Mathematic and Aesthetic Artistry in Lego Form

Dr. Chuck Cusack, associate professor of mathematics and computer science, turns playthings into works of art embedded with his academic expertise. His Lego art show is now on display in the 602 Gallery at Holland Community Hospital through Tuesday, July 30.

“Mondriacci” by Dr. Chuck Cusack

Cusack’s works are unique and approachable — combining his love for combinatorics, the study of finite discrete structures, with algorithms and Legos, into creative abstract pieces of art that draw the viewer in with vivid colors and interesting patterns. He has been constructing Lego art for five years, and three of his works have appeared in ArtPrize — the international art competition held annually in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His current exhibit at the 602 Gallery, organized by the Holland Friends of Art, reveals an artist who has evolved from a very rigid application of mathematics in his work, requiring everything he made to be a direct representation of a mathematical object, to one that has been inspired by Piet Mondrian and Josef Albers. The results have “loosened up” Cusack’s creativity as he now sometimes chooses the aesthetic over the mathematical, even using the underside of Legos to show off their unique artistic lines and order.

“Under” by Dr. Chuck Cusack

 “When I began, it was all about math and representing math using Lego. In a lot of my work people may not ever actually realize that there’s some structure to it other than the overall rectangles and colors,” Cusack says. “As people saw my art, particularly several people at ArtPrize a couple years ago, they would mention other artists’ names. I would look up those artists to see why people were mentioning these then. Mondrian is one that stuck out to me. I liked his work, but it was not very mathematical. But I thought, let’s just try something new and so I did a Mondrian-like Lego art and really liked it. I started doing ones that were more like Mondrian’s work but included some math in them.”

The works that Cusack creates do not come from a Lego kit found at your local retailer. Instead, his materials are methodically tracked down on the internet to meet his exact requirements. Between conceiving his idea, working out the math, ordering the Legos, sorting the Legos and finally creating the Lego art, Cusack says he can work up to 20 hours on a more complicated 13”x13” creation. For this second work in ArtPrize three years ago — a 6’x10’ Lego monstrosity that cost him “as much as a small new car” in materials — he cannot even begin to estimate its time value. What he can say though is that over the years, Cusack has purchased, handled and placed hundreds of thousands of Lego pieces. And he never uses glue.

“My works are vulnerable without glue but I prefer it that way,” he explains. “I’ve got to know exactly what I want to do and a lot of times I don’t and I want to pull them off. But more than anything, it seems wrong to use glue. It’s Lego. It’s meant to be removable.”

“Yes It Is” by Dr. Chuck Cusack

While there are 35 of Cusack’s works on display at Holland Community Hospital, several of his pieces are also hanging on Hope’s campus. His first ArtPrize piece called “Latin Square Squared” can be found outside the office of the dean for the natural and applied sciences in the Schaap Science Center. It is a 38”x38” grid constructed from many squares, each of different sizes and each of which is what is called a Latin square: every cell is a certain color (or shape or number) and every row and every column contains each color exactly once (like Sudoku). In VanderWerf Hall’s first floor computer science lab, Cusack takes a turn at participation art. “Yes It Is” is an orange-and-blue puzzle. To Hope fans, the colors alone may draw the viewer in. To computer science students, the work could pique their academic interest and, with a lot of work, increase their art collection, too. 

“If someone can decode the message in ‘Yes It Is,’ they get it,” Cusack says. “Decoding it requires a Vigenere cipher, shift cipher, understanding a magic square, debugging code, some sort of binary representation, and maybe a rotation here or there, not necessarily in that order.”

I hope the viewer will see that there is the beauty inherent in mathematics, and that serious art can be created using mathematical concepts and a very simple medium.”

In the 602 Gallery, those who see his art do not need any understanding of math or computer science to appreciate Cusack’s colorful and creative work, though knowing that a deeper level of artistic intention exists in them makes their creation that much more impressive. “I hope the viewer will see that there is the beauty inherent in mathematics, and that serious art can be created using mathematical concepts and a very simple medium,” he says. “And I hope that viewers will come away from the show inspired to create their own art using whatever medium they find the most interesting and taking inspiration from whatever they are passionate about.”

An artist reception will be held on Friday, July 12 from 6-8 p.m. in the lower level lobby of Holland Community Hospital (green entrance). Cusack’s exhibit will be on display until Tuesday, July 30. Gallery hours are 24/7.

Dance + Civil Engineering = Senior Andrew Niedbala

From his hometown of Sterling Heights, Michigan, to Hope, to Australia, to France, and then back to Holland, Michigan, Andrew Niedbala has been dancing his way around the world for a few years now as a dance major. But dance is not the only thing this senior does. He also majors in civil engineering.

It’s an academic combination rarely put together. One an art form, the other an applied science. But Niedbala couldn’t see doing one without the other. As a double major in each, he pursues two creative passions and taps into each side of his brain. And as he does, in many ways, his two seemingly-opposite pursuits become more similar than different.

“They are both creative fields and force you to deal with the physical reality of the things around you and within you.”

