two others with BU ties: BU Creative Writing Program alum Dariel Suarez (GRS’12) and Mary Jane Doherty, a College of Communication associate professor of film

More than 300 people applied for the fellowship, and a panel of 27 art and culture experts from city institutions selected the recipients.

“It was a very, very difficult jury process,” says Julie Burros, chief of arts and culture for the city of Boston. “We had such a wealth of outstanding applicants.”


Dariel Suarez (GRS’12) finds time to write before work on weekdays and on Sundays at his home in Brighton. Photo by Jake Belcher.

Fiction writer Dariel Suarez says his grant will help him continue work on his second book, which is about human trafficking and is set in South Florida, Latin America, and his native Cuba. The novel, he says, explores the ways that people endure adversity.

“I see the world as complex and nuanced,” Suarez says. “Life is not as happy as we think, but it’s not as terrible as we like to think either.”

Suarez immigrated to Florida from Havana when he was 14 and started writing fiction for a class at Palm Beach Community College. A teacher liked his work and encouraged him to continue.

Author Dariel Suarez as a boy in Cuba

Suarez as a boy in Cuba.

He did, with gusto. He earned a master’s degree in fiction at BU, where he was a founding editor of Middle Gray Magazine.He’s remained in Boston and has published several short stories in literary magazines and journals, as well as a collection titled A Kind of Solitude, which was a finalist for the New American Press Fiction Prize and the Autumn House Press Fiction Contest.

Suarez completed his debut novel, The Playwright’s House, about a Cuban political prisoner, last year. Creative Writing Program director Ha Jin, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of creative writing and a National Book Award–winning author of several novels and short stories, says that Suarez writes with energy, exuberance, and psychological acuity. “The straightforward prose adds gravity and earnestness to what is undoubtedly a remarkable novel,” he says.

Suarez lives in East Boston and works full-time as the head of faculty and curriculum at the Boston creative writing center GrubStreet. He is also a member of the Back Porch Collective, a Boston writers’ group with members from around the world.

Mary Jane Doherty has taught at BU for 27 years. She also brings stories to life with passion, although hers are not fictional. For the last two years, she has been filming the Boston Children’s Chorus, exploring how the group uses the power of song to transcend barriers of race and economics among its young members.

The grant, says Doherty, is a windfall and will allow her to pay for sound production engineering for the project.

Mary Jane Doherty

Mary Jane Doherty has taught at BU for 27 years; she produces her own nonfiction narrative documentaries, which have received critical praise. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi.

“The soundtrack is everything,” she says.

After many years producing commissioned work, Doherty, who lives in the Back Bay, returned to making her own films in 2007. Her narrative documentaries do not use scripted action, staging, or interviews. When she begins filming with her handheld camera, she says, she doesn’t know how a story will end.

One of her first self-produced films, Secundaria, chronicles the lives of three teen dancers striving to win spots with Cuba’s renowned Ballet Nacional. The film was a New York Times Critics Pick, and was described by the paper as a “lucid, watchful portrait of young ballet dancers desperately trying to plie their way out of poverty.”

The trailer to Doherty’s film Secundaria, about aspiring Cuban ballet dancers.

Doherty’s work has taken her in unimagined directions. Last year, she learned that Rainer Weiss, an MIT professor emeritus, whose work was the subject of one of her earliest films as a student, had won the Nobel Prize in physics.

Stay tuned.

“I’m going to film them again, 35 years later,” Doherty says.

Performance artist Marilyn Arsem studied directing as a BU undergrad, but thought it was too conventional. Instead, she founded Mobius, Inc., a collaborative of artists in Boston. For nearly three decades she was also a School of the Museum of Fine Arts faculty member, retiring in 2014. That same year, the MFA honored her with its Maud Morgan Prize, given to a woman who has demonstrated creativity and vision and has made significant contributions to the contemporary art landscape. Arsem is the first performance artist to win the $10,000 prize. These days, she is in demand globally, with upcoming performances in Venice, Taiwan, and Belfast.

Arsem isn’t sure how she will use the city’s grant, but she is currently considering projects about 19th-century feminism in Boston and the life of one of her Massachusetts ancestors, who was a governess for the family of writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.

“I’m interested in making art that is human-scale, that responds to particular places and issues and politics and materials,” Arsem says. “The experience is created the same time viewers are watching it.”

Find more information about Boston Cultural Council grants or apply here

Author, Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megwj@bu.edu.