The John Simon Guggenheim Foundation has announced that Stephen Kuusisto, University Professor in the School of Education and director of interdisciplinary programs and outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute in the College of Law, has been awarded a 2021 Guggenheim…
Curating the Bigger Picture: Evan Starling-Davis Approaches Literacy from Multiple Entry Points
Evan Starling-Davis is a narrative artist, curator and producer. More precisely, he names himself a digital-age “griot”—a term used for traveling poets, musicians and storytellers who maintain a tradition of oral history derived from the African diaspora’s culture and history. “I want to honor my history and birthright of storytelling,” Starling-Davis says. “I’m just exploring it with the technology, knowledge and Blackness I have today.”
Starling-Davis’ graduate advisors agree, calling him a consummate storyteller, a big-picture thinker, someone who takes a meta-approach to problems and “can do anything that he decides what he wants to do.”
What he’s already done as a Ph.D. student in literacy education in the School of Education is staggering. He simultaneously completed an M.A. in museum studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, while actively working as a playwright, a filmmaker and an exhibition curator. He worked as a teaching artist and playwriting instructor at Syracuse Stage, a mentor and workshop facilitator for Writing Our Lives, and a camp education and programming coordinator at the Community Folk Arts Center’s Creative Arts Academy—a summer arts and culture camp here in Syracuse.
Starling-Davis is a proud Syracuse resident, whose community work includes everything from tutoring students for the SAT, facilitating college essay workshops and creating public work that invites the community to explore the creative arts through literacy. He is currently the graduate assistant at the Lender Center for Social Justice as well as a 2020-2021 Graduate Student Public Humanities Fellow, supported by Humanities New York, the Syracuse University Humanities Center and the Central New York Humanities Corridor.
He also serves on the advisory board for Syracuse’s Community Folk Art Center and his alumni association board of directors at SUNY Purchase, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 2013. He is also a member of the board of directors of La Maison Baldwin, an organization that honors and celebrates the legacy and home of James Baldwin in the South of France by investing in and supporting Black writers.
The Syracuse native sees all of these pursuits as having a common thread that, naturally, led him to his Ph.D. program. His doctoral advisor, Dean’s Professor and Chair Marcelle Haddix, has known him since his days as a student at Syracuse’s Nottingham High School while he participated in her Writing Our Lives program. When he first broached the idea of earning a Ph.D. she asked him,”Is this the right time to pursue doctoral studies. How can the PhD process support your creative pursuits and community engagement?”
His answer: “Teaching is storytelling. Storytelling heals. I have an opportunity (and responsibility) to provide multiple entry points for sharing storytelling and literacy with my community and the public. I want to learn as much as I can on how we support that process.”
Andrew Saluti, his M.A. advisor and assistant professor in museum studies, says Starling-Davis’ teaching is anything but passive. “He approaches his work with an eye toward visual literacy and an empathetic approach to bridging different communities, histories and contexts. In a broad sense that’s curatorship,” Saluti says.
“He doesn’t have a traditional background in museum studies, but the program was a natural fit with Evan’s approach to storytelling. He sees the bigger picture of the role of the museum and the curator, well beyond the walls of the gallery or collection. As a curator, he actively employs curatorial contexts as an agent in education and advocacy,” Saluti adds. That’s why the show he did for his curatorial class, “The Radical Collage: Afrosurrealism and the Repurposed Fabrication of Black Bodies,” was chosen for display at Syracuse University’s Lubin House in New York City.
Starling-Davis is straightforward about his highly innovative approach to literacy and storytelling, “I am an artist at heart. I want to play with everything,” he says.
His Ph.D. research examines how environments influence literacy and how they can motivate Black literacy and storytelling. He wants to affect school policy and how we engage with literacy in predominantly Black and Brown communities—not just by putting books in people’s hands but finding innovative ways to give people space to engage with imagination and tell stories about their own experience.
“Stories have kept me sane and grounded. Writing is a healing process. I wanted to work with Dr. Haddix because she gets that,” Starling-Davis says. “Her work is community involved in a deep way, and I can use scholarship and research as tools to help the community heal. I’m trying to get at that truth in community spaces and use stories to heal.”
He is committed to creating multiple ways for people to enter into and share storytelling and promote literacy. His current project portfolio, on top of his Ph.D. work, reflects his ambition. His recent reading of a new play focused on the toll of gun violence and what it means for Syracuse to deal with the aftereffects of being a rust belt city, titled “Madness, In the Clearing of Blue” as part of Syracuse Stage’s 2020-2021 Cold Read Festival.
Alongside his partner, director and Syracuse alumnus Carlton Daniel Jr. G’16, Evan is working to produce and expand their short film, “Homegoing,” which received a $40,000 grant in the inaugural CNY Short Film Competition and has been selected for five prestigious film festivals.
Finally, as a Public Humanities Fellow, he is working with Syracuse University experts in virtual and immersive interactions to work on an extended reality (XR) project that immerses participants into surrealist environments of Black art, literature and museum archives as a way to research literacy motivation in Black communities.
His graduate mentors are confident that Starling-Davis can accomplish anything he sets out to do.
“What Evan brings to curation is sorely needed within the field. He takes his knowledge outside of traditional silos and has a disarming ability to present his ideas and elicit conversation in a way that is completely inclusive,” says Saluti. “His passion for creating contexts that motivate people is what our field needs now.”
“If he stays in academia, he will make significant contributions to scholarship and the field of literacy. However, he needs to be somewhere where he can use the stage and writing and other forms of the creative arts to make contributions. These are truly accessible forms of community literacy,” says Haddix. “I don’t know what he’s going to do, but I can’t wait to see.”