University of Georgia

Shelter Projects: Willson Center fellowships support creative communities

Photography By Jason Thrasher, Sean Dunn
person in a mask
Ashley Crooks-Allen’s Shelter Project is a series of poems reflecting on the experience of living through an era of protests for racial justice while in isolation. “I’m grieving with my community, and you would want to reach out to people, but that’s creating this extra layer of difficulty.” (Photo by Sean Dunn)

As shelter-in-place orders began to take effect nationwide in April amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Alden DiCamillo was busy trying to help. Since finishing their MFA from the Lamar Dodd School of Art, the Athens interdisciplinary artist had been “trying to figure out how to be an artist, both in a freelance sense, and also in a ‘this is just what I do’ sense.”

DiCamillo was devoting most of their time to helping launch the Athens Mutual Aid Network, a grassroots organization that strives to connect community members in need with local resources, both in the government and nonprofit sectors and on a neighbor-to-neighbor level. The work was important and rewarding, but it didn’t pay the bills.

At the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, director Nicholas Allen and his staff were looking for ways to help support the center’s constituents, like DiCamillo, who might be struggling. Could an intervention be shared with the community at large?

person in a mask
Alden DiCamillo’s Shelter Project is a community-sourced, arts-based ’zine that will be published both online and in print. “It’ll extend to imagery and photography,” DiCamillo said, “in order to create a narrative of this time and what we imagine things might be, moving forward.” (Photo by Sean Dunn)

Enter the Shelter Projects, a new series of $500 micro-fellowships designed to support graduate students and community-based artists and practitioners in the creation of shareable reflections on their pandemic experience through the arts and humanities.

“The Willson Center is grateful to be part of a diverse, vibrant and creative community, which the pandemic put great stress upon,” said Allen, who holds an endowed chair in humanities in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “Appreciating this, and knowing how fundamental the arts and humanities are to our collective understanding of this disaster, we wanted to support two vulnerable groups, local artists and graduate students, to negotiate this time practically and imaginatively.”

Support came from the Graduate School, the Arts Council and the Franklin College. Flagpole, the Athens alternative weekly newspaper, signed on as a partner to help spread the word of the fellowships and, ultimately, to help promote the projects when they are featured in an online exhibition during UGA’s Spotlight on the Arts festival this November. The Willson Center issued a call for submissions in late March and, in early May, 34 micro-fellowships were awarded by a committee representing the sponsoring UGA units and Flagpole.

The funded projects were selected from over 100 proposals representing more than 25 departments, schools and colleges across the university, as well as the Athens and Georgia communities at large. Selected proposals included projects in music, film/video, theater, drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, poetry, short stories, publishing and other media.

For awardees like DiCamillo, the support of the fellowships was timely and welcome.

“It gave me a little bit of breathing room,” they said.

Featured visual art

Jere Morehead portrait

“David played a central role in laying out the case for why a college of engineering at UGA was going to be critical to all of the other research efforts we were undertaking. When you look now at the growth of UGA research expenditures, I think you can tie it all back to what happened with the launch of the College of Engineering … He's so self-effacing. He never wants to take credit for anything that happens at the institution, and yet so many good things have happened thanks to his extraordinary leadership.”

Jere W. Morehead – President, University of Georgia

Nicholas Allen portrait

“The competition nationally and internationally is fierce, and even in the nine years I’ve been here, the research reputation of the university has changed positively a great deal. When I first came to UGA, some of my colleagues in Europe asked why Georgia, and why not a higher ranked university. I was asked the question: Why was I doing such a thing? And now we're approached by many of the universities that we would have wanted to approach before. They now come to us. So that’s my answer, which David helped our community get to.”

Nicholas Allen – Endowed Professor of the Humanities and Director, Willson Center for the Humanities and Arts

Larry Hornak portrait

“I attribute a lot of David’s success to his personal operating style—how he talks to people and the trust he develops in them. With faculty, he has a trust level with them that has to do with his plainspokenness. If he can’t do something, he’s going to come right out and tell you, ‘I can’t do it.’ And he does it in such a good way that people know that he would do it if he could, but here’s what he can do.”

Larry Hornak – Associate Vice President for Integrative Team Initiatives, Office of Research

Susan Shows portrait

“He has an exceptional eye for research talent. He looks at it strategically: Do they fill a gap at the university? Will they be able to recruit the very best grad students? Will they be able to compete effectively for the big grants and change the landscape of the research enterprise in a positive way? One of the important things he says to them is, ‘If you come to UGA as a GRA Eminent Scholar, you’re going to be part of something bigger than the university.’ And I think that resonates with people of the caliber we’re recruiting.”

