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Meet the Staff: Chiquita Mullins Lee

A modern-day renaissance woman--Chiquita Mullins Lee is our arts educator, poet, writer, administrator, journalist, performer, chef, commodore, and friend. On top of this, she’s also the Ohio Arts Council’s Arts Learning Coordinator--which encompasses an even longer list of programs, events, and grants. 

An arts administrator at the OAC by day and an accomplished poet and playwright off the clock—Chiquita's plays (including Exclusive Deluxe AccommodationsTo Hear Ruby Sing, and Strutt Regulars) have been staged in Ohio, Michigan, Mississippi, and New York. Her poetry has been published in literary journals, and is a former OAC Excellence Award winner. Meet OAC's Arts Learning Coordinator, Chiquita Mullins Lee: 

Q: A southerner at heart, you grew up in Atlanta and have also lived in Nashville. Why have you chosen to call Ohio home?

I lived in Athens, Ohio, while in graduate school at Ohio University and returned to the south after I got my master's. I was working as a producer/writer at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, before I accepted the Kiplinger Fellowship to study journalism at The Ohio State University. I got my second master's two weeks before getting married and, consequently, stayed in Columbus. Later, as the marriage was ending, I received a job offer with the National Black Programming Consortium (NBCP). Soon after, I moved my mother, sister, and nephew here, and I bought a house. Then I received an OAC Excellence Award, which comes with a residency requirement. At any of those points I could have left Ohio, but something always held me here—I suppose God has a plan. 

Q: You have a degree in drama/film and psychology from Vassar College, but also have master's degrees in journalism and radio and television management. What were your days as a news anchor and journalist like? How did you find yourself in the arts administration world? 

I started my career at WDCN-TV, a public broadcasting station in Nashville, where I worked as a producer-director.  "Jubilee" (about the original Fisk Jubilee Singers who saved the school from financial ruin in the late 1800s) and the "Soulful Side of Nashville" were two documentaries that I proposed and later produced and directed. I even portrayed one of the original Jubilee singers dressed in a hoop skirt and crinoline. 

After six years at WDCN, I received a Corporation for Broadcasting fellowship to study public broadcasting management at Ohio University. This program was a precursor to my arts administration work, which began when I took the job as program development coordinator for NBPC. The work at NBPC was an opportunity to work with black filmmakers, video producers, writers, and directors who translated the experiences of Africans and African-Americans via film and television. The work drew on my film background from college, my production work in public television, my studies in public television management at Ohio University, as well as my additional studies at Ohio State, where I took cinema courses, screenwriting, and even playwriting in addition to my journalism coursework.

I met writers, poets, actors--brilliant, accomplished artists from around the world.

Also, at Ohio State, one of my fellow Kiplinger fellows, Pieter Wycoff, and I produced a public affairs documentary, "The Sky is the Limit," which examined the development of Columbus' City Center Mall. Pieter and I did the research and writing. He shot and edited the program. I conducted interviews and performed on-camera hosting duties.

Ironically, my work in arts administration has supported my artistic pursuits. 

Last year, I had the privilege of hosting three episodes of Traditions: Ohio Heritage Fellows. Ken Emerick and Kathy Signorino suggested I audition. The program was partially funded by OAC and produced by Think TV in Dayton.  The second episode of the series recently received an Emmy for Human Interest program.  It was great to be a part of the team supported by Executive Producer Gary Greenberg and led by Producer/Director, Julie Davis. 

Q: You were connected to the OAC long before you took on the role of arts learning coordinator in 2012. Can you tell us about your time on the OAC’s Artist Roster and as the Poetry Out Loud program coordinator? 

Former OAC Arts Learning Director and, later, Deputy Director, Mary Campbell-Zopf, hired me to be Poetry Out Loud project coordinator. Ohioana Library Association Executive Director David Weaver was serving on the POL planning committee. I had worked with David when he was writing Black Diva of the Thirties: The Life of Ruby Elzy. David knew of my interests in creative writing and recommended me for the job.At the time, I was focused more on fiction and playwriting, having won fellowships for fiction and playwriting from the Greater Columbus Arts Council and an Individual Artist Award in non-fiction from the OAC, but I fell in love with Poetry Out Loud.

It's exciting to see young people connect with poetry, memorize it, and then recite a poem as if they’d written it. At our student workshops for POL school champions, we encourage students to discuss why they selected and connected with a specific poem. Their responses are always heartfelt, and they develop strong camaraderie with each other.

Poetry Out Loud led me to the Artist in Residence program. Former Arts Learning Program Coordinator, Joanne Eubanks, and I worked together on POL and with our school champions during student workshops. She knew that I'd been involved in creative writing. Joanne invited me to apply to be a teaching artist on the OAC artist roster for the Artist in Residence program. I was interviewed by Joanne and two roster artists--Wendy McVicker and David Hassler. I was thrilled to be invited into the creative writing roster.

Over the years I led several residencies around the state, and each was unique and inspiring. These include Toledo Beverly Elementary School and Massillon Museum to work with participants on poetry writing. I was in residence in Ursuline Academy, a Catholic girls' school in Cincinnati where we created dramatic monologues for women. I worked with high school students at Dayton Early College Academy on their senior year autobiographies. I especially enjoyed the closing sessions when students and, sometimes teachers, presented their work written during the residency. 

