ASU News

Powerful new opera 'Guadalupe' blends cultural perspectives

October 6, 2015

The School of Music strives to perform new works on a regular basis as part of its Lyric Opera Theatre season lineup, but it doesn’t often have the chance to present a brand-new show also written by a member of its own faculty.

This November, however, the school is fortunate to showcase the world premiere of “Guadalupe,” a multilingual opera in two acts composed by ASU’s own professor of composition and music theory, James DeMars. Photo by Sean Hoyer Download Full Image

"On behalf of the Lyric Opera Theatre, it is with great anticipation and excitement that we present this performance of ‘Guadalupe,’” says Brian DeMaris, director of the Lyric Opera Theatre. “We are preparing our students for careers in which most of their engagements will be with new works, and it is and will continue to be an integral part of our training. Providing students with opportunities to engage with living authors is an essential part of what we do.”

“Guadalupe” centers on the story of how the Virgin Mary appeared to peasant Juan Diego (Cuauhtlatohuac), near the Aztec Temple of Mother Earth (Tonantzin) near Mexico City between Dec. 9 and 12, 1531. According to Diego’s testimony, Mary was robed in a striking blue color, with rays of light radiating around her. This image of Mary, known as the Virgen de Guadalupe, is central to the traditions of the Mexican Catholic religion and is easily recognizable in art works as an important symbol of that faith. December 12 has since become a popular Catholic holiday to remember this story and celebrate Mexico’s patron saint, who promoted a message of hope and peace.

Other central themes of the opera include the first peace treaty of the Americas, and the revelation of the miraculous, blended portrait of the Aztec and Spanish Mother Mary that inspired peace throughout the Americas.

In May 2008, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Mesa, two debut concerts of the “Guadalupe” musical score were performed as an opera-oratorio – without the costumes and sets that define a traditional opera. The performance was recorded and released by Canyon Records as a co-production with the School of Music. Reviews were glowing: “As the last notes faded I sat awestruck ... this opera was a milestone in the history of contemporary music,” wrote Ruben Hernandez for Latino Perspectives Magazine.

Known for works that explore intercultural collaborations, DeMars says, “Composing this opera provided me a remarkable opportunity to bring together the two sides of my career: the classical works, which include cantatas, concerti and a requiem, and the intercultural works, which feature Native American, Hispanic and African artists performing with traditional classical ensembles.” In 2010, he was honored with the Arizona Governor’s Arts Award for his efforts on this opera.

The November premiere of “Guadalupe” – the first time it will be performed as a full-length opera – also aligns itself with ASU’s mission of commitment to community engagement and connection to place, since it reflects stories and history that are integral to the identity of the borderlands of Arizona and Mexico. This world premiere will be the sixth co-production by the ASU School of Music and Canyon Records, which has been specializing in Native American music since 1951.

Following the final performance on Sunday, Nov. 22, at the Evelyn Smith Music Theater on ASU's Tempe campus, audience members will have the opportunity to participate in a talk-back session with the creators and cast members.

“Composing this opera provided me with a chance to bring together musicians from many cultures for this series of performances, including Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai (Navajo-Ute), and Mexican percussionist/flutist Xavier Quijas Yxayotl (Huichol), as well as the African percussion resources of my long-time colleague Mark Sunkett,” DeMars says.

The opera’s plot revolves around Juan Diego’s efforts to have his vision accepted as a miracle by the Roman Catholic Church, but the deeper, underlying theme is the ever-relevant concept of reconciliation between warring cultures and achieving peace through non-violence.

In voices that blend English, Spanish and Aztec languages, the opera’s powerful notes and dramatic storyline don’t just weave together a fictional story, they address timeless issues that apply to today’s inter-cultural challenges, much as how they did when Juan Diego first saw the visions in 1531.

“The finale of the opera is my favorite part,” DeMars says. “Performers sing about coping with U.S.-Mexico immigration issues and the cultural differences that separate the two nations."

The themes of reconciliation and acceptance recur throughout the opera’s centuries-old storyline, yet audiences will come away feeling equally as awe-inspired and hopeful about the modern-day issues of our borderlands. “I open the opera with a euphoric epiphany, revealing the experience of hope, and close with a final prayer for peace,” says DeMars.

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19-21 and 2 p.m. Nov. 22 at the Evelyn Smith Music Theater on ASU's Tempe campus

Music composed by James DeMars
Libretto by James DeMars, Robert Esteva Doyle and Graham Whitehead
Sung in English and Spanish with English supertitles
Stage Director: Graham Whitehead
Music Director: William Reber
Choreographer: Lauren Margison
Production Designs: Alfredo Escarcega
Costumes, hair and makeup: Sharon Jones
Lighting Design: Jeff Jann

This opera contains mature themes and may not be appropriate for young children.

Ticket prices: $21 for adults; $15 for faculty, staff and alumni; $12 for senior citizens; $10 for group purchases (minimum of 10 tickets); $8 for students.

A $2 handling fee applies to all orders, and a web per ticket purchase fee will apply.

