Three local composers have won what are considered to be among the largest no-strings-attached grants available to musicians in the United States.
Storm Ford, Courtney Swain and Adrienne Taylor will receive $25,000 grants from the Rhode Island Foundation through the Robert and Margaret MacColl Johnson Fellowship Fund. They were selected from among 74 applicants.
The fellowships are intended to enable artists to concentrate time on the creative process, focus on personal or professional development, expand their body of work and explore new directions.
“We are providing the financial support necessary to enable these artists to put more time into their music. This is a remarkable opportunity for them to accelerate their success in advancing their craft,” said Ricky Bogert, the grant programs officer at the Foundation who oversees the program.
Ford, Swain and Taylor were chosen by a panel of out-of-state jurors who are professional artists. They were selected based on the quality of the work samples, artistic development and the creative contribution their genre, as well as the potential of the fellowship to advance their careers as emerging-to-mid-career artists.
Ford is a 20-year-old neo-soul singer/songwriter. She began writing songs when she was 10 as a way to cope with and heal from adversity she faced.
“My artistic practice draws inspiration from my tenuous relationship to my family and the ways my marginalized identities affect how I’m defined. These factors have driven me to create the music that motivates me and my listeners to take a journey towards self-love and self-sufficiency. As a plus-size, first-generation, Lao, Nigerian, Narragansett Indian, bisexual woman, I am inspired greatly by my various identities and strive, through my music, to support and heal anyone else who has felt marginalized,” she said.
Ford says the fellowship will enable her to become proficient in composing and recording software, to equip a home recording studio and to invest in music lessons for guitar and other common instruments like piano and bass.
“As an independent artist, I want as much control over my sound as possible and strive to be a totally self-sufficiently creator. I want more control of the recording process, to direct my own sessions and to avoid paying for studio sessions, instrumentalists and engineers whenever possible,” she said.
Swain is a singer/songwriter who creates music in a variety of styles such as indie rock, chamber pop and contemporary classical. She has released four solo albums and five albums fronting the Boston-based indie rock band Bent Knee. She has performed nearly 1,000 shows solo and with artists such as Bent Knee in North America, Europe and Japan. In addition, she is a keyboardist, music director and educator who has worked with Trinity Rep, the Wilbury Group, RIOT and the Celebrity Series of Boston among other organizations.
“Over the last few years, I’ve become more aware of how my presence as an artist influences the people around me. Last spring I heard from a fan; a teacher, on her first day of school during COVID-19, frustrated by the lack of resources for remote learning. She told me how relieved she felt listening to my music after a long day. That meant a lot to me. Even beyond those who interact directly with my output, my presence as a flourishing creative also touches my family and friends: I like to think I push them to confront their passions and frustrations more directly, and to challenge their own limitations,” she said.
Swain says the fellowship will enable her to improve the quality of her work, and experiment creatively in new ways.
“Throughout my career, I’ve often been forced to cut corners with my work because of a lack of resources. With the fellowship, I can take more time and creative risks across all aspects of my creative process. Doing more of my writing in the studio, investing in new gear to develop different workflows, rehearsing and refining my pieces with other performers, developing evocative artwork and music videos to accompany my music, and working with resourceful publicists and others in the field who can help me expand my reach; these are all things I’m really excited and grateful to have the opportunity to do this year,” she said.
Taylor is a cellist and composer. She has been a resident musician at Community MusicWorks in Providence since 2012 and has been a member of the Providence College cello faculty since 2019. She has a Master of Music from Northwestern University and a Bachelor of Music from Indiana University. Taylor performed one of her recent compositions with Island Moving Company for the dance Night Vision, choreographed by Danielle Genest, during the 2019-20 season.
“I write music because of a need to create sounds that I couldn’t find in the music I was performing as a classical musician. At a certain point I realized I didn’t always feel a genuine, personal connection with the music I was playing. I wanted to play music that felt like my voice, that electrified and made visible my experience, my memories, the places I had lived, and the forests and mountains I walked in,” she said.
Taylor says the fellowship will enable her to pursue two major personal goals in music composition to expand her compositional output to include chamber music and to create a set of place-inspired compositions that honor the beauty and deep history of natural spaces and draw attention to the impact climate change will have on those places.
“The single greatest barrier I face in writing music is the lack of an extended period of time in which to write and think about music. This fellowship will allow me to take time away from some of the playing and teaching I do in order to focus on creating new work.”
The selection panel also named three finalists: Anthony Andrade of Providence, Morgan Johnston of Barrington and Roz Grace of Providence. They will receive a $2,500 stipend.
Applicants had to be legal residents of Rhode Island. High school students, college and graduate students who are enrolled in a degree-granting program and artists who have advanced levels of career achievement were not eligible.
Established in 2003, the MacColl Johnson fellowships rotate among composers, writers and visual artists on a three-year cycle. The next round will be awarded to writers. The application will be available on the Foundation’s website after July 1.
Rhode Islanders Robert and Margaret MacColl Johnson were both dedicated to the arts all their lives. Mrs. Johnson, who died in 1990, earned a degree in creative writing from Roger Williams College when she was 70. Mr. Johnson invented a new process for mixing metals in jewelry-making and then retired to become a fulltime painter. Before he died in 1999, Johnson began discussions with the Foundation that led to the creation of the fellowships.
The Rhode Island Foundation is the largest and most comprehensive funder of nonprofit organizations in Rhode Island. Working with generous and visionary donors, the Foundation raised $68 million and awarded a record $87 million in grants in 2020. Since its centennial five years ago, the Foundation has awarded more than $284 million in grants and has raised more than $328 million. Through leadership, fundraising and grant-making activities, often in partnership with individuals and organizations, the Foundation is helping Rhode Island reach its true potential. For more information, visit rifoundation.org.