A Week with Artists

A look at Harvard's first OWAW January Arts Intensives

 “At Harvard, people who make art or participate in art often stop when they get to college. But it seems that it should be a part of everyday life, like an important part of being a person,” says Christine S. An ’11. An was a participant in the creative writing workshop, “‘All the Architectures I Am’: Structure as Revolution in Contemporary Poetry,” one track in Harvard’s first Optional Winter Activities Week (OWAW) January Arts Intensives. These specialty-related workshops were made available during the January term to students who wished to return to campus and immerse themselves in art without the anxiety of semester coursework.

These intensives were directed by various instructors in creative writing, design, comedy, theater, and dance. All were renowned in their respective arts; visual artist Jen J. Bervin taught the creative writing intensive, Professor of Architectural Theory K. Michael Hays instructed the design intensive “Architectural Fictions,” and comedians Jane F. Condon and Jimmy Tingle ran the comedy program. In addition, the American Repertory Theater’s Institute for Advanced Theater Training and Liz Lerman and The Dance Exchange instructed “Big Story, Little Story: structure, language, body,” a workshop with both dance and theater tracks.

The OWAW comedy intensive running from January 17 to 21 received particular attention. Condon and Tingle, who have both been featured comedians on prime-time television shows, made sure that all participants in the workshop got on their feet and performed every day of the program. After a week of practice, the students performed in front of a large audience at Hong Kong Restaurant in Harvard Square on Friday, January 21. Though Rumur J.H. Dowling ’14 had to be persuaded to participate in the intensive by a friend, he found that he had gained much more than a few stand-up jokes by the end of the week. “Comedy writing is deceptively intellectual,” he says. “The comedic theory and the techniques used to draw comedy out of personal experience are very compatible with methods that writers use to connect with their readers.”

Bervin’s creative writing workshop was also a unique feature of the January Arts Intensives. Bervin, a poet and visual artist, has published several books that juxtapose art and poetry, including “The Dickinson Composites” and “The Desert.” With the help of curator Christina S. Davis, Bervin pushed her students to think outside the box and view creative writing in ways they never had before. “It was nice to see Harvard students—who are stereotypically great at everything—try being uncomfortable, and then finally succeeding,” Bervin says. “I was very moved by the group.”

Bervin forced her students to use obscure techniques to make different kinds of art. In one instance, she instructed participants to write left-handed and see what kinds of figures would emerge. In another, she asked them to use typewriters to make various forms of graphic art on paper. “We spent a lot of time looking at the process of creating poetry and rethinking what poetry can be,” An says. “It’s often in print and confined to the page in black type, but we got to see how it can go further than that.”


The structure of the workshops was exploratory and laid-back; instructors emphasized that no work was a failure. “This was like week one of what would be a three-week course, because the whole thing is a constant work in progress,” Bervin says.

The experts of OWAW’s January Arts Intensives not only presented new skills, but novel perspectives on incorporating art into the daily lives of students like An and Dowling. “There’s an expression that life is tough—you either laugh about it or you cry about it,” Dowling says. “Within this comedy intensive, the point of it was that each day you definitely laugh about it.”