Home and Away
Singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan and landscape architect Sara Zewde have developed creative practices that blend the perspectives of their immigrant families with American cultural traditions.
Aoife O’Donovan is a Grammy-winning songwriter, known as the lead singer of folk band Crooked Still and for a celebrated solo career.
O’Donovan was born into an Irish-American family in Boston in 1982 and raised in nearby Newton, Massachusetts. She studied contemporary improvisation at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she met bassist Corey DiMario. Together with two other Boston-area students, the pair formed Crooked Still in 2001, and released their first of five albums, Hop High, in 2004.
O’Donovan began recording as a solo artist in 2010 and put out her debut album, Fossils, in 2013. Her fourth full-length studio recording, Age of Apathy, came out in 2022.
She has collaborated with a variety of acclaimed folk musicians, accompanied Garrison Keilloron on several A Prairie Home Companion tours, and performed with the Boston Pops Orchestra, the Kansas City Symphony, and other classical ensembles. She is a cofounder of all-woman folk supergroup I’m With Her. The trio received a 2019 Grammy Award for Best American Roots Song for the song “Call My Name.”
Sara Zewde is an eminent landscape architect who incorporates historical and community narratives into her design for public spaces.
Born in 1985 to Ethiopian immigrants, Zewde was raised in New Orleans. She studied at Boston University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard University. Her master’s thesis at Harvard looked at landscape architecture in Rio De Janeiro within the context of Brazilian culture. She returned to Rio after graduation to work with its mayor’s office drafting a design for a park at Valongo Wharf, a historical center of the global slave trade.
In 2018, she cofounded Studio Zewde, a landscape, urbanism, and public art studio based in Harlem. The company has completed or is designing for spaces in New York, Philadelphia, Houston, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and other cities.
Zewde is an assistant professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that examines how creativity is the very essence of our humanity. And on this episode, “Home and Away.” Aoife O’Donovan’s Irish roots and American upbringing have met in music that honors both without being burdened by either.
Aoife O’Donovan: It was not just Ireland. My dad and my mom both have a very, very broad palette of interests and music specifically, but really gave us a lot of opportunity.
And landscape architect Sara Zewde has traveled far and wide to discover and refine her calling: helping others nurture culture and resilience.
Sara Zewde: It’s about fortifying the traditions of the people that have imbued this place with so much value and beauty. And for that tradition to be the most resilient thing that comes out of that project.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Aoife O’Donovan grew up in a family that was closely connected, though it spanned an ocean.
Aoife O’Donovan: I think this is one of the things that my parents gave to us, which is just the real reverence for the importance of family. And we’re close to all of our cousins, and they just really make the effort to keep those ties really strong.
O’Donovan’s father was born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States in 1980. Growing up, she spent summers with her extended family in County Cork on the south coast of Ireland. Those were big gatherings, says O’Donovan. She’s one of more than two dozen grandchildren, all of whom would sleep in bunk beds in a single room at the family’s Clonakilty cottage.
O’Donovan: I would say I’m closer to many of my cousins than many people I know are to their siblings. I mean, like much closer to my cousins. I mean, I speak to them several times, like all the time. Once every couple of weeks, and before the pandemic would see them at least once a year, and we’re all planning a big trip to Ireland.
O’Donovan has called these summers magical. Over the years, the magic has morphed, but not vanished. As a songwriter, she tries to create a similar spell with music, and it’s worked. She’s won a Grammy and collaborated with some great musicians, including Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, and Edgar Meyer, as well as several major symphony orchestras. Yet O’Donovan says she can be daunted when collaborating at such a high level.
O’Donovan: Often I’m like, why am I here? Because these people are so much better than me. But I think that that’s probably how a lot of people feel. If you’re in the room with Yo-Yo Ma, you’re like, why am I here? He doesn’t need any of us. I feel like I just strive to surround myself with people who are better than me and then I strive to meet them on their level.
When she wasn’t spending summers in Ireland, O’Donovan was in Massachusetts, where family was just as important in informing her music as it was in shaping her character. In both of these homes, she learned the fine art of focused listening, of tuning in fully so as not to miss any of the finer details, spoken and otherwise.
O’Donovan: When I think about just mythology, the Irish, the way of telling a story, the way of, even my dad, who will just tell stories, like, I mean, just kind of just a casual thing you do. Just the way to sort of spin a tale and to really pull in all the elements and just to be aware of everything that’s going on in the room or in a song. It’s not, and sometimes it’s not even what you’re saying, but it’s what you’re having somebody else imagine. That’s my favorite thing about songwriting is that you give people music, you give people melody and chords, and you give people words, but there’s so much there that you’re not saying, but you are thinking.
