Where does creative genius come from to produce artistic brilliance? It commences in the moment where ingenuity strikes from the deep recesses of the mind to the juncture when originality becomes an intellectual asset. For every artist of any form, the diligent work of the craft is worth every bead of sweat from the brow when the world positively recognizes the invested, exceptional outcome.
At the U.S. Military Academy, the mission is to produce leaders of character with the critical-thinking flexibility and skills to command men and women in the military. Conversely, within the scope of the cadets’ education, they are also given the independence and imaginative latitude to tap into their dynamic energy to produce works of art that encompasses their overall aptitude and intellect.
Each year, the Department of English and Philosophy, along with the Cadet Humanities Forum, showcases cadet original works in the arts of music, prose, poetry, film, photography and studio arts through the John Calabro Night of the Arts. This year, the sixth annual CNOTA awards were presented to the cadets with no audience but recorded in the Haig Room in Jefferson Hall April 22 and then shown in a Zoom virtual ceremony with pre-recorded musical pieces on April 23.
Endowed by Fred Gretsch, a childhood friend of Calabro, and his wife, Dinah, the West Point Association of Graduates’ Margin of Excellence event honors Calabro, a 1968 USMA graduate, who spent nearly 20 years mentoring hundreds of faculty members and fostering critical thinking and communication skills of thousands of cadets in the Department of English, including 15 years as course director.
As a cadet, he was the editor-and-chief of the “Pointer,” the cadet newspaper, and was a talented artist, musician and writer who symbolized an ideal blend of “Athens and Sparta,” which is a phrase that has become shorthand for West Point as it pursues its twin aims of educating and training future Army officers.
“John’s gift of the English language was evident from his very first days on the Hudson,” said retired Brig. Gen. Daniel Kaufman, former Dean of the Academic Board and classmate of Calabro. “He was a terrific writer, even then, and had an unabashed passion for the language that was the hallmark of his entire life.”
As Calabro was bold in his works of art, this year’s cadet awardees brought the same confidence to their works that they produced and were recognized for that talent.
Before an evening of musical performances, art and award presentations, Col. Dave Harper, the head of DEP, spoke highly of the cadets as they endured the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year, yet they produced a number of great original works of art.
“Despite the challenges, it is important, perhaps more than ever, that we do this tonight,” Harper said about the modified virtual event. “In our day-to-day lives, sometimes the arts and creative endeavors can appear to be luxuries. That is perhaps most true of students at West Point where they are often trying to simply keep up to survive an intense 47-month experience.”
Harper said that creative outlets and pursuits in the humanities are an essential part of the West Point experience and are important to the growth of cadets as leaders and human beings. He mentioned, much like Soldiers in World War II, that the creative form can help overcome the plight of the moment as cadets dealt with the restraints of the pandemic.
“The arts and humanities are not things to be jettisoned in tough times, but things to be embraced even tighter,” Harper said. “Cadets, largely confined to post, and sometimes restricted in their movements outside their barracks rooms, have risen to this challenge and found outlets for their creativity.”
He added that there were Armed Services Edition kits in World War II, up to eight books in mail shipping boxes, sent to service members that were diverse in nature, but allowed those fighting on the front lines to read classic and current literature to escape the hell they were in.
“Leaders understood that in times of great stress, Soldiers need the arts and humanities to cope, to remain in touch with what matters and to continue to grow as warrior scholars … even in the darkest times,” Harper said.
The spirit of the warrior scholar was on display as the cadets persevered through the turbulent year and produced quality works. After Harper’s speech, the evening kicked off with performances from the Cadet Jazz Forum group, who played Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” made famous by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and the USMA Rock Band of six cadets played “The House of the Rising Sun,” by The Animals.
After the performances, the first award of the evening was presented for music. The second-place recipient was Class of 2022 Cadet Oreofeoluwa “Josh” Omolade, a member of the West Point Cadet Glee Club, who submitted an original vocal performance called “Chaos into Calm.”
The 2021 CNOTA winner for music went to Class of 2021 Cadet Mark Jaskot, who is the cadet-in-charge of the Cadet Jazz Forum and the 4th Regiment commander.
Jaskot’s original instrumental piece called “On My Mind,” was described as a balanced complicated improvisational jazz run with a contemporary Billy Joel-esque pop motif, which leads to a confluence of complicated thoughts that somehow arrive at a harmonious conclusion.