Susan Shows – President, Georgia Research Alliance

Meg Amstutz studio portrait

“I can’t even count the number of search committees he's chaired, or program reviews he’s participated in, or times he’s represented us in Washington. For our last SACS reaccreditation, he spent time brainstorming with committees to get ideas, and that’s how he helped bring forward ideas that led us to the First Year Odyssey program. He really thinks about the university as a whole. He’s participating as vice president for research, but he’s also thinking about how to move the whole institution.”

Meg Amstutz - Associate Provost and Chief of Staff, Office of the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost

Jeanne Cochran portrait

“He’s a researcher. He’s a scientist. He understands the science, and what he doesn’t understand? That’s his homework for the night. He’ll go home and read it. This man was on call 24/7 for how many, 16 years? That can’t be an easy life, but he did it so well. And David was the epitome of kindness to me, especially as I cared for my aging parents. I don’t know of many bosses who would have been so understanding, and I am forever grateful.”

Jeanne Cochran – longtime Associate to the Vice President for Research (retired)

Nancy Manley portrait

“He made it possible to do big things in research here. He injected a positive, can-do attitude to research. I think people feel like, ‘I want to do this thing. I can do it.’ And I don’t think that people quite had that facilitated atmosphere toward being aggressive and being ambitious in their research. David’s made it possible to be ambitious in research at UGA. And that’s a big thing, right? It’s a total cultural change.”

Nancy Manley – Professor and Department Head, Genetics

Jessica Orbock studio portrait

“One of the most important things he’s accomplished is the deep relationship that we've developed with the Georgia Research Alliance while he’s been here and the ability to recruit, strategically, high-quality faculty. And not just hire on a random basis but with strategic direction to intentionally build both new hubs of excellence and deepen the expertise we have in traditional strengths. When you consider the relationships and resources GRA brings to the table for that kind of recruitment, we would not have been able to accomplish everything that we have absent David’s relationship with GRA.”

Jessica Orbock – Senior Legal Advisor, Office of Research

Al Darvill portrait

“I chaired the search for vice president for research in 2005, and that’s when I met David the first time. When we interviewed him, it was very clear that he had a very diverse perspective of research and what it should be. It just seemed like he was the right fit at the right time. And he was just an easygoing person, too, which made the committee feel really comfortable with him.”

Al Darvill – Director, Complex Carbohydrate Research Center

Carl Bergmann studio portrait

“The thing that David understands better than anybody is the importance of leverage. One of the things he has done incredibly well is master how to put modest amounts of money into something to make much, much bigger things happen. He may only invest 10%, 15%, or sometimes up to a quarter or a third of it, but we get huge returns—because without that investment, the thing would not have happened.”

Carl Bergmann – Associate Vice President, Office of Research

Jennifer Frum portrait

“The great thing about David is that he truly understands the land- and sea-grant missions and appreciates them. He has always been interested in how the research we do at UGA improves quality of life in the state of Georgia. He has been a big cheerleader for UGA’s outreach programs and a great partner in exploring new ways to extend the knowledge and research generated here to solve challenges in the state. I’m really going to miss him for that.”

Jennifer Frum – Vice President for Public Service and Outreach

Jack Hu portrait

“He’s a great people person. He works well with the faculty. He works well with other academic leaders, deans and other vice presidents and vice provosts. He is also a servant leader, in my view, which means that he’s focused on supporting the institution and the faculty. It’s the right leadership style.”

Jack Hu – Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost

Kevin Burt studio portrait

“His communication skills and breadth of knowledge about so many different areas of research are kind of his strong suit. He can take anything that’s written and make it better. He can improve on what we produce and make it better, make it cleaner, make it easier to understand. He’s just got that touch for communication, and it comes across in his talks. When he talks, he’s very clear and persuasive and can sell a good story about research at Georgia.”

Kevin Burt – Director of Business and Human Resources, Office of Research

Shelley Hooks portrait

“He really has a sincere enthusiasm for the value of research and scholarship. I think his biggest accomplishment is the culture change that has happened largely due to his efforts. The programs he’s built, the administrative structure he’s built and the people he’s hired—it’s fundamentally changed the culture of research at UGA. It’s a very different place to do research than it was in 2004 when I joined the institution. He deserves a lot of the credit for that, he and the people he assembled around him.”

Shelley Hooks – Associate Vice President, Office of Research

Ted Ross portrait

“David is very good at just listening. He might have his own thoughts and ideas, but most of the time when I’m in meetings with him, his No. 1 goal is to listen to each person, and he reflects back to make sure he understands exactly what they’re saying. I’ve been in very few meetings where David has started off with, ‘This is how I want to go’ or ‘This is what I want to do.’ He may have that already in his head, but generally the team is who is bringing those ideas forward.”

