Five years ago, Westword added a very special component to Artopia: the MasterMind awards. Recognizing that the local arts scene needed a little fertilizer to really get going, and growing, we created a program that every year honors five cultural visionaries — artists and organizations alike — working to change the cultural landscape of Denver. And we decided not to just honor them, but to give them each substantial cash awards to use as they see fit.
The first four classes of MasterMinds have done amazing things with their awards, frequently using them to help other, struggling artists along and creating major multipliers for the $80,000 that Westword has given away so far. "I'd like to think that the award was leveraged into hundreds of media projects that have been completed here since," says Tony Shawcross, whose Deproduction/Denver Open Media was the 2007 MasterMind winner for multimedia. "The goal and the vision that Westword chose to support through our MasterMind award was opening access to the tools and resources people need to express themselves, without any corporation, committee or individual determining who is and is not worthy of such an opportunity."
Each year, the previous winners help choose our next class of MasterMinds. And like our earlier honorees, the 2009 MasterMinds are an extraordinary group. Through their work, they've given a voice to the homeless; made art from old shoes while showing disadvantaged youth the way to make their own art; created political theater with a definite expiration date; shown us new ways to look at life in a multiple of media; and taught Denver how to dress up for a dime.
The 2009 MasterMind Awards will be presented at Artopia on Saturday, February 21, at 8 p.m. on the main floor of Vinyl.
THE DENVER VOICE
Extra, extra: Newspapers (at least some newspapers) are not dead! Read all about it!
Just two years ago, the Denver Voice, the newspaper by and for this town's homeless population, was silenced after funding dried up and its leaders moved away. That's when Rick Barnes stepped in. A downtown businessman who'd regularly bought a copy of the paper, heard about the Voice's plight and set out to revive it, creating a new non-profit board and hiring Amelia Patterson, who was getting her master's in journalism at the University of Colorado, to research "street papers" and take on the task of restarting the Denver Voice. "It's such an amazing project," says Patterson, who today serves as the paper's managing editor and executive director.
Over the past eighteen months, she, Barnes, the board and the rest of the staff have broadened the mission and reach of the Voice and, most important, added a street vendor program. "To be a street newspaper, you have to have a vendor program, where homeless people collect for the paper," Patterson says. Every issue includes an explanation of the program: "The Denver Voice is committed to empowering homeless, impoverished and transient individuals by creating job opportunities through our Vendor Program. Vendors are able to purchase the Denver Voice for 25 cents each at our distribution center, which pays for a portion of our production costs. In turn, vendors can sell the paper to the public for a one-dollar donation. The difference in cost (75 cents) is theirs to keep."
The board just finished totaling the results for 2008, the first full year of the vendor program, and found that more than 600 people participated — an estimated 15 percent of this town's homeless population. With 15,000 papers printed every month, that means the most enterprising vendors can collect a significant chunk of change — and start working their way to self-sufficiency. "There's something magical about it," says Patterson. "People really love buying a paper from a person — from a person who is unapproachable in other circumstances — and to know that they're helping them out. People are developing relationships. It's really quite a beautiful thing. And for the vendors, it's really empowering. They feel they have so much ownership over it."
The vendor program isn't the only way the Denver Voice is giving voice to the homeless. It's also made significant improvements to the publication itself, adding a new motto — "for everyone who calls Denver home" — as well as professional artwork and stories that include interviews of local personalities, reviews of art shows and profiles of vendors. "We wanted to get away from an activist point of view and be a lot more journalistic," Patterson explains.
And they've succeeded.
This summer, the Denver Voice will host the North American Street Newspaper Conference, bringing representatives of 26 other street papers across the country to Denver. And in the meantime, the paper will continue to give the homeless a way to be heard — both aesthetically and economically.
Welcome home, Denver Voice. You're our 2009 MasterMind in the Literary Arts.
— Patricia Calhoun
2008: Art From Ashes
2007: Vox Feminista
2006: Cafe Nuba, Ashara Ekundayo
2005: Denver Zine Library/Kristy Fenton
The Emily Griffith Opportunity School is a true Denver treasure, a century-old institution devoted to making lifelong learning accessible to everyone. And within EGOS is another true treasure, Vicky Nolan, the lead instructor in the Professional Sewing/Fashion Design program — and the unanimous choice of our four previous winners of the fashion/design MasterMind award to take this year's honor. It wasn't even a clothes call, you might say.
Nolan has made a career of teaching others how to make clothes. But as with so many of our other MasterMinds, for her teaching is far more than a career; it's a calling. The EGOS sewing/design program currently has close to a hundred students — some taking only one course as a hobby, some signed on for all five in the track that leads to their getting a certificate in fashion design, on the way to a community college associate's degree or maybe even the prestigious design program at Colorado State University (EGO alums always get in because they're so well trained in the basics, Nolan says). Those students range from high school age to a spry 84 (her daughter drives her downtown to class), "but all have a passion for something they really want to do, whether they're young or old," Nolan observes.
