The 2007 MasterMind Winners
The Fabric Lab
Performing Arts: Jessica Robblee
Blond-haired, blue-eyed Jessica Robblee once played Cha Cha DiGregorio, the very bad girl in Grease. And while Robblee admits the casting was "somewhat preposterous," that ninth-grade experience sparked a love of theater in the Army brat.
She didn't return to the stage again in high school, though, choosing instead to play sports. But in her sophomore year at Davidson College in North Carolina, Robblee grew tired of athletics and began reconsidering her life path. "I thought, 'When was I last really, really happy?' and it was doing that play," she says. "As awkward as I was -- and boy, was I awkward -- it was fun. I'm into the fact that it's a collaborative effort. I really liked how you can do magical things really simply. And the cool thing is that it lets all different kinds of people in. It's a place where difference thrives."
And the unique personality of Jessica Robblee has certainly thrived in Denver's theater scene.
She moved to town eight years ago "for young love," she recalls, and while the boy is long gone, she's still here acting and teaching and hustling to keep her career moving forward. Right now she's performing in Aphrodisiac at Curious Theatre Company, where she's getting well-deserved raves, and Ramona Quimby at the Mizel Center, while also writing and performing in tRUNks, the all-ages comic-book show that runs every other Saturday through May 5 at Buntport Theater.
Robblee got started at Buntport after a successful run with the short-lived children's-theater troupe at the Bug. Then she pitched the idea of a children's show to Erin Rollman, and it turned out that the Buntporters had already been thinking about children's productions. "I was really excited, because I'd wanted to work there for a long time," says Robblee, who is also quite partial to British comedies. "We at first were going to do something with fairy-book characters, like a militant fairy, but then it morphed into a comic-book idea, which morphed into a serial comic book. I wanted it to be a series because I wanted to be writing. I really enjoy that."
Two seasons later, she's still at it -- but also looking at ways she can improve herself and Denver. "I'd love to have a really, really healthy audience for live performance," she says. "There's a lot of stuff going on, but if it were more in the Denver consciousness that going to a play would be an incredibly fun time, I would love that. I also hope to write more full-length plays. I want to do a choose-your-own adventure. It would be so fun as an audience experience."
Cha cha cha!
Visual Arts: Jimmy Sellars
Jimmy Sellars has one of those rare brains with a bridge between the right and left lobes. He's a talented artist in his own right, but he's also a gallerist who aids other artists with their businesses. "I really just want to be a part of this community and help where I can," Sellars says.
That's quite the understatement.
Sellars has been a fixture in the Denver art scene since he moved here in 1990, but his artistic roots go much deeper. He grew up in Kansas City, the son of two artists, and was in his first show at the age of eight. "It was just a pencil drawing, and it was so great because they didn't know the age of the people who submitted stuff," remembers Sellars. "We showed up, and they're talking to us like, 'Don't you just love art?,' and I'm like, 'Yeah, that's my piece.'"
His family moved to Estes Park in 1982, and a decade later, Sellars came off the mountain and got involved with several Denver arts organizations; he also founded an international arts group. At the same time, he continued creating his own art and had his first local solo show in 1992, the same year he opened Studio 211. He had that gallery for about nine years, until the ballpark-area prices forced him out. After that, he was on Broadway for a nanosecond -- but by then he'd already found another constituency online. "I was new to the Internet, and it was very different back then," Sellars says. "I kept running into people here and there, and it was amazing how many artists were online in the beginning. I started this international group, and we had a couple of shows, several in the U.S and Mexico, and another traveling exhibit that was in Europe."
He was also experimenting with what would become his signature work: photographs of G.I. Joe dolls. His first show featuring the action hero was at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, and several hundred people turned out. "But then they all left for one of the movies that were playing," Sellars says, laughing.
That good humor has carried him over the hurdles of starting his own business, closing it and now restarting it as sellarsprojectspace, located behind the Oriental Theater. He's also formally assisting fellow creative types with their marketing and websites, even scouting potential galleries for them. And while he's working to create a Tennyson Street Arts District, he's also keeping an eye on the scene as a whole. "What I've seen, and I've always proclaimed this, is that we've always had an incredible arts scene," he says. "Being in one of the states with the lowest funding for the arts, it's amazing how much the artists have chipped in to make it as vibrant as it has been. People around the world have started to notice what is happening here, to invest more into what we do. This is really such an incredible community. I always feel fortunate to be a part of it."
And the community's fortunate to have him.
Fashion/Design: The Fabric Lab
The Fabric Lab and its owners, Tran and Josh Wills, are walking inspirations, proof that you can live your artistic dream -- even when you have no money and three kids to feed.
They started their local-designers-only boutique three years ago in the basement of Babooshka, a hair salon next to the Bluebird Theater on East Colfax Avenue. Since then, they've expanded from eight artists to fifty, moved into their own storefront just down the block at 3105 East Colfax, and even joined a collective that opened the A++ Boutique de Force store in Belmar.
"I always wanted to do this, but when you're a young mom, people look at you like you have no worth," Tran Wills told Westword when she first opened the Fabric Lab and was working in a medical office to pay the bills. "We wanted to prove to everyone we weren't going to be like that. I'm doing this for my kids. If it weren't for them, I'd probably be working a job that I hate."
Instead, she's got a job she loves, and the kids -- ages eight, four and one and a half -- help out at the store. That's where you'll usually find Tran, juggling the local merchandise that overflows the space, planning fashion shows that use Colfax as a gritty catwalk, and creating art with the Yummies, the performance-art group that shares space with the Fabric Lab.
