The Pittsburgh Foundation

Carol R. Brown 2019 Creative Achievement Awards honor two literary artists

PITTSBURGH, Nov. 11, 2019 –Pittsburgh-based writers – Adriana Ramirez, an acclaimed Mexican-Colombian literary artist with a national reputation for slam poetry and nonfiction writing, and Cameron Barnett, an African American poet and educator whose work explores the lives of Black people in North America – are the winners of this year’s Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement Awards. They will be honored during a public program, Dec. 9, at Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse, Downtown. Tami Dixon, principal creative and co-founder of Bricolage Production Co. will serve as master of ceremonies. 

The awards highlight the importance of the arts to the Pittsburgh region, and this year’s ceremony will feature musical artists Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, and her daughter, Toshi Reagon. Dr. Reagon is a scholar, singer/songleader and activist who has been a profound contributor to African American and American culture for over half a century. Dr. Reagon founded Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1973. Toshi Reagon is described in numerous news stories as a “one-woman celebration of all that’s dynamic, progressive and uplifting in American music.” Together they will perform selections from the “Bernice Johnson Reagon Songbook.”

The annual awards program has been co-sponsored by The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments since 2012 because of a shared commitment to the arts, and a deep appreciation for the contribution of Carol R. Brown to the vitality of the region’s cultural community, The awards program recognizes one established artist and one emerging artist. Each award comes with a $15,000 prize.

Ms. Ramirez is this year’s established artist awardee. A writer, book critic and performance poet, she writes about violence, race, politics, gender and culture in the U.S. and abroad. Emerging Artist Awardee, Mr. Barnett, who also has a career as an editor and a middle school teacher, explores through is poetry the political, personal and cultural nuances of the Black experience.

For Ms. Ramirez, an independent scholar and a working mother, the award will be a significant boost, helping to cover the expenses of writing a highly detailed nonfiction book about the history of violence in the Americas.

“Support for travel, being able to pay a transcriptionist, and buying a portable scanner that actually works are essential to my work. This support changes everything,” she said.  “Being a working artist for a long time depended on patronage. We’re really lucky that institutions and foundations still exist to support artists doing this kind of work. I’m extraordinarily grateful.”

Mr. Barnett said the honor “is an affirmation that [my work] is not just about what I’ve done, but where I come from. That gives me strength. It allows me breathing room to pursue writing and publishing opportunities. Even more than the financial aspect is that it makes me believe that I am a poet. To be acknowledged by a committee of interdisciplinary artists is very humbling and fulfilling for me personally, and something that I will never forget.”

This year’s award objects, which features stained glass elements, are designed by Pittsburgh-based interdisciplinary artist Alisha B. Wormsley, who was last year’s Emerging Artist Awardee.

Nominees for the Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement Award are recommended to Pittsburgh Foundation and Heinz Endowments staff by a panel of working artists and cultural professionals with significant experience at the national and/or international level in their respective fields. This year, for the first time, the public was invited to nominate. That process resulted in 236 nominations for 100 different artists. Mr. Barnett and Ms. Ramirez were among the candidates submitted through the public process.

About Established Artist Awardee Adriana Ramirez: Ms. Ramirez describes herself as a “violentologist” who studies and writes about the effects of political and personal violence in Colombia, rural Mexico and the United States. The book blends family oral histories with a larger national narrative grounded in her own exhaustive research as a journalist. Ms. Ramirez sees connections across geography and culture in this work, exploring questions such as “how a kid in Pittsburgh is connected to a guerrilla fighter in South America” and how people from Pittsburgh’s East Liberty to as far away as the Lower 50s in Barranquilla, Colombia, are influenced by American colonialism.

A critical component of her work is the tenuous nature of truth and the influence of personal bias when reporting about conflict. “These very human flaws are at the center of my writing. I'm interested in the moment when violence happens both in thought and action, how we let our humanity rival our animality,” she says.

Ms. Ramirez received a grant of $10,000 earlier this year from the Investing in Professional Artists program that also is a joint program of The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.

