For the first time since their revival, in 2012, the Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement Awards have gone to a pair of artists whose medium is words.
Both nonfiction writer and performance poet Adriana Ramirez and poet Cameron Barnett explore the ways historical events resonate across time and geography.
Ramirez was recognized as an established artist, and Barnett earned the emerging-artist award. Each received $15,000, and will be honored at a ceremony Monday.
The awards are sponsored by The Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation. This year’s award was also the first time the public was invited to nominate awardees. Ramirez and Barnett were among the 100 different artists nominated by the public.
Ramirez, who lives in Highland Park, writes about the effects of political and personal violence in Colombia, rural Mexico and the U.S. She is currently close to completing her final draft of “The Violence,” which traces the ramifications for her family and others of the Colombian civil war that began in 1948 (and was called “The Violence”).
“I’m really fascinated with how people deal with grief, especially in things like the war on terror, the war on drugs, international conflicts, the way that body counts can be so misleading” in distracting us from the actual impact of the violence, she said. “I’m very much in tune with thinking about the relationship between the individual and the larger tragedy.”
Ramirez is of Mexican-Colombian heritage. She was born in Mexico, in 1983, and grew up in southern Texas. Earlier this year, she received a $10,000 grant from the same two foundations’ Investing in Professional Artists grant. She said she plans to use the Creative Achievement Award money for expenses including childcare. (She and her husband have a young son and a second child due in January.) She said the biggest thing the funds mean to her is time.
“So having the ability and the time to read, write, research, gather, make, do, is amazing,” said Ramirez, who is also known locally as a competitor and organizer on Pittsburgh's slam-poetry scene.
But the award also goes beyond monetary considerations. “Especially as a woman of color and an immigrant ... it means a lot to me to be recognized and to have that kind of support,” said Ramirez.
Barnett, who was born in California and grew up mostly in Pittsburgh, is best known for his 2017 collection “A Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water.”
“Some of my biggest themes are searching for identity, particularly in black experiences, and as of late trying to articulate that and research that through personal family history,” he said.
His father’s side of the family left the U.S. for Canada more than a century ago because Barnett’s great-grandfather, a physician, was not permitted to practice in this country, Barnett said. A great-grandfather on his mother's side fled a lynching in the Jim Crow era and eventually ended up in Pittsburgh.
“Pittsburgh for me is sort of a collision point of not just family, but sort of huge historical forces in our society that in so many ways still have an echo today,” he said.
His next book “will be sort of pushing further into that same idea to explore where I as an individual come from, and how I as an individual am possible through the black experience of my family on the North American continent throughout generations,” he said.
Barnett, who lives in Garfield, teaches English and history to middle-schoolers at University of Pittsburgh’s Falk Laboratory School, in Oakland, which he attended as a child. Like Ramirez, Barnett received an Investing in Professional Artists grant this year. (His was for $8,500.) He plans to use the Creative Achievement to pay down student debt, though he said he might also pursue a writing retreat. And he hopes that having a teacher who won such an award might inspire his own writing students.
“‘Truly affirming’ is the word I think of when I think of this award,” he said.
The Creative Achievement Awards were conceived in 1991 by Carol R. Brown, an arts leader who was president of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust from 1986 to 2001. The awards went on hiatus from 2002 to 2011. Winners have since included poets, theater artists and multidisciplinary artists. Last year's winners were interdisciplinary artist Alisha B. Wormsley and venerable set-designer Tony Ferrieri.
This year’s awards ceremony will feature a performance by Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded the vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and her daughter, singer and songwriter Toshi Reagon. They will perform selections from the “Bernice Johnson Reagon Songbook.”
Admission is free but registration is requested. Registration information is here.