In this, the sixth year of the MasterMind Awards, we're discovering that the process of selecting winners gets more and more difficult. It seems the variety and quality of nonprofit arts organizations and independent artists increase every year, aided and abetted by a thriving arts community.
The Houston Center for Photography, FotoFest, and the arts programs at the University of Houston and Rice University attract fans and students from around the world. Besides museums like the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, there are dozens of alternative exhibition and performance spaces, from Lawndale Art Center, the Art Car Museum and El Rincón Social to university museums such as the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston and the University Museum at Texas Southern University as well as pop-up exhibit sites in any number of storefronts.
On any night of the week, chances are there are "must-see" performances at the Wortham Theater Center, Frenetic Theater, the Alley Theatre, Obsidian Art Space, Miller Outdoor Theatre, Stages Repertory Theatre, the Ensemble Theatre and several others. The increase in not only the number of artists and groups, but the excellence of the work they're producing, makes selecting MasterMinds harder for us each year, but it's a pleasant problem to have.
We're happy to report that each of last year's winners made significant gains, both artistically and financially.
The Karen Stokes Dance Company has won a General Operating Support grant from the Houston Arts Alliance. A three-year subsidy, the grant provides the company with assistance in developing its infrastructure and organizational systems as well as providing office space for the group. Stokes now has two staff people helping her with administrative duties. "I haven't seen my workload reduced yet — in fact it seems I have more to do than ever — but I'm sure that's going to happen at some point. Soon, I hope," Stokes laughs.
Opera in the Heights, led by Artistic Director Enrique Carreón-Robledo, presented a risky all-Shakespeare season of unfamiliar titles last year (think Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi instead of the more popular Romeo and Juliet). Now the group is trying to find a balance between providing audiences with a more recognizable repertoire and reaching for ever higher artistic standards and stabilizing its financial base.
Stark Naked Theatre mounted an award-winning run of Macbeth last season with co-founders Philip Lehl and wife Kim Tobin, who appeared as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The production had several significant moments onstage, not the least of which was the scene between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth plotting the murder of the king. "It was the two of us [Kim and I] in an iconic moment," Lehl tells us. "There we were, getting to do Macbeth because we worked really hard to build this theater company." He continues, "And the fact that our fund-raising is on track means that Kim and I can think about making good art instead of stressing about funding."
The winners of the MasterMind 2014 awards will be recognized at the Houston Press Artopia® 2014 party, scheduled for 8 to 11 p.m. Saturday, January 25, at Winter Street Studios, 2101 Winter Street.
And now for this year's winners, each of whom will receive a no-strings-attached check for $2,000:
Chuy Benitez: A photographer who is equal parts artist, teacher and advocate, Benitez has changed his focus over the past few years. Originally calling himself a Chicano photographer, now he's an American photographer. Originally focused on Latino culture, now he's focused on world culture. Benitez believes photography can be an instrument of social change, and he has an upcoming project centered on the local cycling community. About to become a licensed rider and join a racing team, Benitez says he hopes his photographic project furthers the discussion surrounding the lack of legal protection for riders.
jhon r. stronks: A gay white man, stronks is often said to create dance works from the point of view of an African-American feminist. He disagrees, saying his point of view is that of a radical African-American feminist. He grew up in an African-American neighborhood, and most of his friends were black girls, who often invited him to church, where he would join them in the choir. Experiences such as those led to stronks's recent work B.L.K. Gurls ~n~ W.H.T. Boiz: Singin' 'bout Gawd!, a provocative look at spirituality and reconciliation. "I put myself out there and say, 'This is who I am, this is where I'm from, this is who loved me. This is who taught me how to do this. This is who taught me how to do that.' There's no need to defend that."
The Apollo Chamber Players: A quartet of string musicians who studied at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music, the Apollo Chamber Players recently made their Carnegie Hall debut. The program included "Fantasy on Bulgarian Rhythms," a commissioned work written for the group by composer and Rice University professor Karim Al-Zand. As is usual with Apollo, it was a program highlighting the intersection between classical and folk music. Delegations of dignitaries from the consulates general of Bulgaria and the Czech Republic in New York attended the performance, heaping praise on the group for its originality and expertise. As nice as those words were, the real compliment came from an older woman pumping her fist in the air as the group performed tunes from her homeland.
