Celebrities announced, stage set for Conversations

By Katy Nielsen

Columbia announced its three speakers for the sixth year of Conversations in the Arts, a series of in-depth interviews featuring prominent cultural figures in the fine and performing arts.

Speakers include singer/songwriter/poet Patti Smith on Nov. 30, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor Sam Shepard on Feb. 22, 2011, and the season four “Project Runway” winner Christian Siriano on April 25, 2011.

“All of these artists have wonderful things to say about life, work, creativity, the importance of perseverance and pursuing your life goals,” said Eric Winston, vice president of Institutional Advancement, who oversees the CITA series.

Columbia emphasizes innovation, interdisciplinary work and encourages its students to create change. This series gives students a chance to peer into the life of people doing that at a high profile level, Winston said.

Last year, the focus was media arts. Next year, speakers will come from fields in liberal arts and sciences.

“We give great care to the selection of the people that we bring in for the series,” Winston said.

Smith is the first presenting artist for the CITA series. She helped define the punk rock movement in the ’70s. Smith collaborated with renowned musicians, including Bruce Springsteen.

She has received numerous awards for her achievements across her many artistic endeavors.

“Patti Smith is clearly an icon in the rock world,” Winston said. “I’m just awed by the attention she is receiving. People seemed to really be enamored with her.”

Smith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. A 2008 documentary about her life titled “Patti Smith: Dream of Life” aired on PBS in 2009.

All three speakers have reinvented themselves throughout their careers in ways similar to Smith.

John Green, chairman of the Theater Department, said he thinks truly great artists evolve.

“The artists I most admire are always in a process of development,” Green said. “They diversify; they allow themselves to be inspired.”

Shepard’s appearance is a joint effort between CITA, the Fiction Writing Department, which is billing the visit as a “Prelude Event” to its annual Story Week Festival of Writers, which runs from March 13-19, and the Theater Department. Playwriting is one of Columbia’s interdisciplinary degrees, with the writing component taught by Fiction Writing and the performance component by the Theater Department.

Shepard is an artist who successfully transformed himself across many fields.

“He has been tirelessly experimental and had some pretty massive explosions,” said Brian Shaw, assistant dean of the Theater Department. “He’s really put himself out there artistically.”

Shepard has appeared in dozens of films and written more than 40 plays. He received a Pulitzer Prize for his play “Buried Child” and he was nominated for an Academy Award in 1984 for his role in “The Right Stuff.” Movies in which he has appeared include “Steel Magnolias,” “The Pelican Brief,” “Black Hawk Down” and “The Notebook.”

“He is one of the major figures in theater of the late 20th century,” Shaw said. “Shepard revolutionized how theater was written and produced.”

Shaw hopes the CITA series will allow Columbia students “to get beyond the gloss of fame and see that it’s part of a whole artistic journey.”

Since he became a television celebrity, Siriano has successfully established himself in the fashion world.

He was the youngest person to win “Project Runway” at 22.  Today Siriano has a clothing line, a collection at Payless Shoe Source and has designed clothes for celebrities including Victoria Beckham, Lady Gaga and Heidi Klum.

“Siriano is a great role model for students,” said Melissa Gamble, director of External Affairs for Fashion Studies. “It’s incredible what he’s been able to do in such a short period of time.”

Students will have an opportunity to hear from a successful desiger about what it takes to succeed in the fashion industry, according to Gamble.

“The hard work that [Siriano] puts in, the licensing, the networking, the time commitment, all of the different things that go into creating a brand and building a business apply to students across various disciplines,” Gamble said.

Life in the arts is not simply about whether you can be a successful director, actor or designer, Shaw said. “You must understand that as the world changes you change and you have to keep experimenting.”

Conversations in the Arts programs are all at 7 p.m. in the Film Row Cinema, 1104 Center, 1104 S. Wabash Ave. Space is limited and reservations are required. Online RSVP for seats will open six weeks prior to each event. CITA is free and open to the public.