To order tickets, call the Herberger Institute Box Office at 480.965.6447 or visit Box office hours are 11:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2-4 p.m. Saturdays

Heather Beaman School of Music Communications Liaison 480.727.6222

Deborah Sussman Susser

Communications and media specialist, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts


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ASU performance showcases human side of ‘big data’

ASU faculty members visualize bigdata through theater.
September 30, 2015

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2015, click here.

Ask people to picture what data looks like and they might envision something like the opening title sequence of “The Matrix,” where boxy green code rains down a static black background. Ask them to imagine what it sounds like and they might recall the scene in the movie where Neo is traced and his scream devolves into a chaotic jumble of metallic sounds.

Thankfully, a few Arizona State University faculty have come up with a decidedly less terrifying way to experience data somatically.

This Friday, Jacqueline Wernimont, Jessica Rajko and Eileen Standley will present “Vibrant Lives and Data Archives,” an atypical performance installation that aims to inform people about the concept of personal “data shed” by providing an experience in which their data can be seen, felt and heard.

Data shed refers to the nearly 3.5 million bytes of data produced per person, per day. That data is unique to each person because it comes from things like smartphone apps or wearable fitness devices that record a person’s behavior and actions.

But it doesn’t stop at "Bejeweled Blitz" and Fitbits. Everything from the Facebook ads you click on to pacifiers that tell a baby’s temperature produce data.

“There’s all this data that’s flying off of us all the time, but you can’t see it,” said Wernimont, assistant professor in the Department of English whose research focuses on alternative ways of understanding data.

And all of that data, that personal information, is being captured.

Captured by whom and for what purpose, you might ask?

Mostly by mobile-app developers, who often sell it to third-party users, who in turn use the data to develop a profile of an individual in order to create customized consumer experiences.

Wernimont calls them “the guys in the closet.”

“[They] are watching everything that you’re doing and gathering data about that,” she said.

Though that might sound creepy, don’t break out the torches and pitchforks just yet.

Even though there are instances like the one where a father whose daughter had been killed in an auto accident received junk mail from a company that forgot to delete the data they had used to target him — resulting in the phrase “daughter killed in car crash” printed below his address — there are also ways that sharing personal information can benefit us.

“There are lots of instances where (sharing information is) useful. Devices like Fitbits. Those kinds of things are advertised as self-empowering technologies, and for lots and lots of people they really are,” Wernimont said. “So it’s not that they’re good or bad. It’s that they are. And understanding how they work allows us to understand how they shape the world that we see.”

Translating data

One of the things Wernimont, Rajko and Standley hope to accomplish with “Vibrant Lives” is to give people a sense of the sheer amount of personal data they shed every day in a way that more effectively resonates with them.

“A lot of times data is represented in static form through visual presentations of graphs or charts, which is interesting, but doesn’t necessarily give an embodied experience of what that really means,” said Rajko, assistant professor in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, part of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

Watch a video below of the performance in action Friday night.


Rajko met Wernimont after the latter had given a Nexus Lab presentation on her research. Intrigued, Rajko approached Wernimont and they got to talking. Later on, Standley — a clinical professor in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre — joined the mix.

The trio applied for and were awarded funding from a Herberger Institute seed grant as well as an Institute for Humanities Research seed grant to pursue the project that eventually became “Vibrant Lives,” and immediately got to work brainstorming how to illustrate their ideas.

With input from Jamie Winterton, director of strategy with ASU’s Global Security Initiative, they developed a mobile phone application to be used in conjunction with the performance installation.

Upon entering the performance space, attendees can download the app and, as they move through the space, their phones will vibrate or make sounds in direct relation to the amount of data they are producing, or “shedding.”

“How that works is we’re setting up an external server, or an external device, that’s basically capturing all the data in the space. It can identify whose data is being captured and then send that data amount back to the phone.

“So it’s almost sort of like this third-party system, which is sort of a redundant metaphor, I think, for some of the things we’ve been talking about,” Rajko said with a laugh.

Attendees will also have the opportunity to hook their phone up to a device called a woojer, which translates data into vibrations that can be felt.

Humanizing data

“Vibrant Lives” will also feature a group of 20-plus performers made up of ASU students and alumni who will, in a sense, be acting out data.

To describe what that might look like, Wernimont references Wendy Chun, a media theorist at Brown University who says that “devices are promiscuous,” because, Wernimont said, “essentially what they’re doing is saying, ‘Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!’ to the Internet. And the Internet is like, ‘Are you there? Are you there? Are you there? Are you there?’ ”

So attendees can expect a certain amount of interaction with the "Vibrant Lives" performers. They will be clad in costumes coated in colored cornstarch, which will shed particles as they move, reiterating the idea of data shed.

person looking at app on phone

“There’ll be dancers talking to you, or offering you a kinesthetic experience, depending on the level of engagement that the audience wants to (engage in),” Standley said.

She added that “the process becomes a teaching setting in many ways. As well as providing a bridge to the Arizona community and local professional arts setting, students learn from working with us and are also informed in deep ways about the concepts we are researching together.”