  Q. Poetry Out Loud celebrated 10 years last year, and Ohio POL is making significant changes. What can we expect this year? 

We're excited about a move toward a regional structure. This year we plan to hold three regional semi-finals, with a plan toward developing six Ohio regions. During 2015-16, we will hold regional semi-finals in Dayton, Cleveland, and Columbus. It's great to see the program continue to grow during its 11th year of inspiring students. We're very proud of the students who have represented us in Washington, D.C.

We're committed to maintaining the quality of POL even as we seek to expand its reach throughout the state.

During the first year, our Ohio champion won the national finals. Last year, our champion was among the top nine regional finalists. We had a third place winner in 2014 and have had others place among regional semi-finalists at the nationals.  Registration for the 2015-16 is underway and we encourage teachers to register their schools for the program. Information about registration, regional and state finals, and the POL national finals in Washington, D.C. can be found on OAC's POL web page. 

Q: From orchestrating Poetry Out Loud, to managing the OAC’s artist roster, to overseeing grants like the Big Yellow School Bus--the Arts Learning office at the OAC is robust. Beyond your title, can you tell us a little more about your Arts Learning world? 

 A lot goes on in my arts learning world. There are statistics that support the importance of arts education for young learners. There are also studies that affirm how the arts positively impact the health of senior adults. "Lifelong learning" is a major theme in my arts learning world.

I appreciate the agency's commitment to sending artists into schools and giving students in-depth, intensive, hands-on experiences. OAC's leadership has a solid history of promoting arts education.

Big Yellow School Bus grants support field trips for Ohio students. Last year's Artful Aging Ohio pilot sponsored nine residencies in senior centers throughout Ohio. OAC artists created poems, shared music, and shared three-dimensional art with Alzheimer’s patients, residents in assisted living, and caregivers in Ohio's senior facilities. OAC is currently looking at developing a three-tiered approach to artist residencies. Artist Express supports 1-, 2-, or 3-day artist residencies in a school or community setting. Artist in Residence (AIR) supports residencies that are a minimum of two-weeks in length. The Teach Arts Ohio initiative will allow for longer term artists residencies of up to one year. The Arts Partnership program supports long-term projects with arts learning at their core. Some of these projects are community-based; others support short-term projects dedicated to teacher professional development. Evaluation is a major component of these projects because we want to provide evidence that learning in the arts has taken place.

The OAC has approximately 100 gifted, highly professional, well-regarded artists in eight arts disciplines. Six of these artists have served for many years as field consultants who meet with us regularly to discuss important issues in arts and arts learning. July 1, 2016 is the deadline for new artists apply to be on the roster.

It's exciting to develop ideas for implementing a creative, multi-faceted arts learning experience.

OAC roster artists facilitate high quality arts experiences that deeply impact the lives of students and teachers and can even transform entire communities. The Artist in Residence deadline is on February 1, 2016. I encourage teachers to visit the OAC Teaching Artist roster online and to apply to receive an AIR grant. After sponsors (AIR grantees) receive AIR grants, they and their selected artists meet to plan and discuss the details of upcoming residencies. 

Q: An accomplished poet and playwright, you have seen your work performed on the stage and published numerous times. Can you share one of your proudest artistic moments?

During summer 2007, I was the OAC's artist in residence at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. A writer who was also there from Chicago told me about a Chicago-based anthology that was open for submissions. I submitted an excerpt from the memoir I was writing that had received an OAC Individual Excellence Award. The anthology, Fifth Wednesday Journal, published my submission, which was later nominated for a Push Cart Prize. 

Q: Any advice for a budding writer itching to be published?

Read everything. Write everyday. Re-write, often. Share your work. Take classes. Be open to any opportunity that arrives.

When I was writing Pierce to the Soul, about folk artist/ barber/preacher Elijah Pierce, I spent many long nights writing and re-writing. I spent long days reading books and articles, conducting interviews and taking notes. It also pays to be a good listener. Geoff Nelson, founder of A Portable Theatre, was creative director/founder of CATCO, which staged Pierce to the Soul. Geoff recommended that we workshop the play. I received so much helpful feedback from Geoff, from dramaturg Bill Childs, and from Alan Bomar Jones, who portrayed Dr. Pierce in the play. Even the artist, Robert Post, who attended one of the workshop sessions with his wife, Jackie Calderone, gave valuable feedback that ended up crucially impacting the play's theme. All that listening paid off. Pierce to the Soul premiered at CATCO to great reviews and was named among Best in Theatre by the Columbus Dispatch in 2010.

Writing is challenging work. It helps to fall in love with the process. I love the creative process.

Q: In honor of National Arts and Humanities Month this October, will you tell us what you’ve been creating recently and #ShowYourArt?

I've got lots of work in progress, and I'm always eager to play around with words when an idea for a poem crosses my mind. I'm involved with Wild Women Writing, led by retired OSU professor Katherine Burkman. We have a performance coming up in May at the Columbus Museum of Art. Our theme for May is digging up the past. We're also preparing for a November performance of Lost Lake by James Auburn, who wrote Proof. More details will be forthcoming for both events. 

 Comments or questions for Chiquita? Email her at chiquita.mullinslee@oac.state.oh.us.



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