In the early 2000s, Denver was all about the creative class. Author/big thinker Richard Florida had labeled the metro area one of the top creative spots in the country, an honor that John Hickenlooper used to promote the city that had just elected him mayor. Fifteen years before, he'd been one of those entrepreneurial adventurers – an unemployed geologist who joined with other visionaries to found the town's first brewpub, the Wynkoop Brewing Company, which is still going strong more than 25 years later – although without Hickenlooper. But he, too, is still going strong: Hickenlooper just won his second term as governor of Colorado, and helping promote artists and entrepreneurs remains a big part of his agenda — and he just won a national award in recognition of that.
We didn't need Florida's seal of approval, though, or Hickenlooper's crazy career path, to prove that Colorado is full of creativity. For generations, the Front Range has drawn artists and other aesthetic explorers, people who want to make their mark on the landscape – people every bit as daring as would-be brewmasters or new politicians, but rarely as high-profile. Or highly compensated.
In honor of the groundbreaking, often under-appreciated and almost always underpaid work that so many of these artists were doing, over a decade ago, Westword created the MasterMind awards, a grant program that every year gives no-strings-attached awards to arts organizations and individuals. We inducted our first class in 2005; this week marks the start of our tenth-anniversary celebration, and we're be rolling out MasterMind awards and events all year – starting with our first two awards, which will be handed out at Artopia, our annual celebration of the arts, on February 21.
When we named Buntport to that original class of MasterMinds, it was a fledgling theater troupe of Colorado College grads; today it's one of the biggest draws in the city, a theatrical institution that continues to do cutting-edge work. Other earlier honorees, including the Denver Zine Library, have had a tougher time over the past ten years; now under the guidance of Kelly Shortandqueer, the library opened another chapter when it moved to a new home at 2400 Curtis Street this year. But you can't keep a good project down: Another first-year winner, the Emerging Filmmakers Project, has just re-emerged at the Bug Theatre with new energy – and a new generation of filmmakers to promote. And individuals like Brandi Shigley (our first fashion honoree) and Lauri Lynnxe Murphy (our first visual-arts winner) not only continue to impress with the scope of their own art (Murphy is currently blogging about her new project, the Mayday Experiment, on Westword.com), but with their generous support of other artists. When she's not creating her own designs, Shigley is encouraging others to pursue their own dreams – and she'll celebrate many of those dreamers when she emcees Whiteout, the Artopia fashion show.
Since the MasterMinds program began, we've honored fifty artists and arts organizations, giving grants totaling well over $150,000. A surprising number of those honorees have stayed in this city, where today they are integral members of the aesthetic landscape. Although the projects that first brought them to our attention may be gone, they're still part of Denver's increasingly lively arts scene. And they also contribute to the increasingly lively process of choosing the next class of MasterMinds. The nominations list alone is a breathtaking guide to the scope and sweep of activity in this area. In fact, the scope has grown so broad that we'll be rolling out members of the class all year, starting with the two awards we'll make this weekend.
The MasterMinds were nearly unanimous in their support of the first award, for LadySpeech. “Seeing LadySpeech Sankofa perform is akin to standing witness to the transformative and sacred,” wrote 2011 MasterMind Sarah Slater in her nomination letter. “Poet, writer, activist, vocalist, dancer and emcee, LadySpeech has profoundly influenced and impacted the many arts, literary, youth and education community movements in Colorado, so deeply it is truly immeasurable. Everything she does is imbued with a vivacious spirit of building, strengthening and loving community. It is high time she received some official recognition for all of her amazing work in our city and beyond.”
And this year, she's gone far beyond – as a Denver Freedom Rider, she traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, and then shared her experiences at the inaugural Black Lives Matter! conference that drew over 1,000 people to the McNichols Building on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. She has an uncanny ability to hold a crowd, whether she's hosting her own Freedom of Speech open-mike series at Gypsy House Cafe or performing with the local troupe Ooh La La Burlesque.
But her most important work right now lies in using her powerful wordsmith skills to bring spiritual healing to a city seriously divided over issues of violence and race. As Slater concludes: “LadySpeech has an innate and invaluable skill of weaving social justice, dance, literary and visual art into her work and practice while remaining accessible across generations, cultures and communities. She deserves this recognition now more than ever.”
The second award we'll present Saturday night is to Deedee Vicory, designer and owner of D'Lola Couture. Fashion was the wild-card category in our initial MasterMind awards, and the field has become such an important parts of the arts scene that it's been integral to the awards ever since. Vicory was born in Colorado, and much of her life has been spent close to Arvada, where her business is located. “I always loved different avenues of fashion growing up, but my true love is for bridal fashion,” she says. “There is just something magical about a woman finding her real-life Prince Charming, and I feel blessed to be a part of so many magical days!”
Particularly since her own fairy tale story took a tragic turn: Vicory's own Prince Charming, her young husband, passed away last fall. But the designer continues to push her business and her work, doing her best to truly make Denver the City Beautiful.
Like the rest of the MasterMinds, these two are a class act. Keep reading for the complete MasterMind roster:
The Westword MasterMinds
2015 winners (so far)
Deedee Vicory/D’Lola Couture
Eric Dallimore/Leon Gallery
Karen Lausa/Words Beyond Bars
Ietef Vita/DJ Cavem
Counterpath Press and Bookstore/Julie Carr and Tim Roberts
GroundSwell Gallery/Danette Montoya and Rebecca Peebles
Nix Bros./Evan and Adam Nix
Kitty Mae Millinery/Susan Dillon
Ken Arkind/Minor Disturbance
Lance Stack/Flat Response
Brian Freeland/LIDA Project
The Denver Voice
Creative Music Works
RiNo/Jill Hadley Hooper and Tracy Weil
Art From Ashes
Tony Shawcross/Deproduction/Denver Open Media
The Fabric Lab/Josh and Tran Wills
Dragon Daud, aka Dave Denney
Cafe Nuba/Ashara Ekundayo
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy
Emerging Filmmakers Project @ Bug Theatre
Denver Zine Library
Read more about all of these Masterminds on our Arts & Culture blog.