The fact that humans play a role in demonstrating what data might look is no accident.

“By having bodies in the room that are interacting with people, we’re making an active argument that this is about people,” Wernimont said. “What you’re feeling vibrate is a person.”

Rajko expounded on that, “Everybody has a body, and human-based data is not possible without humans. So ultimately, if we’re looking at a graph or a chart with data points … that’s not possible without people.

“And so how do we take the distraction of something that separates those two out and bring it back to this?” she asked, reaching out to Wernimont sitting next to her and placing her hands on Wernimont’s arm. “Because ultimately, this is what it’s about.”

Developing 'Data'

“Vibrant Lives and Data Archives” will premier at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 2, in ASU’s Galvin Playhouse. The installation is a “pre-show” that will begin 30 minutes before each performance of Fall Forward!, the kick-off event of Herberger’s dance season, featuring new works created by ASU faculty and guests.

Though this particular iteration of the performance installation focuses on animating a person’s individual data, plans are in the works for future performances that will look at aggregate data — data taken from a group of people.

“This is like a tiny little segment of the bigger project,” Wernimont said.

“Vibrant Lives” will travel this summer to the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria, British Columbia, and later will showcase at Spark! Mesa’s Festival of Creativity in March 2016, where it will feature an added sculptural element composed of what are basically giant woojers, called ButtKickers.

Each performance will build on and make changes to the previous one.

“It’s really important that this is a demonstration of the ways in which art performance is research. Creative and performative is the same as research. This is our lab,” said Wernimont.

ASU News

Exhibit takes whimsical road trip down 'Fossil Freeway'

September 24, 2015

Road-tripping across the American West is a beloved tradition — blacktop snaking across badlands, roadside tourist traps and great diners.

Imagine experiencing it with a paleontologist prone to picturing pterodactyls perched on last-chance gas stations and an artist who plucks giant dragonflies off the pickup windshield. 'Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway' "Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway" with artist Ray Troll and paleontologist Kirk Johnson. Download Full Image

A new exhibit at the Arizona State University Natural History Collection combines a whimsical art exhibit with the gems of the fossil collection to offer an opportunity to learn about evolution, extinction, geology and paleontology.

“Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway” was created by paleontologist Kirk Johnson and artist Ray Troll after they traveled 5,000 miles though the American West, searching for fossils, fossil finders, good stories and the perfect diner cheeseburger.

Troll’s art conjures R. Crumb, if he were trapped in Jurassic Park. He combines humor with accuracy. Yes, he is plucking a giant prehistoric dragonfly off the pickup windshield, but the 2-foot wingspan of M. permiana is as it was.

Nineteen framed color prints depict scenes like dinosaurs running through traffic, car lots and convenience stores. The message: You can find fossils anywhere, even in a cut bank behind a burger joint.

In “Dinosaur Highway,” a late-night view from a truck cab reveals a brontosaurus caught in the headlights.

“Driving around the American West and thinking about dinosaurs, Ray and Kirk often imagined what it would be like to encounter a real dinosaur on the hoof,” read the explanatory note for the painting. “Listening to late-night rock-and-roll radio after driving 400 miles in one day was the best time to spot those imaginary roadside creatures.”

ASU paleobotanist Kathleen Pigg knows both the scientist and the artist. She was instrumental in bringing the exhibit to the university.

Troll’s “art really appeals to people of all ages,” she said.

Several of Pigg’s specimens are featured in the exhibit. She primarily studies plant fossils from the past 65 million years in western North America. Her research team investigates the evolution, biogeographic distribution and adaptations of major flowering plant groups. They collect fossilized fruits, seeds, flowers and leaves and compare them with those of modern relatives.

“We do our own collecting,” she said. “I tend to do a lot of my collecting in the basement of a museum.”

Paleobotanists are few and far between, Pigg said. “We all tend to know each other,” she said. “We don’t get quite the press the dinosaurs do.”

Other fossils from ASU’s collection include three hadrosaurid eggs the size of huge grapefruit and two oviraptor eggs as big as half a sub sandwich. Teeth the length of a man’s hand sit beneath a painting of everything that has ever had saber teeth.

The plethora of fossils across the West is illustrated in the Ultimate Paleo Road Map. It features the main roads Johnson and Troll traveled along, packed with whimsical pteranodons flying over puzzled cows, Wall Drug’s dinosaur in South Dakota, the Teenage Mammoth Mosh Pit of Death, and the world’s largest prairie dog in Oakley, Kansas.

Everywhere ammonites, plesiosaurs, dinohyus (“the Terminator Pig”) uintatheres (knobby-headed saber-toothed herbivores) run and snarl, bite and yawn, scratch and chase cars.

Makes you want to pick up a bucket of fried chicken and head to Delta, Utah, “where trilobites are kings.”

‘Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway’ exhibit

Where: 734 W. Alameda Drive, Tempe.

When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays through Dec. 15.

