PAWTUCKET — One of Pawtucket’s native sons and an “adopted” one from across the state line were honored Monday night by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.
In a ceremony at the Hope Artiste Village, city resident Richard Kazarian, a noted historian, antiques dealer and civic leader, was the recipient of the 2010 Tom Roberts Prize for Creative Achievement in the Humanities. In addition, nationally recognized, award-winning singer, songwriter and storyteller Bill Harley, of Seekonk, Mass., was given the 2010 Honorary Chairs’ Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities.
Billed “A Night of Curiosity,” the event, which featured a live auction as well as a performance by Harley, drew an eclectic and artsy crowd to the renovated mill complex on Main Street. Patrons of the arts and a smattering of politicians mingled with artists from around the state in what was RICH’s 8th Annual Celebration of the Humanities.
Mary-Kim Arnold, RICH’s executive director, noted that the focus this year was on civic education. Through its efforts, RICH has awarded more than $245,000 in grants to support independent scholars and organizations in their humanities projects.
She noted that “curious, creative and expansive thinkers make for a better community” and said that both Kazarian and Harley were chosen because they embody this description as well as care deeply about their community.
Lt. Governor Elizabeth Roberts, whose husband, Tom Roberts, was RICH’s founding director, presented Kazarian with this year’s prize. The prize is awarded annually to an individual or group whose work is distinguished by “inventive, imaginative and original inquiry in the humanities.”
Citing Kazarian’s far-reaching work with everything from chairing the Pawtucket River Bridge task force to moderating the city’s recent mayoral debates, Roberts said the term “civic provocateur” was an apt description for him. “And I can’t think of a better thing to be,” she added.
Kazarian spoke of growing up in the city during hardscrabble times when immigrant parents toiled in the local mills to provide a better life for their children. He noted the irony of honoring the humanities in mill buildings such as Hope Artiste, where the poor working conditions of yesteryear would appear to run contrary to the values RICH holds dear. Yet, he noted how in its broadest sense, “the humanities is about elevating the spirit,” and said the mill setting served to provoke thought and to highlight the importance of “lifting the city” so it can begin to “right historic wrongs.”
U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, an honorary board co-chair, presented Harley with his award for Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities. The award is presented annually to an individual or group “whose career achievements demonstrate humanities excellence, reflect RICH’s mission and core values, and enrich public life in Rhode Island.”
Whitehouse noted that among Harley's many accomplishments, which includes releasing 29 albums, authoring 10 children's books and winning two Grammy awards, Entertainment Weekly labeled him “the Mark Twain of contemporary children’s music. He also noted that the prolific writer and recording artist is a long-time commentator on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” has worked on numerous theatrical productions, and is currently promoting a new spoken-word CD, The Best Candy in the Whole World, and conducting research for a new book on the culture of schools.
Harley, a native of Ohio, noted that while he makes his home “across the border” in Seekonk, he has always maintained a strong connection to Rhode Island and said the reason he loves the smallest state is “here in this room, in this moment. Despite all we’ve faced, you make it still a hopeful place.”
Harley said the award made him think about “boundaries and borders,” and how “it’s at the edges where the most interesting things occur.” He said the RICH has “reached beyond the borders of the state” in its mission and efforts to promote the humanities. Secondly, he noted that borders are constantly being crossed between the arts and humanities, and said, “my job is to make my audience look at the world in a different way. Between arts and humanities, I have no borders.”
The third border that Harley thinks it is important to cross is the one that reaches “from the adult world to the world of childhood.” “I want to give my voice to the voiceless,” he stated. He pointed out the importance of not de-valuing daycare providers, teachers, and others who work with children because “what happens to a child determines what happens to the world.”