Viola Davis discusses her journey from 'stifled' artist to Oscar winner

Story highlights

  • Viola Davis was honored with the 2017 Artist of the Year by Harvard University
  • Davis revealed that when she attended Juilliard in the 90s, she felt her voice as an artist was being 'stifled'

(CNN)Viola Davis may have just won an Academy Award for her performance in "Fences," but she didn't always feel like she was living up to her potential.

The actress was honored by Harvard with the 2017 Artist of the Year award during its Cultural Rhythms Festival on Saturday. Davis told the audience that when she attended Juilliard in the 90s, she was incredibly frustrated.
"I spent so many years at Juilliard just wanting to beat somebody up," Davis said. "I think it was the height of my anger; that chip on my shoulder. I'm still trying to take care of that chip on my shoulder, by the way. It was mainly because I felt my voice as an artist was being stifled."
    After Juilliard, Davis went on to theater success. She won a Tony Award in 2001 for her performance in the play "King Hedley II." Her breakthrough Hollywood role came in 2008 opposite Meryl Streep in the film, "Doubt."
    "Art, it's a very sacred place, the stage and the screen," Davis said. "Because really, at the end of the day, even what I do as an artist, when I channel characters and people and their stories and those moments in their lives that we sometimes hide, that we feel like is just our mess, our shame. I want people to be seen. I want them to feel less alone ... Your job as an audience is to bear witness. To come open and willing to transform."
    Davis joked that she hoped she could live up to her new title, Oscar winner.
    "I can't promise that I won't do some crap every once in a while, because I've done some crap, let me tell you," Davis quipped. "But I have to say that I am honored to even be in the presence of so many artists here."
    After the ceremony, Davis tweeted, "Thank you @Harvard for the Artist of the Year Award and an awesome day!"
    Previous winners of this award include Matt Damon, Quincy Jones, Salma Hayek and Andy Garcia.