When photographer Chuy Benitez first came to Houston some nine years ago, he was focusing on capturing panoramic documentary images of the Hispanic community. He's still working in the panoramic documentary format, but his focus on Latino culture has changed. "In the last five years, I stopped calling myself a Chicano photographer and started saying I'm an American photographer. I've gotten away from looking at just life in the Hispanic community and started looking at what life is in the Houston community."
Why the shift? For one thing, Benitez began participating in national exhibits and groups that had little or nothing to do with ethnicity. Seeing work by other photographers, talking to organizers and fans across the country, he realized he didn't want to make his work about just one group of people to the exclusion of everyone else.
"I have to give a lot of credit to an organization out of New York, En Foco," Benitez says. "That organization gives multicultural photographers a platform, a network. It's helped me to see that, yeah, I might be the only minority in a room or in a community, but I have to get beyond that. You have to be able to say that your work is important on a flat-out whole community level. You have to think about making work that appeals to everybody and that isn't going to be exclusive. En Foco taught me how to make work that can reach everybody. The strongest work is work that anybody from any culture can relate to."
Benitez says the change hasn't been easy. "That was kind of scary, moving away from the 'Chicano photographer' label. In hindsight, I can look at other photographers and see that they've changed directions many times, but it was seriously scary for me to acknowledge that maybe I was doing something else. I was afraid to go out a limb and say, 'I'm changing; I'm different now than I used to be.' "
Originally from El Paso, Benitez grew up in a large family that had a photography business specializing in weddings and quinceañeras. ("I still shoot a couple of weddings a year for friends," he laughs.) He started college at Notre Dame as an engineering major, but that was short-lived. He took a photography class, found a photography teacher who also happened to be from El Paso, and his days as an engineering major were over. At the time, digital photography was just becoming the norm. Since he had lots of experience working with digital images in his family's business, he was ahead of the curve. After graduating from Notre Dame, he came to the University of Houston to study for a master's degree in digital media.
After completing his master's in 2008, Benitez began working on his own projects independently and took a job teaching photography at St. John's School. He became an HCP board member and joined the Society for Photographic Education, becoming a board member there as well. (SPE membership is made up almost exclusively of college teachers; Benitez is one of the few high school teachers to participate.)
Benitez continues to work in a panoramic, documentary style. "I try to capture the scene in one image. That's one reason for the long format. Instead of five or six images to show an event, I want to summarize it. Yeah, I can show different moments in different shots, but I want to be able to capture every scene in one image. That's the challenge.
"The longer image hopefully helps you understand the scene a little better. In life, we're not just looking at one thing. We see lots of things all at the same time. You might focus on one part of the scene in front of you, but it's still all there. That's how I understand things; I'm really trying to understand a scene as a whole."
Two things are crucial for an artist, Benitez says: a supportive community and a clear end goal. He joined HCP soon after arriving in town and found a community of supportive, talented photographers. "The worst thing you can do is try to do it all by yourself," he says. "You need a community. I've only been successful because I've had a community around me."
According to him, the type of community you surround yourself with is also important. "It's crucial to have input from people who know more than you, people who are more experienced." The ability to use the Internet to further one's knowledge and practical skills, to network and sell work, has had a tremendous impact on photography, he tells us. Tremendous good and tremendous bad. Translation: Just because your 500 Facebook friends tell you that your work is great doesn't mean that it is.
"It takes a lot of encouragement to be any kind of artist. The educator in me says it's okay to get that sort of encouragement [from Facebook friends] because it takes a lot of motivation to keep going. At the same time, there's real value in getting honest feedback from experienced professionals, from people that know more than you do. For me, a lot of the Facebook support I get is more about 'Hey, you're working; that's great' than it is just 'Hey, your work is great.' That's encouraging to me; that's supportive."
A clear end goal is a must for an artist, Benitez says. "Every photographer has to figure out where they want their work to end up. Is it a museum, a gallery? Is it the auction block? There's people that aim at getting published in a popular magazine. I know one guy who says he'd be happy to see his work on a bathroom wall. He's being facetious, of course. But whatever you want to do, if you don't have a goal in sight, how are you going to figure out how to get there?"
These days Benitez balances artist, educator and activist duties and hopes to become a voice to further discussion about photography as the field moves toward becoming an almost completely digital art form.
"My next big project is focusing on the cycling community of Houston. I'm a big cyclist now. With cycling, I see a social and cultural community that in some ways is underground. An important thing that has come up recently is the rights of cyclists, the protection of cyclists. If you as a cyclist are hit by a car, you're not protected at all. The driver will not get cited at all.