Nolan herself has been at Emily Griffith since 1985, but her ties go back much further than that. The school got its start in downtown Denver just over a hundred years ago, in 1916, "and my grandmother took sewing classes here in 1916," she says. Nolan grew up in Manitou Springs, graduated from CSU with a home economics degree in 1972, got a job teaching home ec at the high school level in Northglenn, then took a gig with Frostline Kits. But she missed teaching adults, and by the time her youngest son was in first grade, she had a full-time teaching job at Emily Griffith, where she's been ever since.
"I really, really enjoy working with the students," she explains, "watching them progress from not knowing how to sew anything to producing fashion shows." In fact, Nolan has offered our fashion/design MasterMinds advice on their own shows, which is how they came to appreciate her keen eye and fashion sense; six of her students were in Frock Out Denver. Many students never shoot for anything that ambitious, though; some sign up simply because they're looking for a creative outlet. And, like everyone else, they find it at EGOS.
"We have a real wealth of sewing instructors and lots of great equipment so people can come here to learn and satisfy their creative urges," Nolan says. "But they can also get a vocation from this, so they can go on and have a satisfying career." And sew it goes.
— Patricia Calhoun
2008: Mona Lucero
2007: The Fabric Lab/Josh and Tran Wills
2006: Deb Henriksen
2005: Brandi Shigley
When Ravi Zupa looks at art, he feels what he calls "a neediness." And that sensation is the inspiration for the art that he creates in turn. "I just try to craft something that hits people with an immediate experience," he explains. "I just like art so much, and I get such a visceral, immediate experience from looking at books of art or looking at art on the street or whatever it is, and I just want other people to have the same experience that I have and feel the same neediness and vibrance that I feel when I look at art."
Zupa's relationship with art is not only strong, it is also multi-modal: He's used his talent to create paintings, drawings and videography, effortlessly flirting with the boundaries between mediums. "They're all sort of connected," he says. For a time, he worked in the commercial animation and film industry in San Francisco — he did commercial work for KFC, Nike and Ritz crackers, as well as the Rocky & Bullwinkle film — and also dabbled in website and video-game development. Here in Denver, his efforts have been far less mainstream: He's working as a community educator with Deproduction/Denver Open Media; creating music videos with Oakland's anticon. hip-hop collective; teaching free (!) drawing lessons to anyone who wants to learn; working on some pieces for Artopia and some for WaterCourse Foods; and creating art and video for the Parts and Labor Union, his collaboration with Mat Reichardt that's "a really textured performance. We're trying to blend everything that we're interested in — so, music and video and live performance and narrative," Zupa explains. "There are so many opportunities now to combine those things.
"Whenever I'm working on art, it's always like I'm going back and forth between a lot of things," he adds, then laughs. Those things include drawings of hideous monsters vomiting a torrent of birds into a toilet; detailed depictions of fighting samurai with a dinky robot set off to the side, holding a sword and watching the action (in the middle of which, inexplicably, sits what appears to be an ant sticker); a crying baby stuck in a pelvic bone whose umbilical cord stretches almost from the top to the very bottom of Zupa's website (www.partsandlaborunion.com); music videos and animated shorts that seem to come from a dream world.
Zupa delights in the imagination of children — and in many ways, he never grew out of his own childhood imaginings. "I started doing art at the same time everybody else did," he says. "I just kept going. Every little kid is an artist. Every kid's a dancer and a singer and everything, but then at some point along the way, we lose it."
But Zupa's held fast to that creative muse. "When I say that I seek to inspire a neediness in others, one is not meant to feel a neediness for me, but rather a neediness for oneself and for what one is capable of," he concludes. "I feel a profound resentment when art tries to shut me out or seeks to relegate me to passive observer, non-participant. My hope is that I can generate the same optimism and empowerment that I feel when I look at beautiful art or listen to people thinking through the complexities of life."
That's a true MasterMind speaking.
— Amber Taufen
2008: Jason Bosch
2007: Tony Shawcross, Deproduction/Denver Open Media
2006: Johnny Morehouse
2005: Emerging Filmmakers Project at the Bug Theatre
Brian Freeland's theater career began when he was in the sixth grade and joined Denver's Younger Generation Players — which specialized in musicals — because of a crush on a girl. In 1990, he wound up at a New York conservatory, but he found himself more intrigued with the alternative scene downtown than with Broadway-style razzle-dazzle. He returned to Denver and founded the LIDA Project in 1995; went on to create Countdown to Zero — a group dedicated to mounting ten politically relevant pieces and then self-destructing; and has, through it all, served as sound designer for companies as various as Listen, Shadow and Curious.