“Both fields ask you to solve problems and there is a lot of gray area,” Niedbala says. “However, they feed off of each other very nicely, allowing creativity from dance’s freedom into engineering and the more concrete problem-solving of engineering into dance. They are both creative fields and force you to deal with the physical reality of the things around you and within you.”

Niedbala landed at Hope College in the fall of 2015 planning to major only in engineering while continuing to feed his love for dance through co-curricular opportunities. “That’s the nice thing about Hope,” he says. “Even if you don’t major or minor in something, you can still take those classes.”

The switch from a single major to a double major happened about halfway through his college career. Being involved in Strike Time Dance Co. — Hope’s interactive performance group for children — and H-2 Dance Co. — Hope’s pre-professional repertory group — Niedbala began to face a reality he didn’t initially see coming. He wanted more from dance than he was getting solely as an engineering major. Performing for children created a new passion that hadn’t existed to him before.

In Strike Time

“There is something so genuine about performing for a young audience,” Niedbala says. “With an audience familiar with dance, there are expectations of what the art is supposed to look like, but with children, you can just move for movement’s sake and witness the wonder in their eyes.”

In Dance 45

Niedbala’s favorite dance performance, though, came while performing in Dance 45 this past spring. In “Chair Study Two,” choreographed by Hope dance professor Linda Graham, he was challenged and inspired. The piece is performed while moving on or around two chairs in complete unison and interaction with a partner.  The nuanced and stimulating artistry in this piece captivated Niedbala as he worked to perfect connected movement, making two bodies seem unified and cohesive in opposite chairs.

As a result of all his dance world exposure and dedication (he also performed with Strike Time in Australia), Niedbala has proved himself in the dance department to be immensely gifted to his craft.

Andrew celebrates the opportunity to take in knowledge and ways of knowing,” says dance professor Nicki Flinn. “His openness and inquiry is evident in all he does. Andrew’s work ethic and drive to make connections among subject areas, while sharing different perspectives, makes teaching and learning with him fun.”

Aside from his dance companies and dance classes, Niedbala has another major project on the other side of campus in the engineering department. As a civil engineering major, he has been working on his senior project which involves creating systems of energy optimization in a 1940s house in Coldwater, Michigan.

This Coldwater home where Niedbala worked on his senior engineering project.

Civil engineers conceive, design, build, supervise, operate, construct, and maintain infrastructure projects and systems in the public and private sector. The goal then of Niedbala’s project was to make the Coldwater house more energy efficient without changing the structure of the home so as to keep its historical build and character. From working with solar panels to geothermal energy, Niedbala and his group have offered solutions to make this house more efficient and sustainable as possible.

Niedbala, right, and his civil engineering team in Coldwater

Andrew is very easy-going but at the same time a very hard worker,” says Dr. Courtney Peckens, assistant professor of engineering. “It is a lot of work to balance two majors, especially with one of them being engineering, but he makes it look relatively easy.”

And Peckens was often reminded that Niedbala was fully engaged in both. How?

“One of the things that I will remember most about Andrew is that he always carries around a rather large container of water which probably holds at least 30 ounces,” she recalls. “Maybe this is a typical thing for dancers, but it is a fairly unique accessory for engineers. I taught him every day for two years and don’t think that I ever saw him without the same container.”

After graduation on May 5, Niedbala is excited to start studying for the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam in the fall as well as gearing up for summer dance performances in France as part of the Paris May term with Hope College. More auditions of the dancing kind will follow in the near future. As for the engineering kind, Niedbala says he’ll wait and see. Right now, he is eager to set out into the “real” world and engineer a career in dance.

Speaking Spanish for the Community

“Me llamo Kelly. ¿Cuál es su nombre?”

“Soy Juan.”

“¿Juan, cómo está usted?”

“No tan bien.”

“Oh, lo siento, ¿qué pasó?

Junior Spanish and international studies double major Kelly Fuhs is not shy, but she is not forcefully bold either. Rather, she is calmly outgoing, and that trait has helped her use a second language in a meaningful way for a relatively new class. Complete strangers have become new friends to Fuhs as she has served others with Spanish outside of Hope’s campus.

Junior Kelly Fuhs at the Community Kitchen

Enrolled in “Spanish for the Community” and serving at the Community Kitchen Free Lunch program hosted by Community Action House at Hope-neighbor Western Theological Seminary, Fuhs recently introduced herself to a middle-aged gentleman named Juan and asked about his day. It was not going well, Juan said. Fuhs’ eyes and voice conveyed concern, and she gently asked Juan why, sliding easily into a chair next to him to begin a Spanish conversation with the Holland resident who was preparing to eat his lunch.  

Juan did most of the talking so Fuhs listened and listened. Often she would nod; occasionally she would interject. When the conversation began to wane, she asked Juan if she could pray for him.

,” he said.

Oh Dios, ayuda a Juan….” Fuhs started.

“Spanish for the Community” is a 300-level course created and offered by Dr. Berta Carrasco, assistant professor of Spanish, for its second time ever.  It gives students the opportunity to apply their Spanish skills in various interpersonal and organizational ways with Holland-area charitable organizations like the Community Kitchen, Community Action House, the Holland Free Health Clinic, and Holland Community Health Clinic. In doing so, students gain enhanced language ability, confidence and a sense of purpose.

