The Artful Life Questionnaire: Santina Protopapa (Cleveland, OH)

By Paulette Beete
a white woman with long curly dark hair sits with a record player and framed albums behind her

Santina Protopapa at home in her studio. Photo courtesy of Santina Protopapa.

What we know for sure: We all have a story, and engaging with the arts helps all of us to tell our own stories on our own terms. We also know that there are ways to engage with the arts other than in formal cultural venues, and that sometimes it is more about the process of art making than it is about the end product. We also know that living an artful life, which is to say, living a life in which the arts and arts engagement are a priority means different things to different people based on their own interests, their communities, and many other factors, including equitable access. The Artful Life Questionnaire celebrates the diversity of ways we can make the arts a part of our lives, and, hopefully, inspires and encourages us to live our own unique versions of an artful life. In today’s edition of the questionnaire, we’re speaking with multi-hyphenate musician (and member of the NEA Creative Forces team) Santina Protopapa.


NEA: Please introduce yourself.

SANTINA PROTOPAPA: I’m Santina Protopapa. I’m a first-generation American, the first in my family to graduate from college, and a life-long student of music. 

Music has been an important part of my life ever since I can remember. Throughout my life, I’ve sought ways to connect learning, performing, and sharing stories with others. Starting in elementary school, I coordinated performances in my neighborhood with my friends and collaborated with my cousins to present shows on Christmas Eve. When asked to share our plans for the future at my high school graduation, I shared that I’d like to pursue a career that combines my interests in music and writing. Since then, I’ve worked in arts and culture organizations as an intern, program manager or director, teaching artist, consultant, and executive director of an organization I founded. 

For the last four years, I’ve been a consultant utilizing my writing and leadership skills to help artists and small arts organizations strengthen their work. I’ve also been a member of the Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network team that manages the Creative Forces National Resource Center and shares stories from the network’s clinical work and community engagement grantees. 

NEA: Do you have a current art practice or a way of regularly engaging with the arts?

PROTOPAPA: My current art practice encompasses my work as a jazz vibraphonist and a vinyl record collector. I also perform as a DJ who spins exclusively vinyl. 

NEA: What are five words that come to mind when you think about the idea of living an artful life?

PROTOPAPA: Improvisation, collaboration, creativity, learning, and discovery.

NEA: Pick just one of those words and expand on how you see it as part of living an artful life.

PROTOPAPA: Living an artful life means living a life where discovery is essential to connecting with the world. For me, discovering new music and new cultural expressions has been an entry point for learning and joy that seems limitless. I am part of communities of artists who thrive on sharing their work and learning and exploring together. My excitement for discovery and learning in and through the arts has fueled my passion for every endeavor, from working as a teaching artist or leading an organization to finding rare jazz records and spinning them for a packed room. 

NEA: Where do you currently live, and what are some of the ways that your community tells its story through the arts or through creative expression?

PROTOPAPA: I currently live in Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland has a rich legacy of artists who are deeply embedded in the story of our community. There’s also a vibrant community of young people continuing this legacy today. Our community tells its story through incredible public art, unforgettable community collaborations that invite attendees to participate and create, and world-class teaching artists who guide students in finding their unique voices through the arts.

NEA: How do you think that living an artful life can improve the well-being of your community?

PROTOPAPA: Living an artful life can improve the well-being of my community by helping bridge divides and giving people of all ages a platform for connection, collaboration, empathy, and healing.

NEA: Is there a particular place in your neighborhood that is a creative touchstone for you?

PROTOPAPA: Cuyahoga Community College and its Tri-C JazzFest have been a creative touchstone for me. Tri-C JazzFest is where I saw my first live jazz concert in middle school. It was also where I first saw young people playing jazz. It was so exciting. I’ve also experienced incredible master classes by jazz legends the festival has hosted. I’ll never forget meeting vibraphonists Bobby Hutcherson and Gary Burton, who are also NEA Jazz Masters. I chose to dive deeper into jazz and participate in the jazz studies program at Cuyahoga Community College as an adult learner. As someone who had been working in arts education and has a graduate degree in education, I was blown away by the rigor and depth of the program and the outstanding instructors I learned from. What I experienced in the program could hold up to any fancy four-year music conservatory. 

NEA: What’s your favorite informal way or space to engage with arts and culture?

PROTOPAPA: My favorite informal way to engage with arts and culture is to visit museum exhibits that share the context and history of music and other forms of popular culture. The Museum of the City of New York consistently excites me with its approach to these types of exhibits and related programs.

NEA: You’re known as a musician. Is there a form of creative expression that's really important to you that we don't know about?

PROTOPAPA: Documenting stories is a creative expression that’s been important to me since middle school when I filmed a documentary short about a storm that affected my neighborhood. I love collaborating to tell a story creatively. One of my favorite projects was collaborating with filmmaker Eric Schilling to create a documentary short about Project 5, a hip-hop dance group started by Matt Zone, a community leader and former councilman in Cleveland. I recently collaborated with my extended family to create a documentary short about our family’s Christmas Eve tradition that has been happening since 1952.

NEA: If you hadn’t become an artist, do you think the arts would still be a part of your life? In what ways?

PROTOPAPA: I absolutely think the arts would still be a part of my life. It’s hard to imagine any other way to move through the world. I would still attend live concerts. I would still enjoy dancing to great DJ sets with my friends. I would still wonder how the jazz musicians on stage developed their craft and would be excited to notice how they are collaborating in the moment to create something new. 

NEA: Can you share an arts experience or moment of arts engagement that has had an identifiable impact on your life?

PROTOPAPA: Two experiences have had an identifiable impact on my life. The first is having the same music teacher from fourth through 12th grade. My teacher, Jon Duncan Elliott, showed me how to be a leader through music. He introduced the vast world of music by bringing the world into our school and making learning relevant and fun. We didn’t have a jazz program at our school, but he made sure he brought jazz musicians to perform at our school and arranged trips to jazz concerts outside of school. He saw how I loved music and found ways to give me extra challenges and opportunities to develop my playing and leadership skills.

The second is having the opportunity to produce Hip-Hop: A Cultural Expression, a three-day event for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 1999. I convened the pioneers of hip-hop in DJing, graffiti, emceeing, and dance, as well as noted journalists and scholars, to share their stories. It was a first for the Museum and served as a precursor to presenting the world’s first major museum exhibition on hip-hop. The best part is that it introduced me to artists and journalists who have become my colleagues, collaborators, and friends and continue to inspire and teach me. This event and this group of artists have had a lasting effect on me, and its impact has been a driving force in my career ever since. 

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