Meet the 2015 MasterMinds Winners: A Historian, an Artist and a Student Mariachi Orchestra

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As we announce the winners of the MasterMind Awards, now in their seventh year, it's clear that Houston's art scene has continued to evolve and reinvent itself, with some significant changes to the landscape in the past year.

The Alley Theatre and Main Street Theater are borrowing stages while they renovate and upgrade their facilities with an eye to reopening in 2015. Stages Repertory Theatre bought the building where it has staged its performances for several years. Dancemakers Jane Weiner and Dominic Walsh both closed their studios; Hope Stone continues its work, but Dominic Walsh Dance Theater is effectively disbanded while the choreographer works on personal projects and supports his longtime partner, Domenico Luciano, now a principal dancer for Colorado Ballet. Houston Grand Opera began its journey through Wagner's Ring Cycle with Das Rheingold, as well as launching a new winter holiday opera commission.

In a move that surprised fans and artists alike, Opera in the Heights terminated its relationship with Artistic Director Enrique Carreón-Robledo in an effort to redefine its role in the local opera community.

And in what was an especially poignant loss for us, longtime Houston Press theater and art critic Jim Tommaney passed away in December.

Each year, a panel of judges from the Houston Press -- with input from the public -- evaluates contributions made to the local arts community during the previous 12 months. Winners are awarded a $2,000 no-strings-attached cash prize and a plaque and are honored at a ceremony during the Houston Press Artopia party. (This year's is scheduled for January 24 from 8 to 11 p.m. at Winter Street Studios, 2101 Winter Street.)

We're happy to report that each of our 2014 MasterMind winners made significant gains in the past year.

It's been a very good year for photographer Chuy Benitez. He used part of his Master-Mind Award cash prize to cover the cost of preparing and shipping his work to New York for the Bronx Documentary Center's exhibit "Miradas: Contemporary Mexican Photographers." His work in that show earned him glowing reviews on the websites of The New York Times and The New Yorker. He met with Time magazine photo editors for a review of his portfolio. And his panoramic photographs are set to be included in two upcoming art books. Plans are in the works for two books of his own, including one to celebrate his tenth year as a photographer.

Choreographer jhon r. stronks took us seriously when we joked that he could use his MasterMind Award cash prize for anything he wanted. "You can use it to buy pencils, a plane ticket, anything you want," we said. He didn't buy pencils, but he did buy paper and a couple of plane tickets. The paper covered the floor of the set of Undoing:gniodnU, which stronks presented last October. Layers of colorful paper were laid on the floor and then covered with white paper. As the dancers performed, the white paper was torn away to reveal the colorful paper mosaic beneath it. Collaborator Jasmine Hearn and stronks flew back and forth between Houston and Pittsburgh to work on their joint project B.L.K. Gurls ~n~ W.H.T. Boiz: Singin' 'bout Gawd!, which focuses on issues of gender, race and spiritual reconciliation. The pair presented the work in Pittsburgh and Houston in September and are now readying it as a touring production.

On a personal note, stronks married his partner in a ceremony in California earlier this year.

The Apollo Chamber Players had lots of good news in the past 12 months. For one, they commissioned several new works in 2014, including one with popular composer Libby Larson, another from fellow Rice University alum Karim Al-Zand and still another from traditional Japanese music expert Marty Regan. The group held its first commissioning contest (it drew more than 250 entries from as far away as New Zealand). The Apollo educational and outreach program was expanded, taking music to hundreds of children in the region. The group's first CD, European Folkscapes, continues to do well, earning rave reviews and new fans.

And somewhere along the way, violinists Matthew Detrick and Anabel Ramirez found time to get married and buy a house -- with a whole floor dedicated to Apollo rehearsal and office space.

And now it's time to reveal our 2015 -winners:

Houston Arts and Media

Some preservationists try to save natural habitats. Some try to save artwork. Some try to save historic buildings. Mike Vance, founder of Houston Arts and Media, has a different mission. "I'm not trying to save buildings," he tells us. "I'm trying to save stories." According to Vance, there are lots of Houston stories worth saving.

A nonprofit started in 2005, HAM provides artists, writers and filmmakers support in finding innovative ways to save those stories. Among its current projects are Birth of Texas (eight feature-length documentaries about the early history of the state), Historic Schools of Harris County (a collection of photographs and oral histories of pre-1950 schools in the area) and HAM Slices (two-minute documentaries about different aspects of local history), along with documentaries about Houston's rich music and comedy history.

Houston, Vance says, unfortunately seems to be the perfect storm of fading history, unchecked development and a burgeoning sense of awareness. There's lots of history here, lots of history about to be lost and lots of people with an opinion on it. Vance says this area's history has yet to be adequately explored.