"It might seem to be a detour from other things I've worked on in the past, but cycling is really important to me, and I have to follow the advice that I give my kids: 'Your voice is going to be loudest when you speak about the things that you're most passionate about.' And I'm passionate about cycling. I'm still looking for social change and still taking the view that photography can change things. There's no law that would protect cyclists; that has to change."
With his cycling project, ongoing exhibitions, teaching and board work, Benitez is increasingly busy these days.
"In five years, I'll still be making photography, but one switch that I'm making and that [viewers are] feeling is that I really want to try to be more of a voice for what is happening in photography. I want to get people on board with what's happening now, with the technology.
"Of course, everyone who still shoots film is going to hate that, but photography has always been connected to technology. It has from the very beginning. We had to work with chemicals and paper at one point; now we work with digital technology. It's just about working with what you've got.
"If someone asked me, 'What would you rather be famous for? For your photography? Or for creating a better dialogue about photography?' It's an easy choice. I would really rather help people wrap their heads around what's going on with photography at that moment, no matter what that technology is."
jhon r. stronks
Choreographer/dancer jhon r. stronks knows that his work — which embraces radical black feminism and celebrates queerness — isn't for a mass audience. "I am not for everyone, and I don't want to be for everyone," he laughs. "I'm not trying to fit in; I'm not trying to be included. One of the things that I've been accused of is that I try to make people uncomfortable. I don't. But I also don't try to make people comfortable. I don't think, 'How can I make this easy to understand? How can I make sure this is nonthreatening?' I'm making art about what I'm going through, and sometimes that's not easy to understand."
A gay white male, stronks, who grew up in an African-American neighborhood where he had mostly female friends, is also often criticized for work that seems to come from a black female perspective.
"I don't get into that conversation," he says. "I'm interested in interaction. I'm interested in dialogue. I'm interested in community. I'm not interested in trying to explain myself. Who I grew up with, who loved me and who accepted me, all of that informs my work. I had the friends I had because of where I lived geographically.
"I ended up interacting with a series of women who were very clear with me about the difference between expression and exploitation. I put myself out there and say, 'This is who I am, this is where I'm from, this is who loved me. This is who taught me how to do this. This is who taught me how to do that.' There's no need to defend that."
Those childhood experiences translate both directly and indirectly to his work onstage. In June 2012, stronks and his former student Jasmine Hearn presented B.L.K. Gurls ~n~ W.H.T. Boiz: Singin' 'bout Gawd!, an evening-length program made up of solo and duet performances addressing spirituality and reconciliation.
Stronks's training includes earning an undergraduate degree in dance at California State University, Long Beach. (He started off as a music major but left that program after going through the vocal jury process. "It was excruciating. I went down the hall, walked in the dance department and asked, 'How do I become a dance major?'")
Over his career he has worked with Sue Sampson-Dalena, Winifred R. Harris and Keith Johnson. After a stint teaching at Spelman College and spending some time going back and forth between Texas and California, stronks eventually settled in Houston. Here he's worked with CORE Performance Company, Houston Metropolitan Dance Company and his own "there...in the sunlight" umbrella, and most recently he was hired on as facilities manager for The Barn.
As always, stronks has taken events from his life and translated them into work for the stage. "There's lots of restoration on the space, and at the same time, after all the work I did last year, I'm also in a place where I'm trying to restore some of me."
The work is called Restoration Software. Initially stronks thought of it as a piece about water and its cleansing, healing properties. After getting some feedback from viewers, he realized that wasn't it at all. "What I thought was going to be about the state of water...has become a dance about fire. I thought I was making a dance about water, but no, the people who saw it saw a dance about fire. That's good feedback. Did it offend me? No. Did it shock me? Oh, hell, yeah."
One of stronks's recurring stage personas is Miss Understood. "I was telling [a friend] some things that I had been hearing about myself and my work, and she said, 'Wow, you are the most misunderstood man in Houston!' I thought, 'Hey, I can work with that.' So I created Miss Understood in order to be able to stand up in front of people as an androgynous character who's going to stand up there in a dress and sing really pretty but at the same time is going to refuse to be a drag queen for you."
Miss Understood often sings, something stronks, who is a countertenor (also known as a male soprano), stopped doing after he became a dance major in college.