“Basically, I came in thinking I was going to be serving food,” Fuhs explains. “But since there was a lot of volunteers to do that already, I help with translating menus and the code of conduct policies in Spanish. But most of the time, I just come in and talk to people and hear about their days and their lives and just kind of go from table to table listening to people.”

So, why is that meaningful for Fuhs?

“Every time I walk into this place, I’m welcomed,” says Fuhs, who hopes to work for a non-profit organization someday. “Everyone treats me like family and they’re like family as well. They all want to talk. Getting to sit down and hear about their lives and about their struggles and joys and just getting to pray with them and really have that small time to experience life with them, it’s an honor honestly. People just want to be heard. I didn’t come in here thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to save people.’ I have a lot to learn from them.”

Dr. Berta Carrasco

Carrasco created the class for students like Fuhs because she wanted to fill a gap. While there are plenty of Spanish offerings in literature and culture in the Hope curriculum, there was not a practical offering that engaged Hope students in the Holland community, which is 38% Latino. “Our courses are dynamic, but we needed a class that goes into the community,” the professor says.

Students spend the first five weeks of the semester in the classroom discussing (always in Spanish) what it means to serve, why they want to serve, how complicated and difficult it can be. They also learn about interpersonal communication styles in the Latino culture, how to be cognizant of direct vs indirect communication, such as how to “read” body language and vocal tones. Then, for the rest of the semester, for six hours a week, they speak Spanish in the community.

“Our students have worked for years on their Spanish,” the professor says, “and with this class, they can use it immediately outside the classroom. They have ways to use a tool they’ve worked really hard on right now for good use.”

“Their job is not writing a lot of academic papers but that doesn’t mean this class is not rigorous,” Carrasco says. “It’s rigorous in a different sense. This requires students to go outside of the box and be okay with being uncomfortable, be okay with mistakes and be okay with someone who is feeling great, and someone who is not.”

“I love taking literature classes and learning more about the technique of the language, but there’s something really special about being able to take a class to learn skills about how to communicate with people within the culture and then interact and actually do it,” Fuhs confirms.

Rebekah Rainwater, right, and a client of the Holland Free Clinic.

Senior classmate Rebekah Rainwater concurs. She is a Spanish major on a pre-physical therapy track and as such, she is grateful for learning how to succeed in intercultural communication, especially since she hopes to work in health-care settings with a wide range cultures, races and socioeconomic statuses.

“Working at the Holland Free Health Clinic for this class has showed me how to accommodate for those patients who do not speak English, who cannot read, and who have had little to no formal education,” Rainwater says.  “As a future health care provider, I will need to continue to practice the skills which I am developing now in order to successfully serve my patients.”

With those words, Carrasco knows her teaching objectives are being met. She wants her students to know that their language skills are useful now, not just some nebulous time out in the future and not just away from campus on a study abroad trip.

“Our students have worked for years on their Spanish,” the professor says, “and with this class, they can use it immediately outside the classroom. They have ways to use a tool they’ve worked really hard on right now for good use.”

Memory and Music: Andrew Le’s Sabbatical Story

When Dr. Andrew Le says he spent his fall 2018 sabbatical “learning” a series of piano pieces, what he really means is that he memorized them.

“It’s tradition in not just classical music but especially in solo piano playing that one presents the music from memory,” said Le, associate professor of music. “Ultimately memorization helps me to communicate my music without a barrier — that barrier being the score, the music score in front of me. There’s nothing between me and the piano, and there’s nothing between the piano and the audience.”

So, what music did he learn (read: memorize), exactly? Well, there’s Book 1 of Claude Debussy’s Préludes, which he learned — from the opening notes to the end of the score some 50 minutes later — and performed in Madrid. And then slightly embarrassed that he had played only French music while in Spain and wanting to remedy the faux pas, he learned a piano suite, Goyescas, by Spanish composer Enrique Granados. Plus, he learned works by Eddie Mora and the Piano Concerto in G major by Maurice Ravel.

All told, Le memorized more than 80 minutes of music, some of which he says are among the most technically difficult pieces for the piano. Two in particular — the pieces by Granados and Ravel — he called “disorienting” for a pianist.

Granados’ Goyescas, Le said, “turned out to be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever played in my life. It’s really thick — the textures are thick, and it almost sounds at times that it’s meant to be played with three or four hands, not just two. To transcend the technical difficulties to make it sound easy was quite the challenge.

“It was almost as if Granados didn’t care about how the pianist would feel,” he continued. “It was just all about the music and what it would take to write music that rapturous, even if it meant sounding like it had to be played with four hands.”

And Ravel? “His imagination and soundscape stretched the limits of what people at the time thought instruments could do,” Le said. “This concerto has a lot of interesting textures and technical challenges that are not just hard to play but also make it an exciting visual performance. ”

Plus, at 22 minutes long, the piece stretches the performer’s focus and endurance.

“Ultimately memorization helps me to communicate my music without a barrier — that barrier being the score, the music score in front of me. There’s nothing between me and the piano, and there’s nothing between the piano and the audience.”