"Other cities have had a lot more written about them. If I was in New Orleans or New York or Boston, I'm not sure how many new stories there would be for me to tell. Everything's been done. There's a lot around here that has either never been told or never told fully. That's true of both Houston and Texas.

"New Orleans has embraced its identity. You couldn't imagine New Orleans without that architecture, without that music, without that food. Houston has its own character and there's still a lot of it that remains. We need to embrace it."

Patrick Renner

Sculptor Patrick Renner has spent the past 15 years trying to get back into the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. "I was in a show there in high school," he laughingly explains. "It would be nice to get back there." Renner, the artist behind the Funnel Tunnel installation on a Montrose esplanade, is at a transitional point of his career. He's well known regionally, with shows being planned for New Orleans and Austin, but lacks a national presence. Making the jump is proving to be challenging. "I don't know how to make that happen; there's no easy way to get noticed. I feel that that is starting to happen with some of these opportunities in these other cities. I would love to do something in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. I hope it's just a matter of time. I tell myself, just keep doing it and see what happens."

Jefferson Davis High School Mariachi Pantera

Jefferson Davis High School Orchestra and Mariachi Director Jose Niño teaches music in what used to be the machine-shop classroom. "There's no air-conditioning, nothing. It's over in the middle of nowhere," Principal Dr. Julissa Alcantar says, shaking her head. Still, that middle-of-nowhere is a step up from the first space Niño was offered. "They wanted to put him and the orchestra out in a hallway somewhere," Alcantar says, sounding exasperated.

The converted shop classroom is now home base for the Jefferson Davis High School Mariachi Pantera. Some 28 students make up the orchestra, which holds frequent concerts at the school. The majority of the students will not go on to music careers, Alcantar and Niño know. That's not the point of the program. Alcantar wants to offer classes and extracurricular activities that engage students and give them the motivation to stay in school. "I'm a big believer that every kid in this school has to be involved in something. If they're not doing anything, not engaged in any way, why should they come?" Alcantar says.

Alcantar's heard the arguments against funding for the mariachi program. Some Jeff Davis students have serious problems, including hunger, homelessness and abuse. Couldn't the money could be put to use for a food bank or a pregnancy-prevention program, she's been asked. "Our kids have rough exteriors. I'm not going to lie or try to sugarcoat that. They live adult lives; they have to. Their parents put them in positions where they don't get to be a kid anymore. They have to help make money or be the adults because their parents aren't.

"But when they're here, they eat; when they're here, they're warm; when they're here, they aren't getting beaten. When they go home, who knows what happens?"

Houston Arts and Media

Houston Arts and Media founder Mike Vance started his love affair with history early. When he was a kid, family vacations almost always included a stop at a historic site. He heard exciting stories from his father about civil war battles, frontier settlements, criminals and heroes. After reading a book on the Galveston storm of 1900, which happened so close to Houston, he was pretty much hooked. He says he understands not everyone shares his complete enthusiasm and dedication to exploring and ultimately preserving local history, but he can't quite accept that someone might not like it at all.

"Everybody should like history. It's the story of human beings. People who say that they don't like history are people that never had a good history teacher. Ultimately, what [HAM is] trying to be is a good history teacher."

It would seem that HAM, which produces its own documentaries and supports others in the same field, has technology on its side. Video equipment and video-making computer programs keep getting cheaper and better. Storage capabilities are expanding. But Vance explains that's a double-edged sword. "With the new cameras, suddenly everybody's a videographer, but everybody's not a good videographer. When we go out to film, we use high-end equipment and sound techs, engineers."

HAM uses historic photos in its videos. A two-minute video might use dozens of photos, Vance tells us; longer documentaries might include as many as 1,000. Vance does his best to find public-domain images and individuals who are willing to forgo any fee for usage, but HAM has to pay for the bulk of what it uses. Since image-use fees average between $12 and $50 per photo, each HAM Slices episode costs around $1,000. Vance hopes to find a sponsor for the series, but hasn't had any luck so far.

Another project is Historic Schools in Harris County. Schools, in both their buildings and their policies, capture the aspects of day-to-day life as few other things do. From lunch menus to dress codes, methods of punishment to curricula, and, Vance says, race relations and segregation.

"Everybody knows that black and white schools were separate in the past, but I don't think most people understand the real differences between black and white schools."

In his research for the Historic Schools project, Vance often reviews school district or city government records. "Go back into the 1800s and read those reports. There were times when the black schools weren't even mentioned. You can read reports that say a district had nine schools, but they actually had 12 schools. Where were those other schools? Who were those students? What did they learn?"

