“We don't live in a museum,” Donald Nally said. His office suggested otherwise, with books, statues and other collectibles covering every inch of the room. Nally works as the director of choral organizations at Northwestern, training the University’s most talented voices. He’s also a two-time Grammy winner. And he believes that when students work with teachers who are actually creating in real time and representing our time – whether that’s writing music or making visuals – they better understand the value of art.
Northwestern professors who are working artists like Nally organize concerts, publish books of poetry and exhibit their artwork in museums, all while making time to teach students in Evanston. NBN sat down with three of Northwestern’s artists on staff – Nally, visual artist Deb Sokolow and poet Averill Curdy – to talk about how they balance their craft with their teaching.
He’s won two Grammys for Best Vocal Performance for his work with the Crossing, his chamber choir based in Philadelphia. He organizes concerts that take years to develop, with singers from around the world. And on top of all of that, he teaches at Northwestern.
“I can't think of a greater self-reflective activity to do than teaching,” Nally said. “I learned so much about me and so much about my art, I'm a much better artist as a result of the students in my life.”
Nally has spent the last eight years as Northwestern’s director of choral organizations, working with graduate and undergraduate students who he calls “amazing human beings who are going to change the world” in Bienen.
The musician balances projects like parts of a harmony: he conducted Aniara, a 90-minute production based on Harry Martinson’s 1956 sci-fi novel that premiered in June 2019 after four years of development, and Seven Responses, a two-night concert series that premiered in the summer of 2016. The program, involving three ensembles and seven conductors, dove into how one observes the suffering of others. The effort took three years of development, all while Nally was teaching courses like University Chorale at Northwestern.
“I make time every day for my own stuff,” Nally said. “Every once in a while I'll just block a whole day off and … spend time imagining what the world would be like if we do this or that.”
Sokolow said many students think she works like a full-time high school art teacher, clocking in five days a week, correcting homework and teaching an array of classes. So current and past students are quite surprised when they notice her work in Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, or find her in books or articles.
“There's just no knowledge about what artists do or how they make a living or that there are artists in the world that aren't Banksy,” she said.
Each moment of her daily routine has been planned out since she began at Northwestern in 2009. First, her 5:10 a.m. alarm to the bus, then the train, then coffee and saying hello to the man she passes nearly every day in the window of the Evanston Panera Bread.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, she teaches courses like Intro to Drawing and Drawing Humor, and advises students in Evanston, while she spends the rest of the week at her art studio. The physical balance of space is important to Sokolow, who keeps her teaching in Evanston, her personal life at home in Wicker Park, and her art a 30-minute walk away in the studio.
“Sometimes the identities feel very separate,” Sokolow said. “But often they cross over, especially if students… say, “I'm an intern at the Museum of Contemporary Art now, and I see that you're in [a] collection, and that's so cool, and I had no idea that artists can get into the collection, and how did you do that? Did you call someone up and say, 'Here, collect my work?'"
Ironically, directing the undergraduate creative writing program does not leave much time for professor Averill Curdy to write herself. So, she schedules writing retreats.
“It helps me stay in touch with my work,” she said. “It's just nice to schedule a stretch of time where I'm not going to have any meetings.”
Curdy is in the process of compiling a second book of poems following extensive travel and research in Beirut, East Africa and on a Fulbright in Istanbul. She is exploring the experience of being a foreigner and an outsider, just as the poems in her 2013 book Song and Error covered the early European contact with North America.
Curdy said she likes to learn from her students and the poetry they read for class, which informs her way of thinking about her own writing. She said she wants students to feel the same joy of poetry that she does and that they remind her of what it is like to be a beginner.
“Part of what we do as writers is model and serve as mentors to a career that you don't know the arc of yet,” she said. “Everybody's is different. But we're all just at different spots in that arc.”