In addition to his chamber and solo performances in Madrid, Le also performed in Arlington, Texas, and Grand Rapids, Michigan. But he says the most nerve-wracking of his performances was one he gave after his sabbatical, right here at Hope College, on January 12, 2019.

Listen to Dr. Le’s January 12 recital:

Performing in front of his students, colleagues and administrators — the people who look up to him and rely on him — makes him more nervous than other performances. They’re also the most special: “I get to play in a place I love for people I love, and in a place where I’m comfortable being myself and being one with Christ by way of performing on stage,” he said.

One element of the January 12 performance made it particularly impactful. While introducing his pieces, Le felt spontaneously compelled to dedicate his performance of Ravel in memory of Jonathan Hagood. Hagood died on September 18, 2018; at the time, he was serving as chair of the music department.

“The day I learned that Jonathan passed away, I was deeply lost,” Le said. “The only thing that gave me remote comfort was to go to the piano and play the second movement of this concerto. It has always been to me the most beautiful thing ever written, so I just played it over and over that day. I think of Dr. Hagood every time I play this piece, so I dedicated the performance in memory of him, and that gave me the strength to get through it, the focus and the purpose.”

In the end, Le says the entire sabbatical is “a gift that I don’t take for granted.”

In addition to his performances, Le also recorded and released an album of Debussy’s complete Etudes for solo piano, timed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death.

In the end, Le says the entire sabbatical is “a gift that I don’t take for granted.” Not only does he have the chance to learn and perform at an unusually productive level, but it refreshes and rejuvenates him for the daily work that he loves so much.

“Teaching is incredibly important to me,” he said. “Being able to share my talents and proffer what I can to the next generation of Christians and students and piano students and Christian piano students — such gifts are to be shared. I can’t keep them to myself.”

They’ll Always Have Paris

Left to right, Michaela Stock, Dr. Natalie Dykstra, Sarah Lundy

A small but reputable library in Paris now has a new and meaningful relationship with a small but reputable liberal arts college in the U.S. thanks to a Hope English professor and her two research students.

For two and a half weeks during the summer of 2018, Dr. Natalie Dykstra, senior Sarah Lundy and junior Michaela Stock worked at and established a partnership with the American Library in Paris. Their research and scholarship not only fed their own intellectual curiosity about historical stories and archival work, it also supplied the library with a useful resource as well.

Dykstra tapped Stock and Lundy to join her in France as part of a Hope’s Paris Stories project, an interdisciplinary Grand Challenges program funded by the Mellon Foundation. Focused on art, literature, history and senior seminar course work, Paris Stories is also co-directed by Dr. Lauren Janes of the history department and Dr. Heidi Kraus of the art department who lead a May Term to Paris each spring and teach Francophile courses, along with Dykstra, back at Hope during the academic year.

So it was then under Dykstra’s guidance that Lundy and Stock took on their own extensive archival endeavor regarding Nadia Boulanger.

At the American Library in Paris, though, Dykstra helped launch Lundy and Stock into a world of research that the professor knows well. Dykstra’s own writing has required extensive archival work; for her 2012 book, Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, and currently for her upcoming biography of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner.  So it was then under Dykstra’s guidance that Lundy and Stock took on their own extensive archival endeavor regarding Nadia Boulanger, a mid-20th century French music teacher and composer who left a large collection of records, concert programs, sheet music and inscribed books to the American Library in Paris.

Sarah Lundy in the American Library in Paris

“When we went in, we had no firm idea of what project we would be doing,” says Lundy, a history and French double major. “It was very flexible, and we started with plans to just see what the library needed us to do.”

When they discovered that the library had a substantive special collection of artifacts associated with Boulanger that needed a detailed finding aid, the trio knew they were onto something good.

‘Since we’re all kind of art and history nerds, we were pretty excited,” exclaims Stock, a recording arts major with French and art history minors. “Sarah and I went page by page through about 42 [items] Nadia left and transcribed both the French and English inscriptions from Nadia and from her friends.”

“In essence,” Stock continues, “it was a lot of compiling of the smaller stories we found into a bigger picture of what the American Library in Paris means in the story of Nadia Boulanger. And that story also had a greater context to the history of France and in World War II. So, it’s one of those things that history does: You ask one question, and you can get a million answers.”The American Library in Paris was established in 1920 by the American Library Association with a couple thousand English language books that had been sent to American soldiers during World War I. That founding spirit is reflected in its motto: “Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux: After the darkness of war, the light of books.”

Looking out the door of the American Library in Paris

Over the years, a who’s who of American writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, have graced the library’s rooms, and it became a cultural center as much as a repository of books used by French nationals to teach English to their students. Today, the library — the largest English-language lending library on the European continent and located not far from the Eiffel Tower — has over 100,000 books in its holdings.

About Boulanger, Lundy and Stock learned much and grew to appreciate their protagonist’s high regard as a female composer and educator in France and beyond. Educated at the Paris Conservatory in the early 1900s, Boulanger later taught both American and European students, such as Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky. She also became the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic.