"Miss Understood is actually a piece of armor; I just have to own that I'm misunderstood and then I can do whatever I want because nobody's going to understand it anyway. As long as I stay true to my origin, as long as I am honoring the people who honored me, as long as I don't back down and I'm able to take responsibility for my action, then we're good."
The Apollo Chamber Players
During 2013, the Apollo Chamber Players made their Carnegie Hall debut, commissioned a new work, completed a successful East Coast tour and recorded a new CD that's set to be released later this month. Big steps, agrees Matthew Detrick, violinist, artistic director and co-founder of the group. "But if you're not going to dream big, you may as well go home," he says.
The company's current roster includes Detrick, Anabel Ramirez on violin, Whitney Bullock on viola and Matthew Dudzik on cello (violinist and co-founder Timothy Peters has left the group). And while Houston is awash in chamber music groups, Apollo has managed to set itself apart by focusing on the intersection between classical and folk music.
"There's no doubt classical composers were directly influenced by the folk music of their time and country," says Detrick. Brahms, for example spent lots of time as a child with his father in a local tavern, where he would have heard folk music being played. Mozart used Hungarian dances as the inspiration for some of his work. "You can see it more easily with some composers than others, but they were all influenced by it to one degree or another.
"I feel we have something unique to offer, and not just in the classical music world," Detrick says. "Music is music is music. It all kind of comes from the same place in us. The more that we highlight different cultures, the more amazing it is to me how much the music from different countries or ethnic groups has in common. Folk music from one culture is different from folk music from another culture, but it's the same in a lot of ways, too.
"The city of Houston is so diverse, our mission is to cater to that, to illuminate it to some extent. We could not do Apollo in any other city than Houston because it's such a diverse city and because there's so much support here."
During a recent East Coast tour that included a stop in New York's Carnegie Hall, Apollo performed its recently commissioned piece "Fantasy on Bulgarian Rhythms," written by composer and Rice University professor Karim Al-Zand. Dignitaries from the consulates general of Bulgaria and the Czech Republic in New York attended the concert and heaped praise on the group for its performance and mission. Official accolades aside, it was another moment during the tour that told the Players they were reaching their audience.
"At one show we had some Basque people in the audience, including an older woman who was pumping her fist up in the air," Detrick recalls. "You can tell when somebody responds to music. They appreciate it on a more fundamental level because it represents their culture, their life experience."
Exploring the relationship between classical and folk music is important to all members of the group, but it's especially personal to Detrick, who grew up playing in a family group with a similar repertoire. "I have two younger brothers who play the violin. My mother was a music teacher for 30 years. My dad, who had more of a folk sensibility, played the banjo, harmonica and sang. We would play Mozart pieces and other classical pieces and then, in the same program, transition into some religious folk numbers, fiddle tunes and spirituals. I wish I could take full credit for coming up with this idea, but looking back over the years, I realize I was meant to do this."
The group's recent tour included a stop in Detrick's hometown, York, Pennsylvania. "It was really gratifying for me to perform our Carnegie Hall program there. A lot of people saw me and my family do a similar program 15, 20 years ago."
Detrick says Apollo's focus opens the door to new ways of interpreting classical music. "All of us are classically trained at one of the top music schools, but if you just stay in your box, you can't reach people in any new and interesting ways."
One of the challenges the group continually faces is how to embrace music from various cultures in such a way as to be respectful of its origins and yet remain free to add their own interpretation.
"There has to be real respect for the music. We know that when people first hear about what we're doing, they think, 'Who are these fresh young kids coming in here? What are they trying to do?' But honestly, this isn't just about marketing. It's easy to go to a cultural organization and say, 'Hey, we're playing some folk music from your country and we'd like you to come to the concert.' The challenge then becomes how to give them something more than just a reworking of their folk music. With us, they'll hear folk music they may already know, but they are also going to hear something else that's built on the folk music. I hope we eventually win them over."
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Along with a public concert schedule, the Apollo Chamber Players perform in a series of educational outreach activities for schools and neighborhoods. The program includes a discussion of the music, its composer and its history.
"There's a history to each piece and I find working on that is as important and as fun sometimes as working on the music because there are all these layers to the story behind the music and behind the composers. I really love learning about what a composer is doing at the exact time they're writing a piece because it gives you context. It can enrich your understanding of the music. Providing that information to an audience, that's nothing new. I just hope when we do it, it's on a more personal level.
"What I'm most proud of is being able to draw people into the concert hall that might not usually come to hear classical music."