Hundreds of Brookdale students competed this fall in the first ever interdisciplinary scholarship competition hosted by Brookdale’s new Humanities Institute.
Faculty from Brookdale’s English and art departments came together to host the competition, which required students to either write an essay or craft an original work of art based on the writings of acclaimed author William Jon Watkins.
Watkins, a prolific author of more than 1,000 poems, hundreds of short stories, numerous plays and books, was also a founding Brookdale faculty member. He served as a humanities professor at the college until his retirement in 2008.
Faculty from across the college assigned some of Watkins’ stories this fall as part of their regular coursework, encouraging students to use them as inspiration for original essays, drawings, sculptures and paintings. Hundreds of students submitted entries to the competition, hoping to take home the top prize and a share of nearly $1,500 in Brookdale Foundation scholarships.
Faculty and students joined Watkins in the CVA Gallery on Dec. 15 to recognize the top three finishers in the essay and arts competitions.
Evan Hutchins took top prize in the arts competition for his original song “Looking Through,” which he wrote, performed and recorded in homage to to Watkins’ short story “Beggar in the Living Room.”
Joined by his sister Kayla, who sang vocals on the track, Hutchins said he was inspired by the author’s themes of desensitization and apathy in the modern world.
“I kind of ran with that,” said Hutchins, a business major who took home a $400 Foundation scholarship for his efforts. “In one verse there is a line, ‘I saw a boy asking for a bit of change. Let’s hope someone comes and gives a hand.’ That was really inspired by his story.”
Second place and a $200 scholarship went to Regina Normandia for her striking original sculpture of a hand and half a brain, based on Watkins’ short story “The Butcher’s Thumb.” John DeSimone won third place and a $100 scholarship for a creating a book of ten drawings based on multiple stories and poems, including a haunting, surrealist depiction of Watkin’s story “The Job.”
“I didn’t know I was as crazy as I apparently am,” joked Watkins, after inspecting the works with each student artist. “I think they were all spectacular. It’s just amazing how much talent there is in one room.”
First place honors in the essay competition went to Shaelyn Humora for “Darling, I’m a Nightmare Dressed Like a Daydream,” a literary unpacking of “The Beggar in the Living Room.”
“Through the use juxtaposition, allegory, and symbolism, Watkins asserts that appearances, especially aided by new technology, can often obscure the reality of our world,” said Humora, reading from her essay.
Second place went to Vincent Youncofski for his essay titled “Heartless Humanity,” while Alexis Mullin took home third place honors for her essay “Lack of Empathy By Repeated Exposure to Violence.” Both essays were inspired by “The Beggar in the Living Room,” which many English and writing faculty taught as part of their coursework this fall.
“I thought what was wonderful about this competition was this community that was created, that wasn’t there before,” said assistant English professor John Ryan, who helped spearhead the competition alongside art professor Marie Maber. “All the faculty who read through submissions, served as judges and helped design a three-week curriculum for it. It’s just spectacular.”
Ryan also thanked Watkins, who not only provided the inspiration for the competition but served as final judge of the essay contest. For a first-year student like Youncofski, the honor of being recognized by an accomplished author like Watkins was even more humbling than taking second place in the competition.
“When I first applied here, I got a 70 on my essay so I was required to take a non-credit, entry-level writing course,” he said. “But I had the opportunity to join the Accelerated Learning Program … Since then I have definitely come a long way.
“I have improved my vocabulary and I’ve improved as a writer, thanks to my professor [instructor Judy Angona],” he added. “And I’ve just put in a lot of work and time at the Writing Center. So, this contest – I am extremely proud. I mean, the author of ‘The Beggar in the Living Room’ read my piece and he liked it. That says something to me.”
All three essay winners will also be featured in the Spring 2016 edition of the literary magazine Interpretations.
The Bill Watkins Competition concluded a semester-long “Celebration of the Humanities,” which began in September with the We/Re/E-Merge exhibition in the CVA Gallery. The initiative, according to Maber, successfully brought together faculty and students from across Brookdale’s Humanities Institute, regardless of discipline or area of interest.
“This really is kind of a new world,” she said. “To me, when my visual arts students want to read more, that’s an A-plus. So it’s really, really exciting, and this very well should be the first of many, many such collaborations.”
Click here to learn more about the Brookdale Humanities Institute.
Check out more photos of the Bill Watkins Competition awards here.