Featured Local Business

Most Read: Family Fun

Encounters with Art

Art is a natural part of our world. Explore art with your ch... Read more

Saddle up for Adventure

Hands forward, knees bent, and ready to go, 12-year-old A.J... Read more

Reeling in Summer Fun

The sun shimmers on the water, glinting on a thin fishing li... Read more

Take a Hike!

A quiet trail winds among towering trees behind Chesapeake A... Read more

Chasing the Future

Four-year-old Andrew Davis eagerly ran inside his house afte... Read more

Art Therapy for Children

A mother brought in her 7-year old daughter for an evaluatio... Read more

The Arts and Creative Problem…

Judy listened nervously as her seven-year-old son and five-y... Read more

The Sound of Sunshine

Music reverberates throughout the second floor of the Attuck... Read more

The Gifted Child

I was a gifted child. As a child, I didn’t really unde... Read more

Project Plant It! Makes Learn…

Each spring, school systems throughout Virginia partner with... Read more

The Gift of Storytelling

No matter what holiday your family celebrates, your vision f... Read more

The Imaginative World of Thea…

Asher Sullivan, 15, of Virginia Beach, discovered his love f... Read more

Connecting with Dance

At first glance, this looks like an ordinary dance lesson. T... Read more

The Thrill of the Dance

A chaotic scene awaits in the studios of Todd Rosenlieb Danc... Read more

Girls go Tech

Lily Tomlinson, a homeschooled teen from Chesapeake, may not... Read more

Girls Winning at Camp

Ahh, summer camp! Memories of night hikes under the stars, a... Read more

YCC Promises Adventure

Every summer, Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) offers over 150... Read more

Kids Need Art

The arts are more than just enjoyable activities for kids. P... Read more

Cooped Up with Kids?

Tidewater winters are known for stretches of wet, chilly wea... Read more

Raising a Reader

If you had to guess at what point a child begins learning to... Read more

Cullen Strawn interviews former detainee Mansoor Adayfi at the opening reception of the Art from Guantánamo Bay exhibition. Cullen Strawn interviews former detainee Mansoor Adayfi at the opening reception of the Art from Guantánamo Bay exhibition.
2022 Apr

Meet ODU's Cullen Strawn

Developing relationships is key to a successful career in art.

With a family of artists going back generations, it’s no surprise that Cullen Buckminster Strawn gravitated toward a career in the arts. Today Cullen serves as Executive Director for the Arts at Old Dominion University. Let’s learn more about his journey to ODU.

TFP: What’s your background?
CS: I was born and grew up in Greensboro, NC, among great diversity. In my schools and friend groups, I was in the minority and loved it because I heard different accents and languages and experienced a wide array of expressive cultures. My schools had English as a Second Language programs for immigrants and ethnic minorities, and by being around them I developed a deep interest in international folk and traditional arts.

While earning a Bachelor of Music in jazz saxophone performance at UNC at Greensboro, I connected with an ethnomusicologist (a cultural anthropologist of music) who had traveled throughout West Africa. I became his assistant and learned to play and maintain instruments including kora, balafon, jembe, and dundun. When I was a junior, he invited me to go to Mali with him to assist with some final research for his book.

My professor saw how I took to the people, their culture, the Bambara language, and the third-world conditions, and he encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright-IIE (Institute of International Education). I did and was fortunate to win it, and soon after graduating I was off with my wife to live in Mali for a year and learn all I could about the expressive culture of traditional hunters, including oral poetry, dance, music, textiles, rituals and spiritual practices, and hunting.

Back in the States I continued working at a professional recording studio and playing gigs while applying to graduate schools. I earned MA and PhD degrees in folklore and ethnomusicology from Indiana University at Bloomington and was fortunate again to win grants and fellowships like the Fulbright-Hays and Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) for research and travel to Mali.

Eventually I consulted for major arts and educational organizations, including Carnegie Hall, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM), and then became a full-time curator at MIM. From there I traveled the country working with national treasures, celebrities, collectors, and others to develop museum content that engaged 300,000 people per year before coming to ODU, where I oversee public-facing initiatives spanning arts and humanities.

My wife, Emily, works for Langley Federal Credit Union, and our daughter, Abigail, graduates this year from the International Baccalaureate Program at Granby High School. She plans to through-hike the Appalachian Trail with a friend after graduating and then attend university.

TFP: How did you come to be interested in the arts? What genre is your favorite?
CS: My mom’s line is one of artists and musicians going back generations, and my dad’s is one with great record collections and playback equipment, so I was cocooned in the arts. As a child I stood in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, in awe of huge buildings bearing murals painted by my uncle and great uncle, thinking “My family did this?” I was amazed at what my family could do musically as well and at the stories my dad told of working personally with many of my musical heroes after he served in the Vietnam War.

I grew up making art with friends and connected with people from numerous geographic regions and walks of life. One night I might be in an abandoned warehouse participating in live music and painting with improvisational dance, the next playing in an art gallery, the next drawing and composing with friends, and the next in a theatre pit orchestra.