Beyond the finding aid, the duo created a website about their archival work and partnership with the American Library in Paris.

For Lundy and Stock, their Paris experience went beyond factual understanding and fostered intellectual and personal growth.

“Some of the librarians (at the American Library in Paris) said to me toward the end of our stay, ‘Where did you get these students? They are great!’,” remembers Dykstra. “I could not have been prouder of the work that they did. They arrived every morning just as the library was opening up and they stayed until closing. I think their work ethic was just remarkable.

“There’s nothing I enjoy more than having a project like this with our students,” Dykstra continued. “For me, it pushes me as a teacher, as a writer, as a biographer. I think faculty grow as much as students do having these experiences. I’m very grateful to the Grand Challenges program for providing us with the funding so we could make this relationship with the library possible. I’m also grateful to my Paris Stories partners, Lauren Janes and Heidi Kraus.”

For Lundy and Stock, their Paris experience went beyond factual understanding and fostered intellectual and personal growth.

“I love stories. I think it’s the thing that makes me love history,” explains Lundy. “But having so many different cultures and people and perspectives coming together in our Nadia research was really eye-opening. To have a hands-on experience where you’re immersed in that narrative and can see even a fraction of a person’s and of a history’s timeline is something that makes me say, ‘This isn’t all of it but it’s an important part of the overall story.’ Then I think, what does that say about our culture here or a different topic historically where one person’s biography or a narrative is written. There’s so many ways you can apply what we learned even though it was in Paris.”

Michaela Stock in the American Library in Paris

“I have dreamed of living and working and being in Paris for almost my entire life,” adds Stock. “I felt I was my fullest, best self over there, and I think I’ve carried that experience home. This (fall) semester has been by far the best I’ve ever had and I highly attribute that to finding myself in Paris and figuring it out alongside mentors, both student and professor. So for me, it was definitely an internal surge of growth that I will never forget.”

Nor will The American Library in Paris. The work that the Hope trio completed, and the relationship they started, will have a life there for years to come. Dykstra hopes to continue with a second team of students in Paris in May 2019. Hope College is now part of the ongoing story that the American Library in Paris gets to tell about itself in the run-up to its 100th anniversary in 2020. And of course, the American Library in Paris now part of Hope’s narrative, too.

Remembering Stan Lee in the classroom

Editor’s note: Dr. Jeff Tyler submitted this reflection upon learning of the passing of Stan Lee, former writer and editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics. Lee is known for making household names of many of today’s most beloved superheroes.

Professor showing off his action figuresTwelve years ago Karima Jeffrey of the English Department and I offered a course at Hope called “Vocation, Spiritual Identity, and Comic Book Heroes.” It was exciting to blend our backgrounds and interests—Karima—a young African-American English Professor and myself a mid-career and white Professor of Religion and European History. Both of us had read Marvel Comics as teens and we were now aware that the Marvel movies were exciting a new generation of readers and viewers.

Female Marvel characters

We chose Marvel Comics in part because first year students were about to discover new gifts and abilities—new superpowers, so to speak—and we wanted characters who dramatized the difficult decisions we all face about calling, power, and identity. We had a particular focus on women in Marvel Comics, which increased our chance of attracting women to our class and allowed us to examine changing images of women in this medium.

An exceptional group of students signed up for our class. We were astounded that the characters Stan Lee and his colleagues created continued to mesmerize and raise compelling questions about the human condition. Though Karima has moved on to Hampton University, I recall our course often. A wall of my office still displays the Marvel actions figures I purchased for our teaching.


Today students sometimes come to my office anxious about a grade or feeling disconnected from me; they look right, see the action figures and say, “Is that Storm, or Captain America, or Giant Man?” Immediately we find common ground. I have likewise been pleasantly surprised by the number of Hope women—both students and faculty—who remain avid readers of Marvel and devotees of the movies.

This semester I am offering a course for first year students on the American Dream. In homage to my course with Karima, we read a selection of comics about Ms. Marvel—one of the new characters in the Marvel Universe. This teenage Ms. Marvel lives in Jersey City and, like her parents, is deeply devoted to Islam. She raises fascinating questions about the future of America, the American Dream, and the rich legacy of Stan Lee.


Social Stories, Sensory Bags and Accessibility for HSRT

People with autism or other developmental differences can now experience Hope Summer Repertory Theatre in more welcoming, safe and comfortable ways thanks to new resources that make theater-going more sensory-friendly. A year in the making by HSRT Associate Managing Director Reagan Chesnut ’08,  the initiative clearly sends the message that live, immersive theatre is accessible for  all.

Reagan Chesnut, associate managing director of HSRT

“Accessibility for theatre has always been something that’s really important to me,” says Chesnut. “I have family members who have autism and sensory-related disabilities so I was trying to figure out how to pull them into this world that has dark lights and loud noises. Creative play is so important to the human spirit so being able to come see theatre is very important. For any and everyone.”

Chesnut researched to create tools that would help those with autism and developmental differences. She also consulted with Benjamin’s Hope, a Holland-based “live, work, play, worship” organization designed to address the multifaceted needs of adult individuals and families affected by autism and other intellectual and developmental differences. The result is the creation of a three-prong approach to theatre accessibility: Sensory bags, “Going to the Theatre” social stories, and performance guides for use before and most HSRT productions.