Vance points to more recent inequalities. "In the 1970s, HISD would take an old air-conditioning system from a white school, replace that with a new one and send the old one to a school that HISD deemed a poor or bad neighborhood. That tells you a lot about the attitudes and perceptions people had about each other then."

The problems Houston faces in 2015 and the problems it faced in 1885 aren't so different, he tells us. "It was hot. It was humid. Most of the time people thought it was overcrowded." And then as now, some Houstonians grumbled about the loss of historic buildings and sites. In his research, Vance came across a newspaper article from the 1880s in which people were complaining about important wooden buildings from the 1830s being torn down. "We're not the first people to face this problem. If we look at what they did, maybe it will help us to find some answers now."

HAM is not interested in only sanitized or politically correct versions of history. History, it seems, sometimes has warts. Case in point, the Alamo. "[Jim] Bowie was a criminal," Vance tells us. "There's no other way to look at it. This was a guy who was involved in slave smuggling; so was [James Walker] Fannin. Bowie had an almost assembly-line operation forging land documents. He had a history of taking people's life savings selling them these bogus land grants. He was like Bernie Madoff."

Bowie's criminal past didn't stop him from acting heroically at the Alamo. "You read the letters and see where Bowie writes, 'These people [in San Antonio] deserve our protection.'

[William Barret] Travis, on the other hand, writes, 'These people are all against us.' Travis, Bowie and Crocket are the holy trinity of the Alamo, but none of them had a spotless past."

"Doing these documentaries, we interview the very top historians on that subject. With The Birth of Texas, we've been really lucky and have had almost every top scholar on that subject participate in that project. A lot of them got in touch with us after they saw the video and said they really liked it, that it was well-done and something we needed. I want everybody to enjoy and value what we're doing, but to hear it from the people that wrote the books tells us that is good work, that means something."

Patrick Renner

That tall, bearded man rummaging through your trash pile just might be sculptor Patrick Renner. The thirtysomething artist works with found objects and admits he has a "mania for driving around and picking up stuff out of people's trash piles." He's done some amazing work with what he's uncovered, turning discarded lumber into the whimsical, winding Funnel Tunnel on Montrose, for example.

Renner says his choice of material is a reflection of his growing up in Houston. "There are a lot of tear-downs that happen in [Houston], so there's always a lot of stuff being thrown away. What fascinates me is that someone's determined, 'This is no longer valuable.' For me, I see a use for it; I see the value of it. There's a history embedded in the material I find. It's gone through some kind of change because people have lived with it, touched it or it's been weathered by the elements. A lot of the found material I use has a kind of patina that I just can't fake.

"A long time ago, I tried to fake it," he laughs. "I didn't have enough material on a project and I tried to faux finish it. It didn't work at all. You can't fake what time does to things." In September, Renner completed Conduit, a transportation-themed installation, in Eastwood Park. (He was featured in the cover story of the October 8, 2014 issue of the Houston Press.) The park is located in a traditionally Hispanic neighborhood. Renner's approach revealed his respect for the community and its history, something he considers with every public project.

"[The] East End installation certainly brought up some questions for me about does this really work here; is this appropriate? I think that's the challenge, to respect people, respect a community and at the same time break down the barriers that keep us apart."

Renner says he's trying to share, not teach, through his public works. "I know I'm going into other people's neighborhoods with my art, but that's the thing; it's not 'my art,' it's 'public art.' My idea of success is doing the best work I can do and sharing it, not defining it for [viewers]. I had an idea about what I wanted to do, of course, but once it's done, it's whatever people think it is. That's what's great about abstract art -- it means whatever you want it to mean.

"I'm not trying to say, 'Hey, here's some art and it's about this or that.' It's more like, 'Hey, here's this thing; what do you bring to it? What do you think it is?' Whatever anyone thinks, that's great. If I wanted to tell people, 'This is my art and this, and only this, is what it means,' I would just write text. I'd put some words on paper and say, 'This means that and only that. It doesn't mean anything else.' Really, that doesn't sound fun." Luckily, Renner has been having plenty of fun lately. An art teacher at Sharpstown International School, he recently reduced his schedule there and is now teaching part time. The move has given him more flexibility and time for his work. The increased focus has already paid off. He's in talks about a show in Austin that's 99 percent confirmed, and he's been asked to take Funnel Tunnel and install it in New Orleans.

"I never thought of that, of installing it in other cities. Now I'm thinking about making that a career-long project. You know, I could replenish the wood as it wears out. As long as the steel frame holds up, it can certainly be taken apart and put back together again."

It may be Funnel Tunnel that raises Renner's profile to a national level. Or it may not, he knows. It has certainly increased his visibility on a local level. He's become "The Tunnel Guy." If the general public doesn't know his name or face, it certainly knows his work.

