Creating Art, Uplifting Communities: Nine CVPA Faculty Members Receive Purks Grants


The College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA) is proud to encourage the continued creative development and expansion of our faculty, offering them time and resources to pursue the interests that energize them beyond their classrooms.

Established in 2018 by Robert Purks, a long time Arts at Mason Board member and supporter, The Robert K. Purks Faculty Enrichment Endowment provides perpetual support to further the research and creative activity of faculty in the College. Faculty across CVPA can apply annually for funds in support of projects that fuel or are fueled by their own creative ideas and artistic expression.

For 2022, nine faculty members from the School of Art, the Film and Video Studies Program, and the Reva and Sid Dewberry Family School of Music will use their grants to explore projects and work that ranges across mediums and styles, connecting communities and sharing new ideas.

Read on to learn more about each faculty member and their projects, in their own words.

Juana Medina, Assistant Professor in the School of Art, will integrate the stories, livelihoods, and cultural practices of Zapotec women of Teotitlán del Valle, Mexico into a children’s book centered on the community’s attainment of financial independence through mastering the art of Oaxaca rug weaving.

“As a children’s book author and illustrator, I'm committed to sharing stories that elicit understanding and increase our sense of empathy. I believe it is possible to do so by increasing fair and accurate representation of marginalized communities in books,” Medina said. “Featuring Vida Nueva’s weavers holds unique value: these individuals, once marginalized and isolated, came together and reclaimed their traditions, finding strength and sense of purpose, while becoming some of the top weavers in Oaxaca.”

Justin P. Sutters, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the School of Art, is attending the highly competitive leadership training program “School for Art Leaders,” hosted by the National Art Education Association (NAEA) in Bentonville, Arkansas. During the year-long training program, Sutters and his cohort will engage in workshops, interactive activities, and reflection exercises with trained mentors to advance his skills as an arts educator.

“Personally, [the NAEA training] is a natural progression in my own development as I continue to take on more leadership within the University,” Sutters said. “Likewise, [the training] increases the visibility of our burgeoning Art Education program on the national level and adds credibility as a graduate program at a Research I Institution. This truly is an enriching opportunity for my development as an artist, educator, researcher, and leader."

Peter Kimball, an adjunct faculty member within Film and Video Studies, is bringing his award-winning American Sign Language play “Millstone,” to the big screen, with the funds awarded from Purks financing on-set ASL interpreters and ASL coaches during the film’s pre-production.

“I am shooting the film version of [Millstone’s] script with an entirely deaf cast and entirely in American Sign Language,” Kimball said. “The story does not deal with deafness nor does it directly address the characters’ deafness at all. Instead, the characters simply happen to be deaf. I believe it is important to create art that does not only include people living with disabilities, but that also allows them to be whole, complicated individuals not defined by their disability.”

Robert W. Gillam, Director of Music Technology in the Dewberry School of Music, is using his expertise and abilities as an electro-acoustic composer to research, write, and share music amplifying the benefits of National Parks.

“As a composer-in-residence I [will be] living at the National Park location for several weeks to a month, working with the park rangers to learn about the special features of the location while composing music based on my experiences there," Gillam said. “The residency [will] culminate in one or more public concerts at the park with the possibility of live-streaming the concert to an even wider audience. The [Purks] funds will be used to purchase a variety of sensors, connectors, contact microphones and cables to be used in the composition, performance and recording of electro-acoustic music.”

James Justin Plakas, an Assistant Professor in Film and Video Studies and the School of Art, is merging historic photographic processes with motion picture film to create his multimedia project "Camaro Lucinda." With a vision to make the film "colorful, comedic, and visually dynamic," Plakas’s converging of several image-capturing methods is in the pursuit of creating a new, unique, and surreal visual experience for viewers.

“The imagery [of ‘Camaro Lucinda’] will have a graphic quality and involve characters that exist in our world but in surreal scenarios,” Plakas said. “For example, a group of nuns playing tennis or a single clown on an overpass sandwiched by a wall of concrete and an endless blue sky. This work comments on the complicated aspects of representation in modern life. It is increasingly necessary for artists to engage in critical dialog that asks the viewer to scrutinize the media they consume and to question what they are seeing.”

Victoria Ellison, an adjunct faculty member within the School of Art, is attending a workshop in the art of Nihonga—a traditional Japanese mineral painting technique. The workshop, taught in Washington State by authority Judith Kruger, will allow Ellison to expand her artistry and share one of Japan’s oldest art practices with Mason students.

“I’ve experimented with creating Nihonga paints, but find now advanced training, such as Kruger teaches, essential,” Ellison said. “I teach color and contemporary art to students from broad disciplines in the sciences and humanities, and diverse cultural practice is a critical component of my teaching. Studying Nihonga also addresses color science, mineralogy, contemporary paint manufacture, and its environmental impact. Studying Nihonga will enable my future research in the country where it’s been taught for 1,000 years, as well as opportunities for research back at Mason.”

Samirah Alkassim, Assistant Professor in Film Theory, Film and Video Studies, is traveling to Jordan in pursuit of research for her upcoming book “A Journey of Screens in 21st Century Arab Film and Media,” (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2023). Exploring Jordan’s visual media over the last two decades, Alkassim will be visiting Jordan’s Department of the National Library, the Cinema Section of the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation, and the library of Darat Funun to  access their archives of film, film makers, and film history.

“One of the eight chapters [of ‘A Journey of Screens’] focuses on Jordanian cinema, its cinematic and televisual past and present,” Alkassim said. “Aiming to fill in the lack of scholarship on Jordanian cinema, this chapter advances the book’s general study of an array of media –auteur cinema, television series, documentaries and short films –in the context of the changing media-scapes of the last twenty years, as evidence of a “new” modernity that is simultaneously old, commonplace, and provocative.”

Mark Cooley, an Associate Professor within the School of Art, is using the Purks Faculty Enrichment Fund to support the distribution of his documentary "Fighting Indians," which premiered in November at the American Indian Film Institute. The film chronicles the last school in Maine - the homogenously white Skowhegan High School, known as "the home of the Indians" - as they fight to keep their mascot prior to the historic legislation banning Native American mascots in the State's public schools. 

“This landmark legislation marks the fulfillment of a decades-long struggle on the part of the Tribal Nations of Maine to educate the public on the harms of Native American mascotry,” Cooley said. “This is the story of a small New England community forced to reckon with its identity, its colonial history, and future relationship with its indigenous neighbors. It is a story of a small town divided against the backdrop of a nation divided where the 'mascot debate' exposes centuries-old abuses while asking if reconciliation is possible.” 

Edward Knoeckel, adjunct Professor within the Reva and Sid Dewberry Family School of Music, is utilizing the Purks Faculty Enrichment Fund to implement problem-based learning (PBL) methodologies in a Music for Non-Majors course. With the objective to enhance students' learning experiences beyond traditional teacher-based approaches, Knoeckel will be spearheading a pilot study to analyze the effect of implementing the PBL learning style in a music appreciation course at Mason.

“PBL is an approach that maximizes student engagement with course content through group-based problems which motivate formative learning experiences,” Knoeckel said. “This approach is broadly used in the STEM fields, however, there is still a gap in understanding the effectiveness of PBL across disciplines in the arts. Through the course of this funded research, I will see how PBL affects critical and creative thinking as well as self-regulated learning and collaboration skills by transforming the traditional music learning conditions into a PBL treatment for a music appreciation course.”