Lia Pikus is volunteering with Arts Access Aotearoa as part of the one-year Thomas J. Watson Fellowship she was awarded in 2021. She started playing the cello when she was seven-years-old and at high school, she became a songwriter.

“The ability of the arts to connect and build caring community spaces has always been a central part of my life and it’s something I find really beautiful,” she says.

“Music really is a tool for joy, and joy is a legitimate form of resistance against systems of punishment.”

At Rice University in Houston, Texas, Lia double-majored in music and political science. At first, the majors remained distinct from one another but over the course of her time in university, she began to explore the intersection of the two.

This path led her first to ethnomusicology and then to the intersection of arts and justice work – sparked particularly through her research for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and cemented by her research on abolitionism.

“It was this intersection that led me to my fellowship proposal, which I applied for and received in my senior year of university,” Lia says. “I then deferred the fellowship by one year because of Covid and began my year of travel last August.
Lia responds to three questions, asked by Arts Access Aotearoa.

Q: What is the scholarship enabling you to do?

A: The Watson Fellowship is a travel-based fellowship awarded to graduating seniors from a selection of colleges around the United States to pursue a project of interest around the world.

Essentially, it provides funds to each recipient so they can explore their project for a year, either alone or by partnering with organisations in their host countries, without need for employment. Its focus is producing fruitful experiences and personal insight for each fellow – and not necessarily a product.

This means that each fellow has their own entirely distinct question for which they are awarded the fellowship. My research question, split into two parts, is:

  1. How does music create, support and sustain community?
  2. What is the role that this community/the arts in general have in the collective re-imagination and abolition of systems of punishment around the world? What is, and what can be, the role of music and the arts in prison abolition? How does creative practice, through community-building, experience-sharing, joy, expressivity and imaginative thinking, have an essential part to play in re-imagining worlds? 

This fellowship is enabling me to explore these questions in an open-ended way for a year without the need for a product. It’s allowing me to prioritise curiosity and experience over deliverables, which is incredibly valuable for the questions I’m studying. 

Q: What are three highlights of your travel to date?

A: My travel and research thus far has been incredibly fruitful, as well as intense at times. Three highlights of my travel to date:

  1. Going trekking in the Himalayas. I was based out of Delhi from October through January, and in December I planned a week-long trek in the Himalayas, which was a truly magical experience. Not related to my project but a highlight of this year certainly.
  2. Getting to work with a network of abolitionist organisations in London and helping to produce a podcast, which is still under way. It was so inspiring getting to see so many people committed to creative, imaginative visions of collective futures that aren’t centred around punishment, and working to build that future in different ways – some big and some small – every single day. 
  3. Working with Arts Access here in Aotearoa! It’s such a great organisation and I’ve been learning a lot related to my topic during the weeks I’ve spent here, both through the direct research I’m doing and connections I’ve been introduced to through the organisation.

Q: Why did you choose to visit New Zealand and what are you doing with Arts Access Aotearoa?

A: I chose to come to New Zealand, specifically Wellington, because there are so many people and organisations here actively doing work related to my project, and because the arts seem to play a unique role in building community in New Zealand.

I was also introduced to Arts Access Aotearoa through a connection I had at my university back when I was applying for the fellowship over two years ago, and once I received the fellowship, our connection blossomed from there.

Working with my colleagues, I’m developing a comprehensive literature review around the six arts practices, outlined in the 2021 Arts in Corrections Literature Review.

I’m also looking forward to meeting up with the singer/songwriter Annah Mac in Dunedin. Annah has been teaching at Otago Corrections Facility for a number of years and I’m sure we’ll have a lot to talk about.

Exploring the intersection of the arts and justice systems


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