Supplied by accessory giant, Vera Bradley, the sensory bags are equipped with supplies that help patrons adapt to live theatre. Inside each soft, quilted, durable backpack are noise-dampening headphones, a squeeze stress ball, fidget tool, weighted lap pad, and buttons that say ‘please don’t talk to me’ so a person isn’t approached for audience participation if they don’t want to be. Ten bags are available to checkout at the DeWitt Theatre for every performance of “Dragon Pack Snack Attack,” “The Wiz,” “Godspell” and “The Odd Couple” at no cost.

“Social stories” is a term used to describe documents that improve the social skills of people with autism and developmental difference. They tell a “story” of appropriate social interaction by describing a situation with relevant social cues, other’s perspectives and a suggested appropriate response.

Written in the first person, HSRT’s “Going to the Theatre” social story walks patrons through the theatre experience from beginning to end — what door to use, where the ticket office is located, who helps you find your seat, what an intermission is, and how to exit. Though this tool was specifically created for patrons with autism and developmental differences, “we’re hoping that it has an impact on other patrons,” says Chesnut. “Some people maybe have never been in the theatre before, and it can be nerve racking. Basically, we want to bring down any barriers to theatre and we’re trying to do that with this kind of outreach.”

Finally, performance guides walk patrons through the particular sights and sounds of each play with a detailed, chronological summary of the action using icons for sensory triggers. They have been customized for each particular play and indicate when loud noises will occur, or when the house will go dark or suddenly bright, or when anticipated applause or audience participation should happen.

“The hope is that people go to our website if they want to have a little bit more time to look over the social stories or performance guides prior to the play,” explains Chesnut. “But they are also printed out and available inside the sensory bags so patrons can follow along.”

In recent years, the movement toward sensory-friendly productions in and of themselves has created another opportunity to provide live immersive theatre that is accessible to all. Chesnut thinks that may be a consideration for HSRT in the future but she has one hesitation. “The one thing that [those productions] do is they separate,” she says. “They say, ‘these are the performances for patrons with disabilities and then there’s the other regular performances.’ That dictates how a patron with a disability is going to experience the theatre instead of allowing them to take control of their own experience. The goal for all of our tools and materials is to put that control back into the hands of the patrons so they are able to decide how they experience the theatre.”


Interested in going to HSRT, now in its 47th season? Check out ticket availability online.

The Will and Memory: A Dance

Creative thinking and collaboration were the answers to an unfortunate overlap in scheduling between this year’s Dance 44 concert and the American College Dance Association’s (ACDA) East-Central regional conference. The conflicting circumstance caused senior dancers Emily Mejicano-Gormley and Nia Stringfellow to combine their previously-performed and stunning solo works, “Memory” by Mejicano-Gormley and “The Will” by Stringfellow, into a duet. The result is breathtaking and award-winning.

“The Will/Memory” by Emily Mejicano-Gormley and Nia Stringfellow (photo by Erik Alberg)

Relying on their imagination to meld individual pieces that deal with similar themes of pain and resolve, Mejicano-Gormley and Stringfellow put their works together and aptly named it, “The Will/Memory.” With some coaching and choreography help from Professors Matt Farmer and Linda Graham, the two practiced the new original for three months this spring. They debuted it at a place and time both were available to perform together — at the University of Illinois for the ACDA Central regional conference in mid-March, after Dance 44 was complete.

“Since Dance 44 was at the same time as our regional ACDA conference (Hope is a member of the East-Central region), we had to go outside of our region to enter works for adjudication by the ACDA,” explains Graham, the Dorothy Wiley DeLong Professor of Dance. “We had hoped to get both solos in the Central conference but when schools go outside their region, they have to see what is left over after in-region schools take their slots. Consequently, by the time registration opened for the Central region, all but one adjudication slot had been taken by in-region schools. So I literally filled out the form and sat there, at my computer, watching the clock, and the moment the outside registration opened, I hit ‘enter.’ I had to snag it fast.”

“Personally, I thought the solos would work incredibly well juxtaposed with some crafty fusion.”

With only one slot available and two worthy solos to offer, a decision had to be made. Mejicano-Gormley and Stringfellow were asked to work together. “Personally, I thought the solos would work incredibly well juxtaposed with some crafty fusion,” said Graham.

“The Will/Memory” by Emily Mejicano-Gormley and Nia Stringfellow (photo by Erik Alberg)

While “The Will/Memory” was created out of a scheduling necessity, Mejicano-Gormley and Stringfellow are the reasons the original work received prestigious accolades. “The Will/Memory” was chosen as one of 11 pieces (out of 44) to be performed during the ACDA Central region’s Gala Concert. Additionally, the piece received one more unexpected recognition when it was named an alternate for the national ACDA National College Dance Festival this June at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Each region selects two finalists and two alternates for the national festival.

What makes each unconventional step toward getting this deeply-moving dance to the regional, and maybe national, stage even more impressive is that Mejicano-Gormley and Stringfellow represented one of only two private liberal arts colleges at the conference. The other 25 schools present are all universities with professional choreographers.