Public talks: Reception begins at 5:30 p.m., the talk at 6:30 p.m.

• Sept. 28: Peter Wilf, paleobotanist, Pennsylvania State University

• Oct. 19: Bruce Archibald, paleoentomologist, Simon Fraser University

• Nov. 16: Jack Nisbet, naturalist and writer


Scott Seckel

Reporter, ASU Now


ASU News

How to make a star: ASU's Herberger Institute launches new performance season

September 23, 2015

Watching Alexandra Ncube onstage today, starring in the smash hit “The Book of Mormon,” you would never know she suffered from stage fright.

But the Tempe native, who will be part of the touring performance of "Mormon" coming to ASU Gammage on Oct. 20,  says her fear was so severe in her early years of performance that she would try to “just get through” by pretending the audience wasn’t there.   Alexandra Ncube, who returns to Gammage in "The Book of Mormon" this fall, is a Alexandra Ncube, who returns to ASU Gammage in "The Book of Mormon" this fall, graduated from the Herberger Institute's School of Film, Dance and Theatre in 2012. Photo by: Joan Marcus Download Full Image

Ncube credits ASU's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, from which she received a bachelor’s in theater in 2012, with helping her learn to think of the audience as “another character in the scene, that needs to be noticed.”

She says it was “Big Love,” a show presented in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre her junior year at ASU, that “solidified” her love of the program.

“The program was far beyond the curriculum for me,” Ncube says. “It was the relationships with my colleagues and professors, the frustration, the breakthroughs.”

One of the most important things she learned, Ncube says, is that failure is “a gift.”

“I highly respect my professors for creating an environment for me to fail safely and encourage growth in my performance with their direction,” Ncube says. “Failure is the birthplace of new ideas, creation, success.”

This fall sees the launch of another season at Herberger Institute, with more opportunities for rising stars — the future Alexandra Ncubes of the world — to both hone their craft in front of an audience and learn from established stars of the performing arts. 

“The Herberger Institute season creates the space for a profound and enriching exchange among students, faculty and the wider community,” says Steven J. Tepper, dean of the institute. “The season is the culmination of our unique laboratory environment and represents hours and hours of experimentation, revision and creativity. The audience gets to experience the final product and feel the immediacy, passion and excellence that have been forged by the collaboration of brilliant students, renowned faculty and visiting artists."

The season showcases students’ talents in vehicles that run the gamut from Stephen Sondheim’s dark, groundbreaking "Company," presented by ASU’s Lyric Opera Theatre, to “Lasso of Truth,” a recent play by Carson Kreitzer that she describes as “a sexy gender power kaleidoscope.”

The School of Music’s esteemed Visiting String Quartet Series brings the Brentano String Quartet to campus for three concerts in Katzin Hall, as well as workshops and master classes; in addition, the Sonoran Chamber Music series will offer four concerts in Katzin Hall, featuring such stars of the chamber-music world as pianist Gil Kalish and violinist Martin Beaver. The school will also present the world premiere of “Guadalupe,” an opera composed by School of Music professor and Arizona Governor’s Arts Award winner James DeMars.

The School of Film, Dance and Theatre’s MainStage season also includes the dance kick-off event, “Fall Forward!” and features new works created by ASU faculty and guests, using a range of movement styles and new media.

The Herberger Institute season also offers wide-ranging and thought-provoking contemporary art exhibitions at the ASU Art Museum’s multiple locations. This fall, visitors have the opportunity to see “Landlocked,” the first video survey of Mexico City-based artist Miguel Angel Rios. Rios’ unique artistic practice addresses issues of power, apathy and violence though his innovative use of social and political narratives and original production techniques. The exhibition includes four never-before-seen works commissioned by the museum.

Northlight, ASU’s photography gallery, has moved from Tempe to join the Step Gallery at ASU’s Grant Street Studios in downtown Phoenix. The first show in the new location, “Nascent Site: Sight,” features works from ASU photo alumni celebrating the more than 40 years that the Northlight Gallery has been offering distinctive exhibitions.

The Design School offers a series of talks by luminaries in the design world, which are free and open to the public, as well as exhibitions showcasing the work of the school’s students in architecture, industrial design, interior design, landscape architecture, urban design, visual communication design and environmental science. And the Digital Culture Showcase, a twice-yearly event in the School of Arts, Media + Engineering, highlights the innovative projects that result when students work outside the conventional boundaries that separate art and science.

Visit for a full listing of season events, and create your own season from the hundreds of events on offer. Patrons who buy tickets to three or more performing arts events before Oct. 1 save 25 percent on the total price.

Deborah Sussman Susser

Communications and media specialist, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts


ASU News

Contest challenges writers to imagine futures shaped by climate change

September 18, 2015

ASU to award $1,000 to top climate fiction short story

The challenge with climate change is that it’s gradual — a pervasive, creeping calamity that can be difficult for people to accept or comprehend. But, what if people could understand it better by escaping their everyday realities? ASU Climate Fiction panel in April 2015 The ASU Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative hosted a climate fiction panel in April that included a flash fiction exercise to devise stories about Arizona's future water and drought scenario. Photo by: Jason Franz/Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives Download Full Image

Speculative fiction stories have the power to take policy debates and obscure scientific jargon and turn them into gripping, visceral tales. The emerging subgenre of climate fiction, epitomized by novels like Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy, helps us to imagine futures shaped by climate change in deeply human terms.

The Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative at Arizona State University, in partnership with the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Council, invites writers to submit short stories that explore climate change, science and human futures for its first Climate Fiction Short Story Contest. The submission deadline is Jan. 15, 2016, and contest entry is free.

“Climate change is starting to appear as a character in all our stories, so there is no better time to invite creative visions of how humanity will face these challenges,” said Ed Finn, co-director of the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative.

The contest will be judged by science fiction legend Kim Stanley Robinson, the award-winning and New York Times-bestselling author of many foundational works in climate fiction, along with other experts from the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative.

"This contest is a wonderful idea and I'm happy to be part of it,” said Robinson. “There's a thrill to writing and reading fiction that can't be matched by any other activity. As we move into the climate change century, the stories we tell each other about coping with it are going to be a crucial part of our thoughts and actions, so I urge people to give this contest a try and see what happens.”

The grand-prize winner will be awarded $1,000, with three additional finalists receiving book bundles signed by award-winning climate fiction author Paolo Bacigalupi. A collection of the best submissions will be published in a forthcoming online anthology, and considered for publication in the journal Issues in Science and Technology.  

Stories are required to envision a future for Earth and humanity that is transformed in some way by climate change. They should also reflect current scientific knowledge about climate change and its consequences for human societies and the environment. The jury is particularly interested in stories that illuminate the political, ethical and technological challenges that individuals and communities must confront in the face of climate change. 

"Merging climate science and deeply human storytelling, climate fiction can be a powerful learning tool,” said Manjana Milkoreit, Walton Sustainability postdoctoral research fellow at ASU. “Taking the reader into a possible future, a story can turn modeling scenarios and temperature graphs into meaning and emotion. It can help us make sense of and respond to this incredibly complex problem."

For full contest rules and details, and a link to submit stories for consideration, visit

The Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative is a partnership between the Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, and the Center for Science and the Imagination. It explores how imagination — or lack thereof — shapes humanity’s response to climate change, and how imagination merged with science can create solutions to climate challenges. The initiative hosts public events, offers courses at the intersection of art, literature and climate science as well as encompassing research projects uniting scholars and practitioners from a broad range of disciplines. 

Jason Franz

Senior manager, Marketing and Communications, Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives


ASU News

Community art exhibit celebrates the world of food

September 15, 2015

Throughout history, food and culture have met in art. We have an incredible connection to food through our senses — we love the taste, texture, colors, smells and even the sounds food creates. Wide-open farmlands, colorful produce and the buzzing of a beehive are all aspects of food and its vital importance to our lives.

Arizona State University has launched its Action, Advocacy, Arts Fall 2015 exhibit, transforming halls and spaces on the Downtown Phoenix campus into hubs of conversation and social and cultural engagement. Alexandra Brunet-Giambalvo ASU environmental biology and ecology student Alexandra Brunet-Giambalvo stands by her painting "California Roll.” Each semester's Action, Advocacy, Arts exhibit invites professional and amateur artists to contribute works that are displayed on the first through third floors of University Center on the Downtown Phoenix campus. Photo by: Adrianna Ovnicek/ASU Download Full Image

Organized in collaboration with ASU’s College of Public Service & Community Solutions, the College of Health Solutions and the School of Letters and Sciences, the exhibit provides community organizations and individuals the opportunity to share valuable visual-art stories with students and community members in the downtown ASU community.

The exhibit, "Feast Your Eyes," includes works of various media — including paintings, collages, pencil drawings and sculpture — that explore the role food plays in our lives.

“I wanted the goal of the exhibition to be the exploration of art and culture surrounding food and to examine the various meanings associated with something that is at the very core of living,” said Carrie Tovar, curator of art in the College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

“This is a theme that every living thing can relate to. … I received paintings that were close studies of fruits or vegetables; I received art works focusing on the foods of other cultures. … I also included thought-provoking images on the lack of food, sustainable farming and the necessity of food banks,” Tovar said.

One of the artists featured is ASU student Alexandra Brunet-Giambalvo.

“My work is inspired by my interests in small details, nature and bright colors,” said Brunet-Giambalvo. One of her featured works is an oil painting titled “Avocado,” painted on a wooden panel.

“I really love the way blues and greens look in the natural world. To open an avocado and see dozens of different greens is fascinating to me,” she said.

Flagstaff-based artist Rhonda Thomas-Urdang submitted two sushi-themed works inspired by the semester’s theme. Her two collages, “Sushi Goddess No. 2” and “Mama-san Nymph No. 4,” explore links between female principle, union, love, fertility and growth.

The artist incorporated original paper dolls from 1940, decorative rice papers, paper umbrellas, lace and other printed elements in the works.