About Emerging Artist Awardee Cameron Barnett: A poet and educator, Mr. Barnett’s said his work focuses on two main questions: “Who are we? And who are we to each other?” He focuses on how portrayals of groups of people, particularly Black people, are often monolithic and presented from the perspective of the dominant society, a perspective that leaves little room for empathy and nuance.

“My belief is that stories are the binding thread of all communication. Stories are what bind us, and how we create empathy, understanding and growth. As a society we are always revising and line editing our past and present selves,” said Mr. Barnett. He said he will use his award to help achieve greater financial stability and, like so many others of in recent generations, pay down student-loan debt.

He said he also hopes this award will inspire his students at Falk Laboratory School, where he teaches sixth-grade history and seventh-grade English language arts.

“Several of my students are genuinely interested in writing poems and stories,” he said. They already know about his 2017 book of poems, “The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water,” and “to know that I’ve won an award could make them realize that if someone like Mr. B can do it, their teacher teaching them how to write, then they’re not too far away from something like this for themselves.”

Earlier this year, Mr. Barnett was awarded $8,500 by the foundations’ Investing in Professional Artists program to support his second full-length book of poetry, which is centered on the historical and racial roots of his heritage in the U.S. and Canada, and the histories of slavery, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement. He was also one of nine poets whose work was included in the chapbook “Psalms for Mother Emanuel: an Elegy from Pittsburgh to Charleston,” commissioned by The Pittsburgh Foundation and published a year after the 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

History of the Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement Awards: The program was conceived in 1991 as the Creative Achievement Awards by Carol R. Brown, who was president of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust from 1986 to 2001. Ms. Brown oversaw the transformation of a 14-square-block area of Downtown Pittsburgh from a red-light district to a nationally recognized model for arts-based community redevelopment. The awards program went on hiatus from 2002 to 2011. In 2012, as part of their Investing in Professional Artists: The Pittsburgh Region Artists Program, which supports working artists and their creative processes from concept to completion, The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments resurrected the awards and renamed them the Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement Awards. The program is one of very few in the region that provide direct philanthropic support to individuals.

Recipients of the Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement Awards since their creation are:

Year    Emerging Artist                                            Established Artist

2019    Cameron Barnett (literary artist)                    Adriana Ramirez (literary artist)

2018    Alisha B. Wormsley (interdisciplinary)         Tony Ferrieri (set design)

2017    Sarika Goulatia (multidisciplinary)                Susan Tsu (costume design)

2016    Tereneh Mosley (fashion design)                   Yona Harvey (literature)

2015    Brett Kashmere (multidisciplinary)               Karla Boos (theater)

2014    Lenka Clayton (multidisciplinary)                 Jon Rubin (multidisciplinary)

2013    Tami Dixon (theater)                                      Roger Humphries (music)

2012    John Peña (visual arts)                                    Toi Derricotte (literature)

About the Ceremony: The awards ceremony will take place Monday, Dec. 9, at the Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse, Downtown. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. for a free reception that is open to the public. The awards ceremony begins at 7 p.m. Register for the event online.

The selection panelists for the 2019 Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement Awards were:

  • Elizabeth Chodos, director of the Miller Institute for Contemporary Art at Carnegie Mellon University.
  • Judith Hansen O’Toole, interim director of the Frick Pittsburgh and previously The Richard M. Scaife Director/CEO of The Westmoreland Museum of American Art.
  • Ali Rosa-Salas, director of programming at Abrons Arts Center/Henry Street Settlement in New York City and an independent curator.
  • Che “Rhymefest” Smith, a documentary filmmaker, world traveler, prolific writer, artist, community organizer and teacher who shatters negative stereotypes in hip-hop. 
  • Nico Wheadon, executive director of NXTHVN and an adjunct assistant professor of art history and Africana studies at Barnard College, and adjunct professor at Hartford Art School, where she teaches in the interdisciplinary MFA program.

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