"The Funnel Tunnel changed things for me. Prior to that, I'd meet somebody and they'd say, 'What do you do?' and I'd say, 'I'm an artist.' They'd say, 'Oh, that's cool.' Now, when I meet somebody and they say what do you do, I say, 'I'm an artist. You might have seen my work over on Montrose.' And nine times out of ten, they say, 'Oh yeah, I saw that.' We have something to connect over. It's great."

His being "The Tunnel Guy" has raised his profile as an artist in the city, but it hasn't impressed his students. "When the Press [article about Conduit] came out, some of them saw it and told me, 'Mister, you're famous? I didn't know that.' I told them, 'Well, not exactly, but kinda. I do have a life outside of teaching.'"

Days later, another student saw one of the several copies of the paper floating around the school. "He told me, 'I saw this guy on the cover of a magazine and he looked just like you.' I told him, 'That is me.' He laughed and said, 'No, it's not.' So, yes, my students don't think I'm famous."

Jefferson Davis High School Mariachi Pantera

At the first Jefferson Davis High School football game then newly appointed principal Dr. Julissa Alcantar attended last year, there were just seven parents in the stands. "I left crying because I was so mad. These are your kids; what do you mean you don't come out here? It was the same with the orchestra; there would be no parents there, nobody saying, 'Good job, mijo' or 'Do you need us to help you with something, Mr. Niño?' Nobody."

That's changed.

Last year the school's mariachi orchestra, the Jefferson Davis High School Mariachi Pantera, was struggling, not just from a lack of funds and equipment but from a lack of interest on the part of students. Now the mariachi orchestra boasts 28 hardworking, talented kids who are keeping up good grades, have much-improved attendance records and are planning to perform out of state. Parents are active in their support of the students, and school concerts are so popular that extra chairs have to be brought into the cafeteria to handle the overflow.

"When we have a concert and I see the cafeteria full of parents and relatives, when it's a Friday night and everybody's tired, it's raining and awful and you know these parents walked here, when I see that, that's when I know we're doing something right."

Students joined the orchestra for a variety of reasons -- from "It looked like fun" to "I wanted to meet girls" (the start of many a musical career). Alcantar and Orchestra and Mariachi Director Jose Niño aren't really concerned about why the students have joined mariachi so long as they're staying in school and maintaining their grades. The fact that the kids are performing at a semiprofessional level and may be on the way to earning music scholarships is icing on the cake.

Alcantar mentions the boy who joined mariachi in order to meet girls. "We couldn't get him to come to school. He just wanted to sleep in and do what he wanted to do. His mom didn't know what to do. We got him in the orchestra, and now he's coming to school every day, he's got his grades up and he's planning on going to college." Alcantar and Niño can point to dozens of other students with similar stories.

"There are other music programs in schools, sure," Alcantar says. "Kids can go to HSPVA, but HSPVA can only take so many kids. We take everybody. If you know how to play, great. If you don't, we'll teach you. Just come to school. Everything else we can figure out after that."

"A lot of these kids come to school just for the extracurricular activities," adds Niño. "If they have to take regular classes in order to be in [the] mariachi orchestra, well, okay, they will. Sometimes the extracurricular activities aren't really extra."

They've already seen dramatic changes in the students, but Alcantar and Niño know this is just the beginning of their work with these kids. "We got them back in school; now we have to get them to college, we have get them out in the world. Northside's got a lot to offer, but there's a whole big world out there and I want them to see that, too. If mariachi is what gets them there, great."

There's still a lack of resources for the program. Kids have to fund-raise in order to buy their mariachi outfits (which can run as much as $600 each) and for travel to contests or performances. And support for the program isn't universal. "Why don't you have a pregnancy prevention program? Why don't you have a food bank? That's what these kids need, not to learn the violin." Alcantar and Niño have heard the complaints.

"You know what? If they're gonna get pregnant, they're going to get pregnant," Alcantar says flatly. "If they're going to run away or get involved in drugs, they're going to run away or get involved with drugs. You can say, 'Oh, they made a bad choice,' but did they? Or was that the only thing that was open to them? With real options, at least they actually have a choice. I could have a counseling program for this and a food program for that. Counseling isn't a choice; a food program isn't a choice. It's a handout. These kids don't need counseling; they need something to do. Doing something, being part of something, that builds their pride."

The strategy is working. It's also exhaustive. Alcantar admits she gets tired and sometimes thinks about canceling an occasional concert. "When Niño tells me he's going to do three concerts this semester, I think, 'Ay, Niño, why so many?' Then I see the kids onstage and the parents in the audience and I tell him, 'Niño, you know what? Go ahead and do five concerts if you want.'"

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