She coined the term “femmages” to describe her work, which she defines as art made from a feminine perspective through a combination of paint and fabric with deliberate references to feminine imagery and icons.

“It's a pleasure to make a difference by participating in this group art exhibition at the ASU Downtown campus — a central hub of significant conversation, social change and cultural engagement,” Thomas-Urdang said.

The exhibit is on display through Dec. 5 on the first, second and third floors of the University Center building on ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus. The gallery is free to view and open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except for holidays.

Guided tours may be arranged by contacting Carrie Tovar at For more on Action, Advocacy, Arts, visit

Written by Adrianna Ovnicek

Heather Beshears

director marketing and communications, College of Public Service and Community Solutions


ASU News

Program reconnects Spanish speakers to language

September 14, 2015

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of stories to mark Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs Sept. 15-Oct. 15.

Nobody in Craig Mahaffy’s family speaks any Spanish, so it might seem odd that he is enrolled in the Spanish heritage language program in Arizona State University’s School of International Letters and Cultures. Craig Mahaffy makes fellow Spanish heritage language students laugh. Business major Craig Mahaffy makes fellow students Maria Alejandra Felix (left) and Maria Fernanda Felix laugh as he describes his use of music to build his Spanish skills during an ASU Spanish heritage language course on Aug. 27 on the Tempe campus. The courses are meant to help native speakers and others with a firm grasp on the language to polish their skills. Photo by: Deanna Dent/ASU News Download Full Image

The junior in business with a focus on global politics said he discovered the program — aimed more at native speakers or those who already have a firm grasp on the language — when he found general second-language Spanish classes weren’t challenging enough for him. He had picked up the language while dating a girl from Mexico whose mother spoke only Spanish.

“I would make us speak only in Spanish for like a month just so I could practice it,” said Mahaffy said of that relationship.

That’s one of the things Spanish heritage class instructor Roberto Ortiz Manzanilla loves about the program: He said the heritage classes are a great mix of people from different cultures, including Spanish-speaking countries and American Spanish speakers.

Secondary education junior Hayden Ballesteros is a native Spanish speaker, having come to the United States from Panama as a child, and was excited to find the heritage program at ASU:

“It made me feel a lot more comfortable because I definitely was not looking forward to sitting through a class of how to say ‘hola,’” Ballesteros said.

Sara Beaudrie, associate professor of Spanish linguistics and head of the Spanish heritage language program, said it’s the mission of the program to “promote Spanish language development and maintenance in the Southwestern United States.”

“Unfortunately a lot of [Spanish heritage program students] grow up ashamed of speaking Spanish and are forced to speak only in English. … A lot of them are already losing the language,” she said. “This program gives them the opportunity to regain those skills that they once had.”

Spanish Heritage Courses at Arizona State University from Arizona State University on Vimeo.

Manzanilla said the heritage program is different in many ways: Spanish-as-a-second-language classes usually consist of several short vocabulary-type activities, whereas the Spanish heritage classes focus on a few larger language concepts.

“Heritage learners’ needs are different from traditional second-language learners, who have not been in constant contact with Spanish while growing up,” Beaudrie said. “We offer these separate courses as a recognition of heritage learners’ unique abilities and needs within our classrooms, and as a way to expand our Spanish-speaking community at Arizona State University.”

That’s important to students like Ballesteros, for more than one reason: “This program allows us to build on the knowledge we already have,” while also acknowledging the importance of the Spanish language in today’s society.

“Spanish is one of the most spoken languages throughout the world. I can almost guarantee you that you will meet at least one person a month who only speaks Spanish, and it is an awesome feeling to be able to connect and communicate with that person on a different level,” said Ballesteros.

The School of International Letters and Cultures is a unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Emma Greguska

Reporter, ASU Now

(480) 965-9657

ASU News

ASU professor named Navajo Nation poet laureate

September 11, 2015

Growing up in a tiny town on the Navajo reservation, Laura Tohe relied on comics, fairy tales and books to stimulate her mind — even if that meant a four-hour round-trip drive to the nearest library.

“Since we didn’t have television, reading was a way out of the rez for me,” said Tohe, an English professor in Arizona State University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Books took me to other places in the world and to other time eras.” Laura Tohe weaving Arizona State University English professor Laura Tohe is being named the poet laureate of the Navajo Nation for 2015-2017. She finds writing to be like weaving; she’s continuing the legacy traditions of her mother, aunt, grandmother and great-grandmother, using some of their tools as well. Here she weaves in her Mesa home on July 13. Photo by: Charlie Leight/ASU News Download Full Image

Today, the Tohe era will commence when she is named the new poet laureate of the Navajo Nation at an official ceremony in Crownpoint, New Mexico. Tohe succeeds Luci Tapahonso, who was named the nation’s first ever poet laureate in 2013.

The goal of designating a chief poet is to encourage other Navajo writers and artists and to underscore their contributions to Navajo culture.

Tohe has already contributed much to the Navajo Nation and the literary world.