LIDA is not an acronym, Freeland explains; the name comes from research he once did into Orwell's 1984. In a chapter on mind control, he found information on CIA experiments. He also discovered that the Soviet Union had built a prototype called the LIDA, which emitted low-frequency radio waves and was intended to reorganize brain-wave patterns. Freeland, wanting his company to alter perception and "transform the way people saw theater," adopted the name — and LIDA has lived up to it. Denver first encountered the work of Pulitzer winner Suzan-Lori Parks on the LIDA stage. Among other plays, the company also mounted a brilliant production of Caryl Churchill's The Skriker; a bone-chilling multi-media take on the Manson killings; an exploration of the Columbine murders; and a site-specific version of Genet's The Balcony. A new piece called Rain/Of Terror, which explores the complexities of revolution, will open on February 27.
Countdown to Zero emerged because Freeland's group wanted to explore overtly political material unencumbered by the minutiae associated with being a nonprofit — a board, audience development, grant-writing. And also because Freeland felt it was impossible to challenge power while taking money from the government. Countdown's first production was My Name Is Rachel Corrie, another regional premiere. Based on the writings of a young peace activist killed by the Israeli army in Gaza, the play was so controversial that a scheduled New York opening was canceled, though it was eventually shown in that city. Countdown's second production was Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which warns of the ways in which an ignorant, greedy and apathetic population can pave the way for fascism.
Freeland is now working on a script for LIDA based on Kafka's writings; for Countdown, he's contemplating a play by a local writer that explores the Bush administration's culpability for war crimes. The tone will be reminiscent of a children's theater production, Freeland says, with Rumsfeld represented by a figure called Uncle Rabbit.
Like everyone else in the arts, Freeland worries about the future. But he believes deeply that culture has a particularly important role during hard times. "The things that survive are books and plays, cultural artifacts, and they're how we frame those times," he says. "I truly believe it is a duty to question and to pass on culture from generation to generation; it's a collective story, and at some point it becomes a deeper philosophy about why we commune and why we gather to see theater."
See one of Freeland's productions, and you'll immediately recognize why he's our 2009 MasterMind in the Performing Arts.
— Juliet Wittman
2008: Creative Music Works
2007: Jessica Robblee
2006: Dragon Daud
2005: Buntport Theater
Viviane Le Courtois
Over the years, our winners in the Visual Arts category have shown that true MasterMinds don't just change the aesthetic landscape through their art, but also through their actions in the community. And no one exemplifies this better than Denver artist Viviane Le Courtois, our 2009 Visual Arts MasterMind.
Not only has Le Courtois created several distinct bodies of conceptual, contemporary art that she's exhibited in Denver and Europe, but she's also taught art to both children and adults. If that weren't enough — and it strikes me that it is — she's also the longtime program director of a non-profit art-education outfit aimed at a core audience of kids from low-income backgrounds.
As she listed the things she does every day, I asked Le Courtois if she thought of herself as a workaholic. She acknowledged that she did, and then went on to say, "I never stop. If I'm not teaching, I'm making my art."
Le Courtois was born and raised in France — a biographical detail that is abundantly clear the second you hear her speak. She earned the equivalent of an MFA at the International School of Art and Research in Nice; after stops in Korea and India, among other spots, she came to Denver in 1997 to do graduate work in art history at the University of Denver, where she got her masters in 2000. That's the same year she began exhibiting her quirky and thought-provoking, process-based installations here in town.
As an artist, she's probably best known locally for her novel idea of making her own rope shoes and then exhibiting them as sculptures after she's worn them out. "I started doing it eighteen years ago this spring," Le Courtois says. "I started making different pieces based on the movements I did every day. So I came up with the concept of making sculptures by walking. I'm going to be doing it as long as I can walk." For Le Courtois, the process of putting wear on the shoes represents the act of sculpting, even if — or perhaps because — it's inevitable. In other series, she employs such unlikely materials as pickles, mushrooms, hard candy and junk mail.
For her day job, Le Courtois works as program manager at Downtown Aurora Visual Arts — better known as DAVA — where she's been employed for the past nine years. She maintains an open studio there five afternoons a week, where she instructs seven- to seventeen-year-olds about how to be creative, how to get along as a team, and how to make many different things; she also brings in interesting local artists to work with the students on special projects. In addition to her duties at DAVA, Le Courtois teaches 3-D design and sculpture at the University of Colorado at Denver.
For all she does as an accomplished and innovative artist and as an apparently tireless educator, Viviane Le Courtois is this year's MasterMind in the Visual Arts.
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2008: Jill Hadley Hooper and Tracy Weil/RiNo
2007: Jimmy Sellars
2006: Katie Taft
2005: Lauri Lynnxe Murphy