In her spare time, Tran is also teaching "Tee Party" classes for the Denver Art Museum, showing members how to cut out their own stencils and screenprint them on T-shirts. "The last class, we had pretty young people to people in their fifties," she says. "It was cool, because they got to go through the museum and take pictures and then come back and cut out a design from the image and make it into a stencil. People did not want to leave."
Just like people don't want to leave the Fabric Lab, which is filled with one-of-a-kind couture -- some of it created by Josh -- as well as handbags, accessories and great limited-run T-shirts, including the infamous Colfax version. "I'm getting a new designer a week," Tran says. "People are becoming more eco-friendly and more conscious of what they're making.
"We really want to keep showcasing all of our artists and pushing local design," she continues. "I think we're finally getting somewhere, and we want to help them get to where they want to be in their careers."
In doing so -- in recognizing new designers and encouraging them to realize their potential -- Tran and Josh Wills make the Fabric Lab live up to its promise: "We keep it realer."
And real local, which is sheer genius.
Literary Arts: Vox Feminista
The Last Supper. Nutricide: The Last Supper. Nutricide: The Last Buffet. Just over a month before their annual spring performance, the eight women at the core of Vox Feminista are still debating the name of the show. They've set the bar high, having come up with many literary delights since their first show at the original Penny Lane in Boulder just over seventeen years ago. There's been White Noise: Asleep in the American Dream; Shooting Stars in Retrograde, Alienated on Earth and even Y2K-Y Jellymamas Dancin' the Apocalpyso. And the politics of food deserves no less a title than any of the other modern-day issues that they've tackled together.
"Food is something for me -- we've done shows on great existential issues and the war, and people feel helpless -- but every day I eat three meals," says Oak Chezar, one of Vox's original members. "That's three chances to make a difference. We can choose to make a difference."
As passionate people out to raise the collective consciousness, that's what Vox chose to do years ago. But over the years, their voice -- like their standards -- has gotten higher. "It started with a mixed group," says Vox producer and original member Joy Boston. "And after the show, the guys -- as typically happens would leave to go party, and the women were left to clean up."
So she and Chezar and some of the other women decided to regroup without the benefit of Y chromosomes. Since then, Vox Feminista has continued to challenge audiences with a mix of poetry and performances at twice-annual shows. The members write all of the material, either as a collective or individually; they also enlist guest performers, whom they cull from open auditions. To make it all come together, they meet twice a week for three to four hours a shot, then put in additional hours writing and practicing. And they take only two months off a year from this labor of love.
But none of them can imagine life any other way. They thrive on informing people -- "We're here to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable," says Chezar and on challenging themselves, often adapting their own lives to conform with knowledge they've gained from researching show topics. On a meta level, the Fall 2003 show on white power was particularly uncomfortable; on a micro level, they quit printing Vox T-shirts after learning that the garments were produced with sweatshop labor. Now they hunt through thrift stores and put their logo on recycled tees.
What they've learned about the politics of food will be revealed when their Spring show opens on March 31. But they've already come to a consensus on the name: The Last Supper - To Go.
Film/Video/Multimedia: Tony Shawcross
Almost everyone in Denver knows about Tony Shawcross or at least about his work. They've heard about the guerrilla film project he once headed, which involved projecting movies on the sides of random buildings from a giant, biodiesel-powered bus. Or they've heard of deproduction, the nonprofit he helped found that puts media into the hands of many by teaching them how to shoot and produce their own segments. Or they've heard about his work with Denver's public-access TV.
So, yes, they've heard about his work but they probably don't know that Shawcross has a degree in business and marketing. That the poster boy for living the life of your choosing was once an IT wonk on the cubicle fast track.
But after Shawcross was laid off in 2000, his life completely changed -- for the better. He started interning with a variety of progressive media organizations, including Free Speech TV and Little Voice Productions, and spent time as a legislative aide for then-state representative Abel Tapia. He began investigating all the filmmaking options he'd wanted to explore in college but had shoved aside in favor of a more financially viable degree. "I rode my bike every day, I read philosophy, I tried anything that presented itself to me, and I spent a lot of time thinking about what life was all about for me," Shawcross wrote in a blog post about that time.
And what he realized was that the mix of politics and film had a lot more potential. So he and a group of friends who'd already created the online calendar denverevolution.org started deproduction. "I feel like I was raised on TV and a lot of my ethics and values have come from TV shows," says the Littleton High School grad who credits Star Trek: The Next Generation for creating his moral compass. "And like a lot of us, I feel like it's the most powerful medium."
In late 2005, Shawcross and deproduction stretched yet again, bidding for the contract to host public-access television in Denver and winning the job of running Channels 57, 58 and 59. To do so, they formed Denver Open Media.
Now Shawcross spends his days doing what he loves: figuring out ways to get more people involved in creating their own stories. He hopes to have a website rolled out within the month so that users can submit their own content, rent studio time, borrow equipment and take classes on how to produce, interact and build an informed, thoughtful community through public-access television.
"Looking at organizations like Wikipedia or even MySpace and YouTube, we realized they all started with teeny little staffs like ours," Shawcross says. "And the model that allowed them to have an impact was the decentralized, user-driven model. We realized that the biggest impact was not to just do stuff internally, but to involve the community as much as possible."
That's the realization of a true MasterMind.