Jaskot said the genesis of the song happened in April 2020 about a month after his father’s death, and although he said the song isn’t necessarily about his father, it describes more of his mood at that moment in time.
“Music got me through some really difficult months around that time, and the emotions I was feeling came out through the song,” Jaskot said. “I call it ‘On My Mind,’ because the first time I played it, it was all improvisation. I really liked the melody I came up with, wrote it down and that became the song.”
Jaskot mentions that the word “mind” in the title is a bit of a shoutout to “New York State of Mind” by Billy Joel, which he describes, “As a style/feel that has influenced my piano playing greatly.”
The next award was the Sannes-Pinnell Award for film, named for retired Col. Samuel W. Pinnell, who established the endowment on behalf of Elise Sannes-Pinnell to support cadet activities that appreciate the visual arts.
The film winner was Class of 2024 Cadet Alexis James, who performed “Hamlet Act 1. Scene 3,” as a one-woman Shakespearean scene.
James was recently recruited to the Cadet Film Forum and it was said she used her brief introduction on film analysis in her EN101 course to aid in the creation of the scene.
It was described by a DEP instructor that the scene was “filmed entirely from an iPhone and displays an instinct for purposely-used camera angles, framing and production design to (form) a highly-stylized creation. Her keen eye for fashion emphasized the character differences by creating stark silhouettes. Her rendition of Hamlet speaks to the outstanding film creativity within the cadet ranks of West Point.”
The next two awards were the O’Donnell Awards for poetry and prose, which is named for Maj. Mike O’Donnell, an artilleryman, English instructor and poet, who died during a military training accident in 1992.
The top three awardees for poetry were Class of 2021 Cadet Langdon Ogburn, “1,000,000,000,000 and 75.5 Years,” third place; Class of 2024 Cadet Andrew Keith, “Moments,” second place; and the top spot went to Class of 2021 Cadet Christopher Hebert for “You Song.”
Hebert said he wrote the poem while at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy on a semester exchange and had the opportunity to conduct an independent study in poetry there with Dr. Jose Gonzalez, who taught him to, “Embrace and draw upon my experiences at West Point — my poem is an extension of that.”
Hebert, a Fulbright Scholarship recipient, is grateful to receive the first-place award as it came out of his effort to embrace his identity as a cadet from USMA placed in an extremely unfamiliar environment at USCGA.
While Hebert didn’t expect a flourishing space for arts at West Point before his arrival, with the continued mentorship from faculty and the challenge of the DEP classes, he hopes that “Literary study, for me, will hopefully be a lifelong affair.”
The top three awardees for prose were given to third-place winner Class of 2024 Cadet Tim Clements for “Epiphany,” second-place recipient Class of 2024 Cadet Jungmin Hwang for “Surname Reflection,” and the top prize to Keith, who also earned second-place in poetry, for “Turbulence.”
“Turbulence” was Keith’s first attempt at writing short fiction and a story of a man whose anxiety from his friend’s tragic death overwhelms him at the same time severe turbulence threatens to crash his plane.
The creation of his work came from a dream he had flying in a plane where it went from a calm and serene experience to his plane experiencing violent turbulence as rain and wind roared outside the aircraft.
“I honestly did not have any intent behind what I wanted it to be about, I simply just followed what made sense,” Hebert said.
However, the correlation of the tragic death of a friend was inspired by his cadet roommate who opened up about his personal experience with the death of Cadet Candidate Benjamin Bochtler in August 2019.
“Subconsciously, I chose to mirror the emotional toll that it has on him even to this day but in fictional form that resembles nothing of the event itself,” said Keith, who gives DEP assistant professor Dr. Seth Herbst credit for encouraging him to go further in-depth with this story. “I wanted the emotion to be raw and powerful, something the reader had no choice but to feel and understand. Most people experience trauma in some capacity and I hope this story can accurately replicate those feelings in a way that allows the reader to know that they are not alone in their pain.”
Before the last two Sannes-Pinnell Awards for photography and studio arts, the Cadet Glee Club performed “Gloria Fanfare,” and the Creative Writing Forum cadets executed a spoken word performance of “COVID,” for the virtual audience.
The creative pieces segued to the awards for photography and studio arts. The photography awards were presented to Class of 2024 Cadet Gabrielle Nelson for “On the Porch,” third place; Class of 2023 Cadet Aidan O’Dowd for “Memorial,” second place; and first-place winner Class of 2021 Cadet Angeline Tritschler for “Pollination.”