O’Donovan’s family also helped her to see the connections music could create. Her siblings and parents played together and often welcomed others to join in.
O’Donovan: I definitely idealize that. As a teenager, my parent’s social life really revolving around music, and we would have these Christmas parties every year where it would be hundreds of people, literally hundreds of people on the Saturday before Christmas singing Christmas carols around the piano. Like, every obscure Christmas carol you have never heard of was sung in harmony around the piano, my mom at the piano.
O’Donovan went on to study at the New England Conservatory of Music, where in 2001 she helped form the bluegrass band Crooked Still. She wrote songs and was the lead singer of the group, which has described itself as defiantly non-traditional. She’s also been part of other groups, including the folk trio Sometimes Why and I’m With Her, a collaboration with fellow folk and bluegrass musicians Sarah Watkins and Sarah Jarosz. This was also the time when she was building her skills and the discipline to sustain and grow them.
O’Donovan: My voice is much more reliable now or in my thirties than it was in my twenties just simply because I party less than I used to. So I think there were certainly times where I would be at the end of a Crooked Still tour and we would’ve been up all night, every night, for two weeks and drinking beers—
AJC: As was your duty at that time in your life.
O’Donovan: For sure. So I think I definitely experienced more kind of hoarseness or less facility within the range, but I think you hit a certain age and you just don’t really do that anymore, I guess.
As Aoife O’Donovan cultivated that more reliable voice, she was also honing her skills as a songwriter, with several solo albums: 2013’s Fossils and 2016’s In the Magic Hour. Both draw on her upbringing. Fossils features several folk songs O’Donovan sang growing up, and throughout In the Magic Hour she reflects on her childhood trips to Ireland. Her latest record, Age of Apathy, may mark a particular turning point. Released in early 2022, the album originated in the disorienting early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
O’Donovan: I had such a creative lull from March of 2020 until September of 2020. I think many people did. And it was not, it was nothing compared to the devastation worldwide, me not being able to write songs or whatever, but that said, when I finally was able to sort of like find my way out of that, I feel like I saw a lot of stuff in a new light, kind of after this period of feeling like what am I doing, why am I doing it? Because performing is one thing, and that’s definitely always been my main thing, my main focus, and much more so than songwriting or creating things. And I feel like now I’m getting a little bit more comfortable with being on the other side of that. Like being a writer and figuring out what I wanna say, whereas before, I think even before the pandemic, I would’ve been like, yeah, I’m a singer and I write songs, but like, I’m a performer, and that’s it.
That newfound belief in her writing is evident in Age of Apathy. One of the songs, “Galahad”, explores the tension that can arise when different voices approach the same story. In this case, the tale of the mythical medieval knight Sir Galahad. O’Donovan wrote her own take on Galahad and his fellowship in King Arthur’s Round Table, and contrasted it with a poem also about Galahad by the 19th century British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, an excerpt of which is read for us here by the highly distinguished former US poet laureate Billy Collins.
(Excerpt from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Sir Galahad”, read by Billy Collins)
I muse on joy that will not cease,
Pure spaces clothed in living beams,
Pure lilies of eternal peace,
Whose odours haunt my dreams;
And, stricken by an angel’s hand,
This mortal armour that I wear,
This weight and size, this heart and eyes,
Are touch’d, are turn’d to finest air.
O’Donovan: I was just sitting in my sun room one night where I wrote a lot of the songs on this record, and I kind of came up with that little guitar riff. And as I do sometimes, I write down just phrases that pop into my head, and the phrase that I had written down maybe a year ago is, “You’re a white knight on a dark horse.” And I kind of tried to reimagine my own version of that tale where the woman was sort of not really trusting that he was who he said he was or that, I read the Tennyson poem that same night and I was like, oh, this is cool. I can kind of play into this, and it’s my word against Tennyson’s.
AJC: And it’s a heroine who sings that, not Galahad, right?
O’Donovan: Exactly, exactly. It’s sort of, yeah, it’s sort of they say somebody told me you were stronger than a hundred men, but it’s my word against Tennyson and I’m alive, I’m alive. Like, I’m the one who’s actually, I’m the one who’s actually here telling the story.
O’Donovan sees herself in opposition to Galahad in her rendition, but her own journey also had its own legendary quality. Galahad was on a quest for the holy grail and its elusive magical powers. Aoife O’Donovan, too, has long been in pursuit of her own unique destiny.
AJC: What did you want to be in 1993?
O’Donovan: I mean, literally in 1993, what was I? 11 years old. I think I wanted to be what I am right now, which is, I mean, looking back on my life, it does feel like the inevitable, which is a singer and a musician.
