Research News

Vanderbilt faculty member’s empathy project awarded NEA funding

Left to right: Associate Professor of the Practice of Art Jana Harper and Liliam Padron, director of the Danza Espiral Dance Company
(L to r) Associate Professor of the Practice of Art Jana Harper and Liliam Padron, director of the Danza Espiral Dance Company, during a workshop in Matanzas, Cuba, for the Havana Biennial.

The National Endowment for the Arts has awarded funding to OZ Arts Nashville in support of their partnership with Vanderbilt visual artist Jana Harper, who is leading an interdisciplinary collaboration that fosters empathy for the shared human experience.

Harper, associate professor of the practice of art, has also joined forces with choreographer Rebecca Steinberg and musician Moksha Sommer for This Holding, a multi-layered research project that recently launched with a series of workshops—some of which are open to the public—and include storytelling, songwriting and dance.

The gestures and movements expressed during these workshops will be the foundation for a contemporary dance performance presented by OZ Arts on May 29-30, 2020. Sommer will create original music for the event.

“The overall goal of this endeavor is to foster empathy and encourage people to connect through their shared humanity,” Harper said. She explained that the first step during This Holding’s workshops is to have all participants make a lengthy list of everything they feel like they are carrying as burdens. These can range from international issues like climate change and immigration reform to more personal challenges like paying bills or battling addiction.

“Participants are assigned to work in pairs, with each person relaying two past experiences—one that has brought joy and the other hardship to their life,” Harper said. “The storytellers are then asked to share a gesture or physical movement that reflects their feelings from these particular experiences. Part of my role is to help with the translation of their feelings into movement. We have found that the representative movement for a difficult time in life tends to be a motion of contraction, while that for a happy experience is almost always a motion of expansion.”

Participants must take a vow of confidentiality not to share story details outside of the workshops.

‘Cargas’ final performance during 2019 Havana Biennial in Matanzas, Cuba
‘Cargas’ final performance during 2019 Havana Biennial in Matanzas, Cuba

“My strong interest in how the body remembers and stores trauma propelled my interest in This Holding,” said Harper, who has studied contemplative movement and taught restorative yoga. “The word ‘holding’ refers to the memories or burdens that stay with us long after our life experiences.”

An integral part of the workshops and the performance is a series of soft sculptures created by Harper. “The sculptures are made from recycled clothing and other materials that come in different shapes and forms and are filled with buckwheat,” Harper said. “They are extremely heavy and are intended to be metaphors for the way that we accumulate and even ‘drag’ stuff behind us.”

Harper and her collaborators have already held workshops with students at Wright Middle School and with an older population at Fifty Forward. They also conducted an intense 10-day workshop with rehearsals at the 2019 Havana Biennial in Matanzas, Cuba, which culminated in a dance performance. Additional workshops that will be open to the Nashville community will be announced soon.

“One of the most important aspects of This Holding is that the stories coming out of this project help people connect with others on a human scale, regardless of political beliefs, ethnicity or socio-economic background,” Harper said. “They are truly the stories of humans.” For more information on the project, email Jana Harper.

For tickets to the world premiere of This Holding May 29–30, 2020, please visit OZ Arts Nashville.