She has written four books, published hundreds of poems and has had several translations of her work ­­— including into dance and music. In 2008, Tohe wrote the commissioned libretto for “Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio” for the Phoenix Symphony.

Tohe credits a vivid imagination and the lack of a family television to her success.

“I was introduced to reading with the ‘Dick and Jane’ series at school,” she said. “I gravitated to fairy tales, and when my mother could afford it, she bought me ‘Little Lotta,’ ‘Richie Rich’ comics and later my brothers reluctantly let me read their comics — ‘Superman,’ ‘Batman’ and others.”

Tohe grew up on the reservation in Crystal, New Mexico, near the Chuska Mountains on the eastern border of the Dine/Navajo homeland. The town’s population hovered just above 300 people, and outside of attending school, there wasn’t much to do. Storytelling was not only a way to pass the time, but an art form among her people.

“One time I drove with my grandparents down Highway 666, and they recounted all of the places where a relative died or some incident happened. It was a highway of stories,” Tohe said. “I grew up with an oral tradition, and that has been my biggest influence in developing my voice and my work as a poet and writer. ‘You don’t have anything if you don’t have stories,’ is what my mother used to say.”

Tohe said as a child she told such captivating stories that a family friend would come over to listen to her when she’d go on a tear. Her stories eventually grew into poetry and sometimes prose poetry.

“Dine people, like many indigenous peoples, have always had great reverence for language, for sacred words and how they are used in meditations,” Tohe said. “For example, prayers and song meditations are used to heal and restore health and wellness for someone suffering from a certain illness. It can also uplift the human spirit.”

In her duties as poet laureate, Tohe wants to help uplift the Navajo people, specifically the next generations.

“I would like to see our younger generation continue the tradition of writing poetry, what we call ‘Saad Naazhch’aa,’ which translates to ‘pictures with words,’ ” Tohe said. “We didn’t have a word for poetry a few years ago. Since our language has diminished with the boarding-school era, poetry can be one of the ways to revitalize and save the Navajo language.”

Reporter , ASU Now


ASU News

Vet uses ceramic art to reflect on war

September 10, 2015

“They’re just cups,” he says. “Just cups.”

He goes on to say that they’re not that special, and that they shouldn’t be considered fine works of art. But Ehren Tool knows better than that. Ehren Tool shapes a ceramic cup Visiting artist Ehren Tool shapes the final small ceramic cup out of a block of clay at the Arizona Artists Guild in North Phoenix on Wednesday morning on Sept. 8, 2015. The ceramic artist is featured in a show that will have an opening evening on Sept. 11 at the ASU Art Museum Brickyard in downtown Tempe. Download Full Image

Deep down, the ceramic artist from Berkeley, California, knows they’re an invitation to a conversation about the unspeakable and irreversible effects of war.

“My wife calls my work, ‘War Awareness Art,’ and it’s not necessarily for or against war but you’d better be aware of its long-term impacts,” Tool said on Thursday as he spun a potter’s wheel in front of a group of veterans and the general public.

“I don’t question my service. I still love the Marine Corps. It’s just that there’s a gap between the stated goal and the outcome. Rhetoric breaks down real quick after you’re in the battlefield or in the zone, and rounds are going both ways.”

Tool promises there will be no rhetoric at the exhibition, “Statement Piece: Erik Gronborg and Ehren Tool,” which opened in August and will run until Nov. 21 at ASU’s Art Museum Brickyard, located at 7th Street and Mill Avenue in downtown Tempe.

A free and open reception for the exhibition will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Friday, when Tool will make cups in the museum’s gallery and give them away.

Over the past decade, Tool has given away more than 14,000 of his handmade cups. He does this as a statement against the large cost of war.

The exhibition features some of his cups, but it also brings together two socially engaged artists from different generations.

Denmark-born Gronborg, who will not be present for the opening reception, spent several years in a work camp for conscientious objectors before moving to the United States, where he made his mark with a series of functional pots addressing the Vietnam War.

Tool joined the Marine Corps in 1989 and served in Operation Desert Storm as part of the Military Police. Upon his return, Tool began to study ceramics, using functional pottery as a way to explore his revolving views about military service and the human toll inflicted by warfare.

“Gronborg and Tool have been paired for this exhibition because of similarities in their work and parallels in their personal histories,” said Garth Johnson, ASU Art Museum’s curator of ceramics. “Both artists harness the power of images pressed into wet clay. Both create approachable, functional pottery with social content built in that causes the person using the artwork to contemplate their own relationship with the U.S. Military.

Tool says he’s had a lot of time to contemplate his reasons for joining the marines — he thought it would make him a man. But he says his gung-ho attitude going into the service was quickly blunted by the horrors of war.

“When I told my grandfather that I was going to join the Marine Corps, he laughed and then said, ‘They’re going to steal your soul,’ ’’ Tool said. “It wasn’t the Kodak moment I was looking for.”