Ted Ross – GRA Eminent Scholar in Infectious Diseases and Director, Center for Vaccines and Immunology

Derek Eberhart portrait

“He doesn’t feel he has to have all the answers; he can convene folks and listen to them and hear their input, and then plot a path forward. Another thing that comes to mind is his accessibility. He doesn't hide behind a generic email—people email him directly. That’s probably a blessing and a curse from his perspective, but he’s responsive whenever a challenge is brought to his attention.”

Derek Eberhart – Associate Vice President and Executive Director of Innovation Gateway, Office of Research

Chris King studio portrait

“He hires good people and then gives them enough autonomy to do their jobs. He's got his head in the game when you need his head in the game, but he’s not a micromanager. He doesn’t hover over you, he provides autonomy. He provides general guidance on where he would like to see the program go and what it needs to do, and then he’ll stand back and let you do it.”

Chris King – Associate Vice President, Office of Research

Jason Locklin portrait

“We wouldn’t have the New Materials Institute today if it weren’t for David Lee. David bought into the vision we had for replacing materials that are persistent in the environment and developing and using an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to tackling large problems like that. He bought into that really early and helped mentor and support the development of the institute. He’s been supportive all along, and there would be no New Materials Institute if it weren’t for David.”

Jason Locklin – Professor of Engineering and Chemistry; Director, New Materials Institute

Jill Frazier Tincher studio portrait

“I love how David celebrates the successes of others—whether it is faculty who get an award, employees who get a promotion, or when he sees you receive positive feedback from someone else. He celebrates alongside you. He wants people to know we are doing a good job and he appreciates us. Each time, he demonstrates his appreciation for our successes.”

Jill Tincher – Executive Director, Sponsored Projects Administration

Michelle Momany studio portrait

“One thing I appreciate is David’s willingness to listen to different perspectives and adapt. I worked closely with him during COVID, co-chairing the research resumption working group. The research resumption plan we came out with was not what he envisioned going into it. All of the discussions with the working group made us realize there was an easier, more fair way to get research going again, so he changed direction. In the end we were able to get research restarted much quicker and more safely at UGA than in many other places because he listened to the working group. Also, during the initial COVID shutdown, he personally vetted every request for exemptions to allow labs to stay open. It would have been easy to hand that off to someone and let them take the heat for unpopular decisions. But he got into the details and worked to make fair and safe decisions.”

Michelle Momany – Professor of Fungal Biology and Associate Dean, Franklin College of Arts & Sciences

Elizabeth Wright portrait

“David was instrumental in energizing research in the humanities and arts as he recruited and retained strong leadership for the Willson Center for the Humanities and Arts. He has delegated and entrusted the team under Nicholas Allen as they have transformed the center into a true hotbed of innovative research and arts that also nourishes the wider communities in Georgia and beyond. Arts and humanities at UGA now draw on and nourish the vast cultural riches of the communities we serve.”

Elizabeth Wright – Distinguished Research Professor, Romance Languages

Kyle Tschepikow portrait

“David is very thoughtful. He applies a broad aperture to problems, seeing how a seemingly isolated issue connects with many parts of the organization. He is a strong advocate for research in higher education, and that comes across in the meetings and in the interactions that he has with internal and external stakeholders. He also has a very broad scientific understanding, from life sciences to physical sciences—he sees the big picture and is able to apply that broad approach to problems he faces as an administrator.”

Kyle Tschepikow - Special Assistant to the President and Director for Strategy and Innovation, Office of the President

Merryl Alber working in field

“He is incredibly responsive. You can ask him a question, you can send him an email, and he gets right back to you. It’s really impressive, considering all the different things I know he’s juggling all the time. I just know that I don’t have to wait—if I need him, he’s there. I really appreciate that.”

Merryl Alber – Professor of Marine Science and Director, UGA Marine Institute

Ashley Crooks-Allen, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology, is a poet and activist who often presents their work as spoken word performance. Crooks-Allen’s Shelter Project is a series of poems reflecting on their personal experience of the pandemic and the isolation it has imposed.

“When I saw this call,” they said, “I was already in this space of thinking about how to create something that would relate to this moment we’re in and really capture that experience through me, an individual, but also as we move to this virtual encounter with others. Bringing those together was really important to me.”

Also important was the timing of the financial support.

