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NEA 'Big Read' grant brings graphic storytelling to life

Lauren Leathers

June 16, 2020

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Thanks to a recent "Big Read" grant award from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Athens can enjoy a series of literature events next summer. Launched in 2006, The Big Read is a community-wide reading celebration.

As part of the $15,000 grant—in addition to funding from entities such as the Congregation Children of Israel, Athica Gallery, UGA's Willson Center, and Athens-Clarke County Library—Mary Frances Early College of Education professor Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor will launch a series of readings, lectures and events focused on the works of famed American cartoonist Roz Chast.

Headshot of Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

"We want to trigger community interest in readings and book discussions," she said. "But also, we will do so by coupling the book with other art forms."

Born in New York, Chast is best known for her humorous and dark cartoons, which have appeared in The New Yorker since 1978. Her book "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" is a graphic memoir, that combines cartoons, text and photographs to tell the story of an only child helping her elderly parents navigate the end of their lives. Her ability to face the inevitable with satire continues to both shock and surprise readers today.

To celebrate her work and legacy, Cahnmann-Taylor will partner with various organizations around Athens, including the Athens Community Council on Aging, Athens Institute for Contemporary Art, the Georgia Museum of Art and Nimbl to coordinate events inspired by the author's artistic storytelling. These events will range from expressive dance classes and art lessons to family gatherings and book discussions, directed toward the elderly community.

"Being on a college campus, the focus generally tends to be on younger citizens," said Cahnmann-Taylor, who works in the College's department of language and literacy education. "I've noticed very few conversations about what it means to age well. If anything can unify us, it's that we're all aging every second of every day. Chast's graphic memoir gives Athens an opportunity to focus on populations of all ages, and to look at aging with humor and art."

The events will take place May 9-June 20, 2021, appropriately between Mother's Day and Father's Day to follow the narrative of the book. The event schedule will depend on the status of COVID-19.

This is the fourth NEA grant Cahnmann-Taylor has received. Previously, she organized a slate of readings, lectures and hands-on events focused on the works of American poets Robinson Jeffers and Edgar Allen Poe and Chinese author Yu Hua.