Honoring Student Arts Leaders: Kelsey Graywill

With the debut of the Graywill Award for Arts Leadership & Service, Duke students can now nominate a fellow student—or themselves—to be recognized for contributing to the arts community on campus. Kelsey Graywill (Class of 2018, Program II Major, duARTS President 2017–2018) worked with university administrators to establish this award to ensure student arts leaders—who may or may not major in the arts—do not slip through institutional cracks. This award will be given during Duke Commencement at the annual Arts Awards Ceremony.

Kelsey curated “What is Home,” an exhibit of work by Duke students interpreting home through many lenses for the Rubenstein Arts Center gallery.

learn more about the award

“Kelsey made significant contributions to the arts during her time at Duke,” says Vice Provost for the Arts Scott Lindroth. “Under her leadership, duARTS has grown and professionalized—last year the group revamped its website and issued its first annual report, for example. We are also grateful to Kelsey for her work supporting the opening of the Rubenstein Arts Center this spring, including curating the first exhibit in its gallery.”

Meet Kelsey in her interview with Duke Arts to learn what drives her creativity and what motivated her to establish this student award.

Kelsey surrounded by her paintings in her dorm.

Katy Clune (KC): Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you become involved with the arts at Duke?

Kelsey Graywill (KG): I was born in Florida and raised in Colorado.  My mom is an artist and my dad is a computer technician. I came from two very different places and I ended up combining two very different things at Duke.

I knew that I really loved science and wanted to study the natural sciences, but I also loved the arts and didn’t want it to be just a hobby. I wasn’t really sure how was I going to marry these things that people consider very antithetical to each other. I considered interdepartmental majors, double majors, and minors. But I was really attracted to Program II because it allows you to pick an intellectual question to center your studies around versus basing your studies on a single discipline.

I studied the one question I really kept coming back to, especially in my work in the natural sciences: Why do we make art? And what makes things beautiful? As an artist, I wasn’t really satisfied by just making art. I also wanted to understand: Why do people appreciate art, even if they’re not artists? I think those questions have a lot to do with understanding what it means to be human, so my Program II was titled “Human Creativity: Evolutionary Neuroaesthetics”.

What is Home? on view in the Ruby. Photo by Chris Hildreth, Duke University.

KC: How soon did you start heading down this path?

KG: I kind of dove right in. I started taking classes that were focused on questions that required inquiry from very different disciplines as soon as I could.

People asked me ‘What’s your favorite subject?’ when I was in high school, and I really couldn’t pick one. When I came to Duke, I knew that I wanted to get my hands on those really cool special topics classes. That’s how I started getting connected with people that would ultimately become my advisors and mentors for Program II, my research, and in my artistic pursuits.

KC: How do you define art?

KG: Art is any kind of aesthetic expression or appreciation. It can be dance or music or literature or visual art or sculpture. If you see something and you think, “That’s beautiful”, that’s art. Or if it provokes something in you. Beautiful things don’t always have to be happy. Beautiful things can be provocative and they can be solemn.

Art is not just something that people who make it can love—people who do not make art also love art. That’s something that has really, really informed how I do arts at Duke. Because I want everyone to be able to participate in art without feeling the pressure of being good at art.

Kelsey (second from the right) on a hard hat tour of the Ruby in September 2018.
“Makings of a Mind” was an exhibit of Kelsey’s paintings for her senior capstone project in Program II and explored the mystery of beauty and the brain. Learn more.

KC: What is your thinking on how best to invite students of all backgrounds and interests to participate in art?

KG: You have these really rich, really exceptional resources that Duke provides for students in the arts—like having the American Ballet Theatre in residency. That’s an amazing opportunity for dancers and students in the Dance Program.

Then you have other students that really appreciate dance, or like to dance on their own, but don’t do it as a performance or as a formal course of study. They make art for themselves, for the process of creation—and that is by no means less valid.

“Many students find their way into the arts through what other student are making.”

I think that the barrier between the two can be people thinking that they’re not good enough at art to do it more formally. I think the entry points for those students are more “fluffy” programs, like tie-dying or screen printing or terrarium workshops. For students who are not an arts major, but who want to get involved, those are their points of access to the arts community. When I was a freshman, my entry point was the student art showcase in the Bryan Center (organized by the DUU VisArts Committee). Many students find their way into the arts through what other student are making.


KC: When you look back at your time as duARTS president, and in your involvement in the arts at Duke more broadly, what are you particularly proud of?

KG: One thing that I’m really proud of is helping to grow the duARTS first-year intern program. I think that’s another great way for students to get familiar with arts on campus and start getting connected to the people that do arts programming.

I am also really proud of the ways that we engage students that are not as proactive about finding ways to make time for art. For example, our collaboration with DuWell. They reached out to me and asked, “Is there a way we can collaborate and have students create some art for the new wellness building?” Every month I designed a paint-by-numbers style mural that embodied one of the DuWell aspects of wellness. Because there is no pressure to make the design yourself, or have the responsibility of deciding what exactly is going on the canvas, students can just really enjoy the process of making art and get all its benefits.

I also co-directed the Duke Kunshan arts exchange program with Anshu Vipparla, which piloted two years ago now. We created these spoken word workshops across English and Mandarin Chinese. We did dance classes with them and created a mural project that was paint-by-numbers style—just like these ones that we did for DuWell. The way I saw those students engage with art was something that I’ll never forget.

Painting a DuWell mural on the quad. Photo by Jared Lazarus, Duke University.

KC: Tell me about why you wanted to establish the Graywill Award for Arts Leadership & Service.

KG: I felt like there needed to be a way of recognizing student leaders in the arts at Duke without gate keeping, or the requirement that you come from an arts major, or that you are nominated by faculty.

Students are not going to participate in building the arts at Duke unless they feel like what they’re doing is valued by the university. If the arts are really going to grow here, you have to grow the community. And the arts community is not just art majors.

Kelsey giving a special tour of What is Home? for supporters of the arts at Duke at the gala opening celebration for the Rubenstein Arts Center.

“I felt so much that if we’re going to celebrate the arts, then we have to be celebrating the student leaders in the arts community.”

I felt so much that if we’re going to celebrate the arts, then we have to be celebrating the student leaders in the arts community. I want Duke to be very intentional about not only recognizing the students who are talented and exceptional artists but also those who have shown a commitment to leading the arts community and creating ways for people at all levels of the university to engage with the arts daily.

I think Duke creates great students and that art makes good people. You can study many disciplines, you can be an amazing writer in the English Department or you can be an amazing biologist. But I think forcing yourself to go out of your comfort zone and to make things—to make things with other people—and to celebrate what other people make helps people understand each other and that makes them better people.