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Community Conversations: University of Central Florida

In our newest NEA Big Read blog series, Community Conversations, we’re handing over the microphone to the people who know our grantees best: their partners. Today, Virginia Howerton (Public Services Manager at the Seminole County Public Library) interviews Keri Watson about the University of Central Florida, the origin of their NEA Big Read, and the intertwining threads of art and literature.

Tell us about the history of the University of Central Florida’s NEA Big Read! When did you get the first grant? How long have you been coordinating annual events—and what types of partnerships have you had?

We received our first NEA Big Read grant in 2015, and have been honored to host Big Read events the last three years. We have partnered with numerous organizations, including the City of Eatonville for Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, the Florida Farmworkers Association for John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and the Florida Department of Corrections for Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. We have also partnered with Orange County Public Schools, Aspire Adult Residential Facility, the Orlando Coalition for the Homeless, and the Orlando Museum of Art, but our primary partner has always been the Seminole County Public Library.

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Can you think of a particularly memorable or successful event from past years? Could you describe the event, and how it tied in with your NEA Big Read book for that year?

Last year, we were able to schedule our NEA Big Read as part of UCF Celebrates the Arts, a free two-week showcase of visual and performing arts that is held each spring. In celebration of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the School of Performing Arts produced both Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and a staged reading of Frank Galati’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, and the School of Visual Arts and Design curated In The Eyes of the Hungry: Florida’s Changing Landscape for the Terrace Gallery at Orlando City Hall. This art exhibition brought together photography, painting, printmaking, quilting, video, installation, and embroidery to explore the history of agriculture, industry, migration, tourism, and ecology in Florida. By participating in UCF Celebrates the Arts, we were able to involve students and the community, demonstrate how art and literature are intertwined, and introduce the NEA Big Read to thousands of people.


The UCF School of Performing Arts’ production of “Oklahoma!” Photo courtesy of the University of Central Florida.

I know the Seminole County Public Library system got involved with partnering with the University in 2011, when we began looking for opportunities to enhance our mission of enhancing life-long learning. One of our goals was to find partners to help make programming happen for our adult library patrons—and the University of Central Florida became one of those programming partners! So I think that relationship was always there; but what was your motivation for reaching out to the Library when you were submitting your NEA Big Read grant? Why Seminole County?

UCF is committed to community engagement and partnerships, and although the main campus is located in Orlando (which is in Orange County), it is adjacent to Seminole County, and a lot of UCF students and faculty live in Seminole County. When I moved here in 2014, we settled in Oviedo and my son is a second-grader at Stenstrom Elementary, a Seminole County Public School. We regularly visit the Oviedo branch of the Seminole County Public Library and love their programming, so I knew they would be a great partner. The partnership has been great—the library is able to reach a diverse audience of K-12 children and older adults, while UCF is able to cater to both traditional and non-traditional college students, faculty, and staff. By working together we reach a large and diverse cross section of our local community.

“The partnership has been great—the library is able to reach a diverse audience of K-12 children and older adults, while UCF is able to cater to both traditional and non-traditional college students, faculty, and staff. By working together we reach a large and diverse cross section of our local community.”


Audience gathered for Dinaw Mengestu’s lecture at the UCF Art Gallery. Photo courtesy of the University of Central Florida.

Just out of curiosity; given that you are coming from a fine arts background at UCF, what inspired you as a professor of art to write an NEA Big Read proposal for our Central Florida community?

Well, my research has always been interdisciplinary, existing at the intersection of art and literature. When I saw Hurston’s book on the Big Read’s call for proposals in the fall of 2014 it was my first semester at the University of Central Florida and I thought it would be a great way to get involved with the City of Eatonville and the annual Zora! Festival, as well as to continue my research on Hurston’s photo-book, Tell My Horse. It was so much fun, I decided to apply again the following year and now can’t imagine a year without it!

The NEA Big Read goes far beyond what I do in my classes, and I am lucky to have amazing colleagues who value interdisciplinarity and are always eager to collaborate. The Public History Center has been a great partner, and faculty in English, Political Science, and Women and Gender Studies have offered book clubs and participated in outreach events. Each year, the School of Performing Arts has directed a stage production related to that year’s book choice, the UCF Art Gallery has curated an exhibition, the John C. Hitt Library has hosted the kick-off, and countless faculty and staff have volunteered their time and energy to present lectures and participate in round-tables and special events.


A still from the UCF School of Performing Arts’ production of “Pentecost.” Photo taken by Tony Firriolo.


UCF’s College of Arts & Humanities, Dean Jeff Moore, picks up his NEA Big Read book. Photo taken by Heather Gibson.

How did you decide on The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears for this year’s NEA Big Read?

After Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Grapes of Wrath, both of which were directly related to my research into American art of the 1930s, we were ready for something new. We wanted to choose a more contemporary title, and we knew we wanted a book that would support a discussion of the current refugee crisis.

Do you think your programming [with The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears] created and supported those discussions?

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears offered themes such as migration, the American Dream, and gentrification that we felt were incredibly relevant today. To inspire readers, the School of Performing Arts produced David Edgar’s Pentecost, which interweaves the past with the present to challenge how society responds to a refugee crisis and treats the precarious bodies of the displaced and wounded, and the UCF Art Gallery hosted Finding Home: The Global Refugee Crisis, which brought together 14 contemporary artists from around the world whose work addresses themes including borders as geographical and symbolic dividing lines, displacement and asylum seeking, refugee camps and detention centers, and immigration and resettlement.

We also were really excited to feature a novel by a living author and were thrilled that Dinaw Mengestu visited the exhibition and presented a lecture and book signing. This was our first year partnering with the Florida Department of Corrections, as well, and the novel really resonated with the men incarcerated at the Central Florida Reception Center.


A still from the UCF School of Performing Arts’ production of “Pentecost.” Photo taken by Tony Firriolo.


Part of the exhibit “Finding Home: The Global Refugee Crisis” at the UCF Art Gallery. Photo courtesy of the University of Central Florida.

Okay, last question. If you could envision any event celebrating the NEA Big Read in the Central Florida, never mind the logistics or expense or magnitude what would it be?

Wow, that’s a tough one. We’ve been lucky to have great support from the community. Each year more and more people attend our NEA Big Read events, so I am excited to see what the future holds. One area that I would love to see grow is our new partnership with the Florida Department of Corrections. The U.S. prison population has increased 408% over the last forty years, and the U.S. Bureau of Justice reports that 75% of released inmates are rearrested within five years, but numerous studies have shown that reading reduces recidivism. Reading teaches empathy, helps build dignity, and opens the door to magical worlds. Bringing the Big Read to area prisons has been a very rewarding experience that I hope we can continue.


Dinaw Mengestu at the UCF Art Gallery opening of the 2017-2018 NEA Big Read exhibit. Photo courtesy of the University of Central Florida.