Aoife O’Donovan knows that this sense of inevitability is unusual, and acknowledges that she’s been lucky in life, but she’s not rested on the laurels of good fortune. Her life has not been defined by adversity, but by a drive to make the most of the time and talent she’s been given and cultivated.
O’Donovan: I’ve never been somebody who thought that only great art could come from a tortured-
AJC: From misery, yeah.
O’Donovan: From misery. It’s not, it’s just not true. But you can have inner misery or even inner turmoil, or you can have a tumultuous heart without being from a sort of tortured set of circumstances. No part of me looks back longingly at the past, although I can look back on it and say that was really fun and those were some good times, but I think this is what happens to people. You become more yourself as you get older.
One of the greatest virtues a musician can strive for is to be a good listener, and Aoife O’Donovan long ago learned to keep her ears wide open, taking in the big and small moments that add up to the transformative magic that is all around, which is there for all of us if we can just open our senses to it.
In 1991, a loading dock along the Delaware River in Philadelphia was abandoned by the railroad company Conrail. Disused, it became a canvas for local street artists, eventually becoming known as Graffiti Pier. Today, it’s one of the most photographed sights in Philadelphia, while in 30 years it could be underwater. In 2019, Sara Zewde was tasked by the Delaware River Waterfront Conservancy to create a plan to save the pier, but few people in the community seemed to want her help.
Sara Zewde: Pretty much everyone we spoke to said can you please not do landscape architecture? Whatever you do, don’t do landscape architecture, which is tough for a landscape architect to hear, as you can imagine.
Graffiti artists and residents of the neighborhood were suspicious. They saw Zewde as an outsider, and thought a landscape architect would sanitize their pier’s rugged beauty. But like it or not, change was going to come.
Zewde: Climate change is inevitable, and the urban development pressures are inevitable. And so if we do nothing, the place is going to change, and so the change is not at the hands of the landscape architect. We actually started to call it a Save Graffiti Pier project, which really mobilized people to get involved and to really identify for themselves what aspects of this place are important. Why is it important to rally around this place? And so as soon as we kind of reframed it as a Save Graffiti Pier project, the role of the landscape architect became clear.
Although Sara Zewde didn’t grow up in Philadelphia, she has spent years thinking about vulnerable places and the people that shape them. After Hurricane Katrina struck her own hometown of New Orleans in 2005, Zewde was determined to understand why there had been so much devastation. At the time, she was a sophomore in college and had a lot of questions for the city’s architects and urban planners. Even though they knew how to rebuild New Orleans, Zewde says, they didn’t seem to understand what its communities wanted or needed.
Zewde: As time went on, I started to understand how big the gap was between people who live there and the people that were working there. And I was so confused by this gap in the conversation, this inability to communicate at a certain level that I, at that point, was committed to studying it myself and figuring out how to operate in that space.
This wouldn’t be the first time that Zewde had sought her own answers. She had grown up hearing about her parent’s early lives in Ethiopia, and had become ever more curious about the stories that help define a place as home.
Zewde: For me, living in Louisiana, which is a place that is very culturally rich, but knowing that I had a history even longer than that that I knew of in terms of my family, always gave me a clear sense of, a clearer sense that Black people in America and around the world have incredible ancient history. This is so much bigger and so much more beautiful than what the world tells us about people that look like me. Having that consciousness gave me, it just energized me.
Zewde went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology and statistics at Boston University, and later a master’s in city planning from MIT. In 2011, her studies brought her to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil as a fellow of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. But after working as a transit planner for the 2016 Rio Olympics, Zewde realized that she’d rather be designing landscapes. So when construction workers unearthed the ruins of an infamous slave port at Valongo Wharf, she got involved in the preservation efforts, conducting interviews and archival research on the port’s history. In 2014, she used her findings to design a memorial for the site in Pequena África, to honor the community’s past as well as its present.
Zewde: Our idea of memorials come from monuments, in classical antiquity the idea of a demonstration of power, and we’ve taken that architectural tradition and used it to talk about history. And what that does is it really kind of reaffirms the idea that the history is in the past, that it’s an object. We’ve calcified it and put it on a wall, or it’s done, and here is a representation of it. And most of history is present. People say they want their history known, and so they think they want a memorial. But in reality we’re missing the chance for the landscape itself to tell a story.
Zewde proposed a landscape of plants that would’ve been recognizable to enslaved Africans as they arrived in Brazil, and created patterns influenced by the circular rhythms of samba, a dance that originated in the Afro-Brazilian communities of Rio de Janeiro. Zewde says that her goal was to create a living monument.