The picturesque moments Tool experienced were mostly grisly and cynical, which are stamped and emblazoned on the side of his cups. They feature skeletons, bullets, bomber planes, flowers, dollar bills, war medals and the occasional quote – “It’s just business” or “Worst religion ever.”

The exhibition also features 393 broken cups, which Tool created and glazed, and then shot at close range with a pistol. The broken cups, he says, represent the number of U.S. combat casualties at the end of the second Gulf War.

“Each one of those cups had the potential to live 500,000 to a million years, but a little piece of lead found them,” Tool said. “Those soldiers could have gone on to have kids and grandkids, or they could have been engineers, doctors, lawyers or could have gone on to do great things.”

“I think peace is the only adequate war memorial.”

For more information about “Statement Piece,” call 480-965-2787 or visit

Reporter , ASU Now


ASU News

Phoenix writer explores impact of community art in ASU lecture

September 10, 2015

Phoenix native Joey Robert Parks believes in his hometown.

“I believe Phoenix will become one of the world’s greatest cities in which to invest, innovate and live,” said Parks, the writer and social entrepreneur whose community art project “26 Blocks” will serve as the launch point for an ASU panel discussion at the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Sept. 17. The event kicks off the Arizona State University College of Letters and Sciences’ annual Humanities Lecture Series and is co-sponsored by ASU’s Project Humanities, "26 Blocks," and the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel. 26 Blocks Phoenix logo A panel of professional Phoenix photographers and writers organized by Joey Robert Parks, the founder of the "26 Blocks" community art project, kicks off the 2015-2016 Humanities Lecture Series at 6:30 p.m., Sept. 17, at the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel. Photo by: "26 Blocks" / Joey Robert Parks Download Full Image

“Phoenix is on the rise in a big way. The amount of innovation going on here is astounding,” continued Parks, who finds the change in the downtown and midtown areas over the past decade especially energizing. “The growth is not hype. Our time in history is tangible and real.”

In 2010 Parks set to work on a community art project that would draw people in to celebrate and interact with the city from fresh perspectives — and would contribute to the sense of community among those who are passionate about Phoenix and its revitalization.

“I’m driven by wanting to pull people together and also want people to be inspired by their city,” he said.

Parks enlisted the collaboration of 26 photographers and 26 writers, who were paired off and challenged to showcase something about the past, present or imagined future of one of 26 randomly selected blocks in downtown Phoenix. Using the final picture and accompanying story for each city block, a sculptor then created yet another layer of meaning by creating 26 small wooden blocks inspired by each of the 26 displays.

For the Humanities Lecture Series, Parks has invited three of his collaborators and another photographer to discuss their craft, community art in general and lessons from “26 Blocks” specifically.

John Beckett, advertising, catalog and fashion photographer
Sally Ball, poet and associate professor of creative writing at ASU
Scott Baxter, fine art photographer
Ellen Barnes, fashion/lifestyle photographer

Ball, Baxter and Barnes all participated in the “26 Blocks” project.

Panelists will address questions such as: What does it take to make a community art project fly? Why are there so few women in the world of commercial photography? Why were there no black creatives in “26 Blocks”? What lessons from the Phoenix program should Parks consider as he works to establish parallel projects and identify creative talent in other cities?

The “26 Blocks” exhibit debuted in May 2010, toured extensively in downtown Phoenix for 14 months, and has been on display in the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel’s lower lobby since January. It will remain there for hotel guests and the general public to enjoy through January 2018.

“For Phoenix visitors, the free exhibit offers a glimpse into the heart and soul of the city, beyond what they might have time to experience, and may also inspire exploration of the blocks and spaces featured in the exhibit,” said College of Letters and Sciences’ principal lecturer Mirna Lattouf, who organizes the Humanities Lecture Series.

“For those of us who live here, the project invites us to make meaning of our own experiences with Phoenix and think about the history, energy and juxtapositions that make life here special,” she said.

When the exhibit opened at the hotel, a “Renaissance Bonus Block” was added to the installation, centered on the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel. It featured a new photographer, new writer and the same sculptor. Parks is now working with an illustrator to create postcard-size art that connects to each of the 26 blocks, adding them every few months to a large downtown Phoenix map on one wall of the exhibit.  

Parks’ continued passion, indeed obsession, for this work might best be summed up in the words of “26 Blocks” contributing writer Walt Lockley, whose piece for Block Z of the project described an innate longing: “People need to know their cities. They gravitate to the center, looking for something to hold on to, an emotional center to wrap their arms and minds around.”

Other upcoming lectures in this series:

In October and November, the ASU’s Humanities Lecture Series will feature:

•Oct. 22, Matthew McCarthy, ASU W. P. Carey School of Business:
“Technology, eBooks: A Story of Redemption and Meanings”

•Nov. 5, Robert Bjork, ASU Department of English:
“Epic of Beowulf of the Many Faces and Meanings”

The October and November lectures will be held on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus, in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication/KAET Channel 8 (CRONK), room 128. The lectures begin at 6:30 p.m. and are free and open to the public.

Maureen Roen

Editorial and communication coordinator, College of Letters and Sciences