“To have a dance piece created by two students placed on the same level as works of professional choreographers is both outstanding and an honor.”

“To have these students’ works accepted to both the Gala concert and as an alternate to the national performance at the Kennedy Center is a true testament to both the training in the dance department and the students’ artistic talent and hard work,” said Farmer, associate professor of dance and chair of the department. “To have a dance piece created by two students placed on the same level as works of professional choreographers is both outstanding and an honor.”

“The Will/Memory” by Emily Mejicano-Gormley and Nia Stringfellow (photo by Erik Alberg)

Farmer started working with the two stellar dancers last December to help develop smooth transitions from one solo to the other inside the duet. “I would make a suggestion and talk about my reasons why I suggested this entry point or that transition, but I’d always ask, ‘Are you okay with that?’ The work was their inspiration so it was important I ask. But Nia and MG were always up for everything.”

Mejicano-Gormley and Stringfellow each created their solos for last year’s student-choreographed dance concert. Their inspiration for each piece emanated from the experience of wrestling with personal hardships. Stringfellow’s “The Will” expresses tenacity in the face of oppression, while Mejicano-Gormely’s “Memory” unpacks the difficulties in both leaving and moving forward. Their ability to combine and express deeply sensitive themes for hundreds of people demonstrates dedication to their art.

“Each step of creating this work has been a graceful surprise.”

“I think we were ready to explore our own solo works within this piece more because we had each other,” explains Mejicano-Gormley, a biology major and dance minor. “Each step of creating this work has been a graceful surprise,” acknowledged Stringfellow, an exercise science major and dance minor.

Graham calls “The Will/Memory” “an artistic gestalt — a duet that conveyed a universal truth deeply and rightly through the unique and ordinary.” Three adjudicators said the dance “represents a negotiation, standing emblematic to their truths,” that it “worked at multiple layers, slicing and etching with heart-wrenching pain,” and “it makes space with dignity and empathy for the tensions of race.”

As they dance with and near each other for more than nine minutes, Mejicano-Gormley and Stringfellow never truly make full eye contact. The two dancers almost see each other, but a new twist or turn keeps each from discovering the other. At the conclusion, the dancers eyes meet and the moving emotion of “The Will/Memory” makes way for hope. This is part of Mejicano-Gormley and Stringfellow’s brilliance. In the end, the dancers and the dance reveal that the look of hope is a powerful thing.

Costume design by Emily Mejicano-Gormley and Nia Stringfellow. Music by Clyde Otis and Sara Bareillis. Lighting design by Erik Alberg.

“History is Always Alive”

With this year’s 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into “the war to end all wars,” Hope College faculty and student researchers have delved into the multi-faceted ways Hope and Holland, Michigan, played a part in World War I. What they discovered are timeless tales of patriotism, immigration ideologies and wartime controversy.

Dr. Jeanne Petit, standing left, and Geoffrey Reynolds, standing right, led three Hope students — Avery Lowe, Aine O’Connor, and Natalie Fulk, seated left to right — in a research project on Hope and Holland’s involvement during World War I.

Led by History Professor and Department ChairDr. Jeanne Petit, and Geoffrey Reynolds, director of The Joint Archives of Holland at Hope College, three history majors — sophomore Aine O’Connor of South Bend, Indiana; junior Avery Lowe of North Muskegon, Michigan; and, senior Natalie Fulk of Mahomet, Illinois — have poured over both published and personal WWI materials left in the custody of the archives at the Theil Research Center.

The intensive eight-week project looked at a college and city predominantly populated by Dutch Americans and immigrants, asking ideological questions such as:

  • How do we understand diversity and patriotism during wartime?
  • What does a global economy mean and how does it work during war?
  • When should patriotism reside next to religion?
  • How are disabled vets rehabilitated and respected at home?

Each query became a not-so-subtle reminder that the more things change, the more they inevitably stay the same — especially when it comes to war.

“Many were asking the question, ‘Am I Dutch or am I American?’”

“You don’t learn about World War I history as much as World War II history, so this research was very interesting to me,” said Fulk. “We found so many stories that were unique to this war in Holland and at Hope due to Dutch immigrants or descendants of immigrants in the area and at this school. Many were asking the question, ‘Am I Dutch or am I American?’ I would say by the end of the war, many Hollanders started thinking of themselves as more American or Dutch-American instead of just Dutch due to a nationwide, patriotic push for national unity on the home front.”

World War I map of Archangel, Russia

Though the U.S. involvement in WWI lasted just over a year-and-a-half (April, 1917 to November, 1918), the Great War deeply affected the United States’ economy and psyche, and thus Holland and Hope’s. The atrocities of trench warfare, the growth of global trade and the renunciation of the advance of communism all had newly realized human and cultural costs. While Fulk researched the naturalization of Dutch and German immigrants in Holland, O’Connor investigated multiple stories of Hope students leaving the college to enlist, serving however and wherever they were sent.