Tritschler is a previous first-place winner of the photography award in 2018 for a photo entitled, “Still Gray.” Her photographs have been published in a number of publications and she is a member of the Cadet Media Group.
When her winning photograph was displayed during the virtual event, her pollinating bee picture was described in Tritschler’s words to the audience.
“I’d never really taken pictures in my home area, so it was nice to appreciate the small things and practice my photography skills,” the Tallahassee, Florida native wrote about her experience while home during quarantine after the initial COVID-19 outbreak last year. “That’s when I found even with the world in turmoil around me, the little bee was still doing what it always did — pollinating a flower.”
The awards for studio arts were presented to four individuals, including an honorable mention to Class of 2023 Cadet Cora Haefner for “Set Sail,” third place to Class of 2024 Cadet Ye Jin Bae for “Ben,” second place to Nelson, who also placed third in photography, for “Tried in fire, Purified,” and first place went to Class of 2023 Cadet Caleb Doyle for “The Scout.”
Capt. Lauren Ward, officer-in-charge of the Cadet Studio Arts Forum, discussed Doyle’s use of colored pencils on a blackboard to create his riveting art piece.
“Caleb took inspiration from a Native American warrior from a movie, and he was drawn to his warpaint and fixed expression,” Ward said.
Doyle added, “I wanted to capture his fierce gaze and his colorful warpaint emerging from shadow.”
Ward said Doyle’s use of light and shadow brought about incredible detail in a muted but rich color palette.
“(It) creates an air of mystery and intrigue surrounding the figure,” Ward said.
While Doyle considers drawing as a hobby, he said that the COVID-19 lockdown helped him practice more on his diversion from reality.
“I guess it was a blessing in disguise,” Doyle said.
The final award of the evening recognized the John Calabro Award for Excellence in Leadership and the Arts presented to Jaskot.
Jaskot was described as a cadet who “generously contributes his talents to help fellow cadets in the West Point community.”
He is considered a quadruple-threat musician as he excels at playing the tenor sax, piano, drums and the guitar, the last of which he has been learning since the start of the pandemic.
“Mark has demonstrated a tremendous amount of selfless service as the cadet-in-charge of the Cadet Jazz Forum, volunteering to play whichever instrument is needed at the time that it’s needed to make the group sound its best,” said Sgt. 1st class Geoffrey Vidal, member of the USMA Band and NCOIC of the Cadet Jazz Forum. “As a result of Mark’s enthusiasm for jazz and performance, a growing number of staff, faculty and cadets have been exposed to jazz in a variety of settings.
“Mark’s passion for creative expression and genuine dedication to leadership excellence embodies the spirit of Col. Calabro,” Vidal added. “His humility, commitment to jazz music and, most importantly, to the creativity and self-expression found within music, are vital skills, not only for artists, but future officers.”
Jaskot gave thanks and was incredibly honored to receive the John Calabro Award and being placed alongside an incredible history of fantastic musicians, artists and writers who won previously. He then gave thanks to DEP, Col. Harper and Cadet Jazz Forum OIC Maj. Steven Thomas for their help with the Cadet Jazz Forum and the DEP department as a whole in broadening the education scope of the cadets.
“DEP has been incredibly supportive of our musical endeavors, providing the Jazz Forum with a number of resources to help us grow as musicians and leaders,” Jaskot said. “The experience through the Jazz Forum has been eye-opening and has exposed me to stories and subjects that I never would have received in my academic classes.”
Jaskot also extended a huge thank you to Vidal for his work with the Cadet Jazz Forum.
“He’s been a constant inspiration for me and all the cadets of the Jazz Forum, leading us not only as a musician, but also as a member of the Army profession, teaching us fantastic musical jazz capabilities while also showing us the way music and leadership in the military overlap,” Jaskot said. “That’s something I’m incredibly grateful to be able to gleam from my four years in the Jazz Forum and to be able to work with such a world-class musician.”
Music has been one of Jaskot’s main passions at West Point and receiving two big awards near the end his cadet career puts an exclamation point to all the hard work he put into his music craft as an outlet to put smiles on people’s faces, especially during these daunting times.
“It offers me and other cadets a great release during the particularly difficult moments of cadet life,” Jaskot said. “It has been a goal of mine to spread music and the joy it brings to more cadets and being recognized for doing just that by receiving the Calabro Award is very fulfilling.”