Zewde: It’s an approach to making spaces that the material choice, the programmatic elements that literally, the kinds of activities you can do in the place is a way to memorialize rituals, memorialize the traditions of people and place. So to me it’s, the living monument is really about creating vibrant landscapes that are historically rooted, but also about, they are representative of what people want in their future.
It was a breakthrough for Zewde, but when she returned to the United States, she was told that what she wanted to do wasn’t landscape architecture, even after receiving a prestigious national scholarship from the Landscape Architecture Foundation in 2014.
Zewde: I was told it may be policy. I was told by one person and one mentor, a respected person in the field, that if I were to operate this way, I would never be respected as a designer.
So, she took a year off from school and changed almost everything about her practice in the hope of being accepted, until she learned something vital about the godfather of her profession, a 19th century landscape architect who designed many early American public green spaces, including New York’s Central Park.
Zewde: Frederick Law Olmsted spent time in the South writing about the conditions of slavery. And so it was mentioned in passing in a class, and I emailed the professors afterwards to say are there any references where I could follow up? You mentioned this. I still go back to this email sometimes. And they mentioned a few references, but said there’s nothing that really talks about the relationship between his travels and his practice of landscape architecture, which is what I was really interested in.
So Zewde took the material that was available, Olmsted’s The Cotton Kingdom, to see if she could find the relationship herself. She retraced the author’s steps through the American South, more than a century and a half earlier. Like Zewde, Olmsted had been unsure where his interest in the environment would lead, but he ultimately created landscapes with civic objectives, places where everyone could belong. Zewde saw her own vision for ecological and cultural preservation in his legacy.
Zewde: It sounds like lofty aims, but for me there’s a through line. Frederick Law Olmsted is an easy person to reference because everybody loves him, but there are lots of people that have thought about this. Part of what powers me through all of the challenges, when somebody tells me that what you’re interested in is not landscape architecture, I know that there is so much more and so much behind me in terms of people and ancestry and culture. And I think within that there’s a really broad diversity of work that can come out of that. Design, aesthetics, ecologically, politically. And I think what happens when we make work like that is people start to understand themselves as agents in the world around them. And particularly for people who have historically been denied that, to take part in a process where they actually help envision their own futures, I think that’s, I mean, the real project.
In 2018, Sarah Zewde started her own design firm, Studio Zewde. She’s since exhibited work at the 2018 Venice Biennale and designed a plaza for Africatown in Seattle, a memorial streetscape and monument in Houston, school grounds in Camden, New Jersey, a coastal estate in Martha’s Vineyard, and several projects in Philadelphia. Now in her thirties, she’s a professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, teaching a new generation how they too can help shape the future, in which nature and the built environment work in harmony. Zewde understands that crafting environments where people can thrive can take years, but she’s in it for the long haul.
Zewde: I would rather lose whatever efficiencies that might be gained than give up on a perspective of what’s possible. I want every place to be unique and feel like it fits, and a lay person can’t describe that. If you ask somebody what they want, there’s no way they can tell you they want exposed aggregate concrete, you know? That’s the role of the interpreter. As a landscape architect, why, when you’re walking on this path do you move slower? Because of the texture of the concrete. There’s a reason why you feel like, you know, that you want to sit here. All of these signals are in the landscape, and they’re manifested and expressed in the materials. Graffiti Pier is a completely different look than the four-acre residential coastal estate we were doing in Martha’s Vineyard. Similar processes, right? But where you land is all over. I mean, when I look at our portfolio of work, I’m like, yeah, this doesn’t come together to mean anything. And that’s what I want.
While some of Zewde’s projects will be decades in the making, Graffiti Pier in Philadelphia is slated to open in 2024, with upgraded seawalls that are also new surfaces to paint. As the tides rise and fall, the meaning of the art will shift as it goes in and out of view.
Zewde: For the most part, it’s also about a dialogue with the rising tides. The graffiti writers are in dialogue about the biggest challenges of the society, and this is a landscape to have that dialogue. So it’s built in both structurally and culturally into the design of the place.
To survive, Graffiti Pier needed to undergo change, and Sara Zewde hopes that all of her interventions can be undertaken with a similar sensibility and sensitivity.
Zewde: So it’s not the landscape itself that I feel like I’m working to preserve. I’m not working, I’m not endeavoring to preserve the design of the landscape. I’m working to preserve what it’s supportive of.
AJC: The meaning of it.
Zewde: The meaning of it, the people. But it’s about fortifying the traditions of the people that have imbued this place with so much value and beauty, and for that tradition to be the most resilient thing that comes out of that project.
Sara Zewde is guided by the inevitability of change, and her life and work has shown that her true quest may be to help others navigate this by understanding the resilience of culture, of people, and of the land.