“About 150 men left Hope [during the war] and they went everywhere from Eagle Pass, Texas, to Archangel, Siberia in Russia,” says O’Connor. “When I looked closer at their stories, I found that Hope seemed to write about them the same way they had written about graduates who had become missionaries. They were held up as these bastions of Christianity who were defying the corruption of the military. And, they were doing these incredibly heroic things like saving lives of other soldiers and working in hospitals. The range of what Hope soldiers did was amazing to me — they were chaplains, in the infantry, in the Navy, in the new air service. Men were doing border patrol with Mexico, and one man was in Panama doing scientific work.”

“I find myself thinking that 100 years from now, people could potentially be doing research on me, on all of us. I’m fascinated by that thought and perspective because it means history is always alive.”

And what was happening back at Hope while these men were away at war? “Women were enrolling in record numbers,” observed O’Connor, “because the war had decimated Hope’s enrollment. Women were invited to enroll at the college to boast numbers in the student body as men left campus, or never enrolled, so they could serve in the war.”

World War I Polar Bear Expedition artifacts

Two other stories uncovered by the team illuminated views on veteran disabilities, long before the Wounded Warrior Project, and the political and religious correctness of displaying the American flag on church pulpits given the Constitutional tenet of separation of church and state. These and more stories about a small town and college’s impact on and from the Great War will be published in this web exhibit to help visitors understand the larger and more specific issues that changed the U.S. and these researchers on multiple levels.

“This is the first time I conducted research,” Lowe explains.” As a history major, I find myself being obsessed with things that were going on before I was born and I find myself thinking that 100 years from now, people could potentially doing research on me, on all of us. I’m fascinated by that thought and perspective because it means history is always alive.”

Brian Coyle’s Jazzy Association

Jazz music may be America’s invention but like any great art form, it knows no borders. Jazz is as beloved in Tokyo as in New Orleans, as popular in Vienna as Chicago. And that’s the reason why Dr. Brian Coyle recently co-founded and now helps lead, as its vice president, the new International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers (ISJAC) of which the Hope College Jazz Studies program is a founding consortium member. Hope is one of only two liberal arts colleges on ISJAC’s directory of respected and innovative jazz schools.

Coyle is Hope’s director of jazz studies so it would seem natural for the college to quickly sign up to join such an organization. ISJAC is the first association, Coyle points out, specifically created for the service, advancement, and encouragement of jazz composers and arrangers. Numerous organizations exist for jazz performers but Coyle and his international colleagues are eager to highlight the achievements and advance the appreciation of jazz composition. The group held its first symposium — with some of the top names in jazz composition presenting and performing like 22-time Grammy winner Chick Corea — just three weeks ago in Tampa, Florida.

Dr. Brian Coyle, professor of music and director of jazz studies

“For Hope to be on the same list as some of the top jazz schools in the country and the world is exciting and quite a testament to what we have happening here,” says Coyle, a jazz composer himself who has also performed with the likes of Al Jarreau, Roberta Flack, the John Cooper Jazz Orchestra, and Ravi Coltrane, to name a few.

Coyle seeks regularly to de-mystify what improvisation within composition means. The two terms may seem diametrically opposed, but it’s something we see everyday, and not just in jazz music.

Though classically trained on trumpet but also a pianist and drummer, Coyle’s deep affection and appreciation for jazz music stems from his fascination of taking musical control of a piece while giving it up at the same time. He loves that jazz is conversive and freestyling which makes it unlike any other kind of music. Its ad-libbed call-and-response vocal elements and its polyrhythms are patent art, as “patent” as ever-evolving jazz can be, and it grew out of blues and ragtime traditions in the early 20th century. Since then, jazz music has played its way through numerous eras such as big band, bebop, free jazz and jazz-rock fusion, but all had improvisation at the center.

Yet for many, improvisation, especially when mentioned in the same breathe as composition, is a mystery. Coyle knows this and seeks regularly to de-mystify what improvisation within composition means. The two terms may seem diametrically opposed, but it’s something we see everyday, and not just in jazz music.

The freedom, individuality, and collective art of jazz is “what makes it so cool,” Coyle declares with an artist’s flourish.

“Improvisation is really the thing we’ve been doing from birth,” Coyle explains. “We improvise all the time from our everyday lives. We improvise conversations and relationships. We improvise playing sports and games. Improvisation at its core is just language; it’s communication. As long as we both understand the same language, we can improvise all we want and we can have a deep conversation. That’s what jazz is.”

And that means, then, that a jazz piece — much like a work meeting attended, a basketball game played, or a day lived — is never performed the same way twice. The freedom, individuality and collective art of jazz is “what makes it so cool,” Coyle declares with an artist’s flourish.

Even though recorded jazz sales make up less than two percent of today’s global market, jazz music still has a ubiquitous place in American culture and society. It often pops up as the underscore in numerous television commercials and shows, and in the recent multi-Academy-nominated film, LaLa Land, which placed jazz music at the center of its storyline. At live music venues, jazz music is undoubtedly alive and well.

This all bodes well for Coyle, Hope and ISJAC. The more jazz music is visible and demanded, the more Coyle and others have to compose and arrange. And that means the more Hopes students will have opportunities to learn and perform, too.