Artopia Masterminds

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

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?"

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Olivia Flores Alvarez