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Kahn Awards Will Jump-start Careers of Three CFA Grads

This year’s honorees hail from Iran, Chile, and Arkansas

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Putting on a play changed Ghazal Hassani’s life.

Hassani (CFA’16) was studying for a bachelor’s degree in Russian literature and language at the University of Tehran in her native Iran when she decided to stage Anton Chekhov’s one-act play The Anniversary, in Russian.

“I was the producer,” says Hassani, who was also earning a certificate in interior design and wound up designing the set, props, and costumes. The play’s two-performance run was modest—staged in a conference room with a couple of tables and a couple of chairs—but Hassani had found her calling. “I loved it,” she says.

“I thought, I love stories so much, and I love designing, so why don’t I design for stories?” she says. “So I started applying for universities here in America.” She chose the College of Fine Arts School of Theatre MFA scene design program.

Hassani is one of three members of CFA’s class of 2016 to receive this year’s Esther B. and Albert S. Kahn Career Entry Awards. She and the other winners, composer Felipe Pinto D’Aguiar (CFA’16) and painter Leeanne Maxey (CFA’16), will each receive $12,000 to help jump-start their professional career.

James Noone, a CFA assistant professor of scenic design, helped arrange for Hassani to come to BU in 2014. “It was a big leap, very scary, very intimidating,” she says, although she laughs about it now. “I didn’t know anything when I came here—‘what’s a proscenium arch?’”

But soon she was assigned to her first BU production: columbinus, a play about the 1999 Colorado school shooting. Central to her design for the production was a strange, glowing opening at the back of the stage, which she calls the Vortex.

“I was thinking, what is this play about and why do we have to talk about this?” she says. “It’s not something that is just in the past; it’s an ongoing crisis here in America. I wanted to have, like, an open bleeding wound right in the middle of the set to show that it’s here and it’s ugly and it’s terrifying.”

Her design earned a nomination for Best Set Designer by ArtsImpulse Theatre Awards. Since then, Hassani has designed sets for other BU productions, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1984, and The House of Bernarda Alba, as well as a show for New Repertory Theatre’s Classic Repertory Company.

Hassani says that winning the Kahn Award will help support her immediate career plans, which include a move to New York.  

“I can’t separate art from the social and political issues of the world, so I want to create shows that bring the issues I see to the audience,” she says. “The Kahn Award will give me the opportunity to do that. I can choose a project more freely, buy myself the time to focus on it. Also, if I find the right project, I can invest in it too.”

Established in 1985, the Kahn awards are funded by a $1 million endowment from the late Esther Kahn (SED’55, Hon.’86) and are presented each year to three CFA students in the final semester of their undergraduate or graduate studies. Winners are chosen based on proposals from students detailing how they would use the award to launch their careers, their concern for social issues, and their take on the artist’s role in contemporary society.

Each of this year’s recipients has traveled a long way—both literally and figuratively—to reach this moment in their lives.

Felipe Pinto D'Aguiar

Felipe Pinto D’Aguiar (CFA’16) has graduated from playing folk/pop in his native Chile to composing for an ensemble of traditional Chinese instruments in Shanghai, where he will travel this fall. Photo by Cydney Scott

D’Aguiar had seen much of the world before coming to the School of Music for his doctoral degree. He grew up in Santiago, Chile, and started acoustic guitar around age 12, playing music he describes as typical folk/pop stuff. Mostly self-taught, he moved on to playing jazz and then classical music before taking lessons. He had started writing music by the time he was 16.

He eventually attended a school in Chile he compares to Berklee College of Music, the Instituto Profesional Escuela Moderna de Música, where he earned a degree in music education. He then taught music in both high school and university classes around Santiago. He later earned a master’s at Australia’s University of Melbourne, where he studied composition. While there, one of his pieces was recorded by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. A friendship between his Melbourne teacher Elliott Gyger and Joshua Fineberg, a CFA professor of music, was instrumental in bringing him to Comm Ave, along with the combination of BU’s music program and the city’s lively music scene.

