Alumni Spotlight: Sarah Matthes ’09 and Kelsey Burns ’10 Reflect on ITP

This year, Princeton Day School celebrates the 25th anniversary of its highly regarded guest artists series, Imagine the Possibilities (ITP), made possible through the John D. Wallace, Jr. ’78 Memorial Guest Artist Series Fund. Trustee Emeritus Jack Wallace ’48 and his wife, Happy, established the fund to honor their son, John, a charismatic young man who loved writing, music and theater and who died in 1990. For 25 years, ITP has continued John’s legacy, providing opportunities for thousands of students across all Divisions to learn from and work directly with 67 artists to date, including many award-winning authors and illustrators. Current ITP Director and former Third Grade teacher Beverly (“Bev.”) Gallagher developed the program, coordinating the artist visits and helping facilitate faculty participation since ITP’s inception. As part of this year’s 25th anniversary, Linda Maxwell Stefanelli '62, contributor to the Journal, reached out to two alumni whose lives were shaped by their ITP experiences.

Sarah Matthes ’09, Poet

“In May of 2019 I graduated from a Master of Fine Arts program where I spent three years studying and writing poetry. In my first semester there, we were lucky to have a renowned poet conducting our introductory seminar: Naomi Shihab Nye. I couldn't believe it; here was the poet who had been an inspiration to me throughout my developing career as a poet, ever since I first encountered her at age seven during Imagine the Possibilities at PDS.

“Hearing her speak [at PDS] was the first time I understood that there were people who dedicated their lives to expression through language -- that ‘poet’ was something I could say when asked ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ Working with Naomi Shihab in a graduate program nearly twenty years later drew a meaningful loop in my life, from sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floors of PDS listening to her read, to sharing my poems with her around a table in Austin, TX.

‘Imagine’ set me on an artistic path, introducing me to a writer who not only opened the door to the world of poetry, but was waiting to welcome me in when I got to the threshold.”

Kelsey Burns ’10, Dancer, Choreographer, Theater Artist

“I remember Lower School at PDS so vividly and I don't want to forget it. My teachers, Bev. Gallagher, Cindy Peifer, and Tina Dadian in particular, were endlessly encouraging of my idiosyncrasies and heroically patient with my serious mindset. They fostered this incredible love of beauty, vulnerability, curiosity, and daring in little tiny me. It's still there in the work I make, I think, and it's certainly shaped how I want to live my life.

"In Bev.'s class, we were constantly asking questions and seeking answers by making things: pillows and quilts, poems, soup, anthologies. This was the philosophy of ITP, too, and I looked forward to the artist visits all through my years at PDS, to the week when I knew I would be asked to look at things differently, to slow down, to listen.

"Through ITP, I met some of the artists I still admire today: Paul Muldoon, Nikki Grimes, Brian Pinkney, Jeffrey Eugenides. I remember so clearly Naomi Shihab Nye kneeling next to me to look at my poem about a cucumber, giving it all her attention, like it was the only thing in the world.

“When Bev. reached out about bringing me in for ITP as an artist, I was first terrified, then over the moon, then terrified again. I just knew I wanted to do as much as possible, and kept offering to fit in another workshop and work with another group. The nerves eventually subsided, though, and I got so excited about sharing rhythm, breath and body with the students. ITP was also able to bring in an amazing drummer to accompany me for the residency, Meredith Butterworth, which made a world of difference.

"I don't know if our assemblies and workshops will affect kids in the same way I was impacted fifteen years ago, but it was the most gratifying thing in the world to stand in front of the whole school and hear everybody play the rhythm of a heartbeat, and then the salsa clave, all in unison. Can you imagine if every school in this country had ITP? If every student between 6 and 18 met multiple artists every year, got to hear their voices and ask them questions? All I needed was evidence that I really could make a life of asking questions and making things. I may not have become a dancer or choreographer or theatre artist solely because of ITP, but it showed me that those paths were possible, even for little tiny me.”

In April, Imagine the Possibilities brings to the PDS campus author Kate Messner; illustrator and author Laura Vacaro Seeger; and Carmen Agra Deedy, author and storyteller. For more information on ITP, click here.

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