“A lot of the usual opportunities—summer programs for youth, etc., that I would apply to—those are cancelled,” they said. “So, this has been really helpful, to be able to use this time intentionally, for creating.”

man wearing mask
“We still need art. I think that’s something I have struggled with remembering for myself,” said Jace Bartet. “The world needs art, still, and that can include all kinds of things.” Bartet’s Shelter Project is an original composition for six electric guitars. (Photo by Sean Dunn)

The Shelter Project award found local musician Jace Bartet in a similar bind.

“It’s not like I ‘lost my job,’” he said. “It’s like my entire world is … gone. Because I pretty much play music for a living.”

Bartet has been deeply involved in the Athens music scene since before he graduated from UGA in 2006, playing guitar in internationally acclaimed local bands including Reptar and Double Ferrari. His project is a five-minute composition for six electric guitars, which he is recording at home by multitracking his own performances.

“I wanted to make something that was representative of—this will sound so corny —the harmony between people,” Bartet said. “When you have a good feeling with people, when you hang out with them, and you like them … I think that kinship of humanity can be represented in music.”

Art is a great way to create connections between people, according to Crooks-Allen.

“Creating connections between people, I think, connecting with others, is the point of life, of getting to know people and introducing people to your experiences,” they said.

woman outside shielding the sun from her eyes
The university’s support of the Shelter Projects program “conveys the idea that people really care what we are thinking about,” said Kuo Zhang. “Our emotions are valued,” she said. “It is not just our personal concern.” Zhang’s project is a series of poems on the COVID-19 pandemic from the perspective of a Chinese international student in the U.S. (Photo by Sean Dunn)

For poet Kuo Zhang, the power of art is that “it really gives us a lot of strength and makes us think about ourselves and our lives, and the relationships between different people, and how we treat other people, and how they respond to us.”

Zhang recently completed her Ph.D. in language and literacy education at UGA. A native of China who writes in her second language of English, she has published 26 poems in literary journals. Her Shelter Project is a series of poems from the perspective of a Chinese international student in the U.S. during the pandemic.

“We are experiencing a double stress: one is from the COVID-19 virus, and the other is from the society,” she said. “Because COVID-19 has definitely boosted hate crimes against Asian Americans.”

As Zhang’s assertion suggests, the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. has led to a rise in public awareness of racism against Asians and Asian Americans, who have been targeted with discrimination ostensibly related to the virus’ apparent origins in Wuhan, China. At the same time, the international protest movement that emerged in response to the killings of Black Americans Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd has foregrounded a public discourse on systemic racism.

That discourse influenced many of the Shelter Projects. The issues it addresses have always been central to the academic work and artistic practice of some fellowship recipients.

“The current racial climate is not unprecedented in the way that the pandemic was. To a degree, this is how it’s always been,” Crooks-Allen said. “The research I’m doing for my dissertation is looking at Afro-Latinx identity as people use social media in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, specifically. This is a very interesting time to be doing that research.”

The dynamics of dominant and oppressed cultures and identities—and the ways in which they are communicated and chronicled—also informs DiCamillo.

The projects underway are so inspiring that we are asking how we might help more students and citizens express creatively their hopes for a just future, even as we help a little to make a livable present.

– Nicholas Allen, Willson Center director

Photo by Jason Thrasher

“When the pandemic hit, it upended everything,” they said, “but it more or less just pulled back the Band-Aid that we had continuously been putting over marginalized communities, saying, ‘It’s OK, because the larger structure is OK. You guys are fine because the larger structure is OK. No one’s falling apart because the government isn’t falling apart.’ And then we have a pandemic that is now threatening the bodily existence of the entire world, and we’re able to see whose bodies are the most vulnerable and whose bodies are not vulnerable at all.”

Untangling and re-imagining narratives of the past is at the foundation of DiCamillo’s creative philosophy, which in turn informs their drive to activism.

“One of the big questions of my practice as an artist,” DiCamillo said, “is, ‘What is the role of the artist within histories of violence during times when violence is being redefined?’”

Their Shelter Project is a community-sourced ’zine that grew out of an already-underway publishing project with collaborators in Bali and elsewhere in Indonesia. The micro-fellowship offered an opportunity to extend DiCamillo’s work on the ’zine to Athens, they said, in order to create a narrative of this time through media including poetry, short prose and visual art. DiCamillo continues to accept submissions for the ’zine, which will be published both in print and online, at their website and through the Athens Mutual Aid Network, which they continue to support as a key volunteer.

With most of the initial round of projects completed, submitted and awaiting the exhibition in the fall, there is hope that the Shelter Projects program will continue and evolve.

“The response to the program, and the support of our fellow partners, was enormous,” said Allen. “We’d like to expand the Shelter Projects idea to include more parts of our community. The projects underway are so inspiring that we are asking how we might help more students and citizens express creatively their hopes for a just future, even as we help a little to make a livable present.”