D’Aguiar says that he does most of his composing now on a computer, not a guitar. With the wide range of samples available, it’s easy to hear what a piece might sound like when played on traditional instruments. But he is also beginning to incorporate more purely electronic sounds in his music.

“I now feel more comfortable knowing what I want to take from the electronic world,” he says. “You see all these things, and they are like amazing toys, and you can easily get lost just playing with the toys. But now I have more clarity on what my music needs and how my music can benefit from those tools.”

On his website, D’Aguiar writes: “More than an architect of sound, I consider myself a narrator of sonic journeys and my intention is to propose—through microcosms or imaginary landscapes—moments of reflection for exploring part of the subjective impressions that subtly link the individual with the collective.”

One essential item D’Aguiar plans to buy with some of his Kahn Award money is a new computer, which will allow him to continue his composition work. But he’ll use the bulk of it to support another project, he says.

Last year, he spent 10 days studying at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, through a connection made by his mentor Fineberg. D’Aguiar is now writing a piece for traditional Chinese instruments, and the award will help fund his travel to Shanghai in September to attend rehearsals and performances by a conservatory ensemble. And later in the year, he and the ensemble will travel to Salzburg, Austria, for more performances.

Writing for instruments he knew little or nothing about until recently has required a change in the way he usually composes. “Normally when I compose I am thinking of the instruments in a more idiomatic way,” he says. “I am working on this piece in a more abstract way, and the orchestration will come later—it’ll be the last part of the process, rather than writing from the instruments.”

Leeanne Maxey

The work of painter Leeanne Maxey (CFA’16) is in some ways a reaction to her conservative Midwestern upbringing. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

Maxey earned a BA in graphic design from the University of Central Arkansas, and later worked as a sign maker for Whole Foods before arriving at BU. Her paintings address aspects of lesbian identity. In addition to earning an MFA in painting from the School of Visual Arts, she also received a graduate certificate in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at BU.

“I first learned to deal with paint from my grandmother,” says Maxey. “She painted with oils before I was born. She painted family portraits and landscapes. She watched me during the day while my parents worked, and started painting with watercolors so I wouldn’t get into the oils. So I learned to paint watercolors from her, and that’s what I’ve always painted with.”

The bodies Maxey paints are of herself or her partner. “It’s all talking about nature and the body,” she says, “and how historically women’s bodies and the landscape have been subjects of exploratory discovery and conquest narratives.”

If that sounds highly politicized, the pieces themselves playfully mix images of body parts with those of flowers and leaves, often in repeating patterns. There’s also the occasional visual inside joke for lesbian viewers. “I use suburban grass and flowers to talk about how we’re reconstructing nature, and then we use our ideas about nature to reinforce stereotypes and expectations about the body and sexuality.”

The subjects of Maxey’s paintings are a significant departure from the conservative household she grew up in. Her parents are Evangelical Christians who took their children to church several times a week. She says she and her family remain in touch, despite their refusal to accept her sexuality.

“It’s kind of rough,” she acknowledges. “Part of the reason I paint about these things is to give them an entry point into my life and let them look at something and try to understand, even though they don’t want to.”

Maxey says she plans to use some of her Kahn award to establish a working studio in Brooklyn, N.Y., when she moves there next month. The money will also enable her to purchase a table saw, a miter saw, and other tools.

Kahn award recipients are chosen by members of the Kahn family and a changing trio of local arts leaders. On the panel this year were Deborah Kahn (SED’67) and Linda Green (SED’63), daughters of Esther and the late Albert Kahn (SED’59,’62), along with Deborah’s husband, Harris Miller, and their son, Derek Miller. The arts leaders were Louise Kennedy, WBUR senior editor, education, Peggy Fogelman, newly installed director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and Jane Pappalardo (CFA’65), a philanthropist and chair of the Council for the Arts at MIT.

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Joel Brown, writer, BU Today at Boston University
Joel Brown

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

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