While I find it impossible to name a favorite arts genre, I love folk and traditional forms from around the world because of the ways they can express the spark of life and the ways they can be holistic, with poetry inseparable from music, dance, textiles, sculpture, cuisine, and storytelling.

TFP: Why do you think music is a reflection of culture and vice versa?
CS: Throughout history, music and other expressive arts reflecting human life have existed where and when there are people. Whether inherited or chosen, factors like race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, class, sex, gender, and generation result in a broad range of experiences and cultures, and the arts excel at embracing complex realities. Fostering community, understanding, and positive change are strengths of the arts in today's world.

Americans for the Arts developed a great resource called the Arts + Social Impact Explorer (americansforthearts.org/socialimpact) that lets you click through many topics such as health and wellness, economy, and social justice to learn how the arts are vital and who across the country is doing good work.

TFP: Why are the arts important for society today?
CS: Arts help us explore and express what it means to be human, and they help us gain equipment for living, such as understanding and empathy. For example, our Art from Guantánamo Bay exhibition currently on view in the Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries through May 7 presents 102 detainee works made inside Guantánamo Bay.

We tell about the artists, the conditions under which they make art, and what art means to them. We offer resources for going deeper into the phenomenon of Guantánamo Bay, and we use our telepresence robot (nicknamed “Gordon”) to allow visits from around the world and also to allow in-person visitors to interact live in the exhibition with Mansoor Adayfi. Mr. Adayfi is a former detainee from Yemen who spent more than 14 years in Guantánamo enduring confinement and torture before publishing the book Don't Forget Us Here: Lost and Found at Guantanamo.

ODU is the only place in the world where visitors can have this type of experience, and it already has made great impact in the lives of students and community members. One of the most meaningful pieces of feedback that I have received from detainees is that this exhibition and its press coverage and visitor feedback make them feel seen as human and not like a number or less than an animal.

TFP: Tell us about a few exciting developments at Arts@ODU.
CS: In addition to Art from Guantánamo Bay, we have Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, the University Dance Theatre Spring Concerts, a Graphic Design Exit Review, the Spring Senior Art Exhibition, the Motion/Emotion: Exploring Affect from Automata to Robots exhibition, jazz and R&B vocalist Lori Williams with the John Toomey Trio, and an ongoing partnership with the Virginia Arts Festival. People can learn more at odu.edu/arts.

TFP: How has the current pandemic affected Arts@ODU?
CS: It has without a doubt given us opportunities to expand access and reach tens of millions of people around the world through our programming. It has challenged us to learn various new technologies in the process—technologies that we will continue using beyond the pandemic.

TFP: What are your goals for Arts@ODU?
CS: The University aims to be the recognized leader for the regional arts community. In support of this goal, construction of performance and exhibit spaces occurred, and ongoing goals include cultivating funding for public and educational programming and increasing engagement with local and international communities. We work toward integrating all of the arts by developing offerings in art, music, dance, theatre, film, and creative writing that draw diverse people together and facilitate rich discussion, all while seeking expanded enrollments and resources.

TFP: What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in the arts?
CS: Join Virginia Commission for the Arts, Americans for the Arts, American Alliance of Museums, or other organizations that align with your interests. Attend the conferences, listen, and ask questions. Malian hunters’ musicians sing that what you need in your short life on this earth lies in the hands of people. Develop relationships because it is of the utmost importance to know others who may provide opportunities or valuable references for you.

As local and internationally famed portrait and landscape photographer Glen McClure has advised ODU students, “Don’t be afraid to sweep the floor.” Apprentice, learn, and go where you can get a foot in the door. One colleague of mine who ascended to a directorship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art started off there as a security guard.

Also consult arts job boards and carefully read the required and preferred qualifications for positions that interest you so that you become aware of the experience and education that you may need to pursue.

TFP: How can parents develop a love of the arts in their children?
CS: Read to them and encourage them to read, draw, paint, sing, dance, write, and generally make and experience and feel things. It’s not only the finished products but the process of creating that does amazing things for one’s brain and being. Take them to galleries, museums, performances, and places where they can participate in activities. Their attention span may be short, but you never know what will catch their eye or spark interest. It might be something you wouldn’t expect, such as a ship model made of trash, currently on view in the Gordon Art Galleries.

TFP: Feel free to add anything else our readers might be interested to learn about you.
CS: We encourage folks to follow @oduarts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to receive updates on opportunities to engage, some of which are late-breaking owing to the pandemic.

Pages linked on this post include affiliate links to Amazon and its affiliate sites on which Tidewater Family Plus may make a referral commission.

Peggy Sijswerda

Peggy Sijswerda is the editor and publisher of Tidewater Family Plus magazine. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University and is the author of Still Life with Sierra, a travel memoir. Peggy also freelances for a variety of regional, national, and international magazines.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com

Enter to Win a 2-Night Getaway Package at KOA Virginia Beach Holiday

Don't miss this exclusive opportunity to win a free 2-night Deluxe Cabin stay, Adventureworks Zipline park tickets, plus a Campfire & S'mores bundle for you...

Free to Enter!