When The Pitch started giving annual grants to the metro's cultural innovators, back in 2006, we called our awards the MasterMinds. To honor these artists and style gurus and deep thinkers, we put on an event named Artopia. Each April since then, our party has gotten bigger and better, so this year we're renaming the award after it.
That doesn't make 2012's four Artopia recipients any less masterly. These deserving individuals and groups have influenced the city's cultural and creative landscape and have made lasting contributions, and we think they stand with the award's most enduring alumni. Each picks up a check for $750 — no strings attached.
Artopia — the award and the party — is our way of saying thanks and encouraging winners (present and past) to keep surprising us. We'll hand out the checks during the night of fashion, music, performance and food: Saturday, April 14, at the Screenland (1656 Washington). It starts at 7:30 p.m., and tickets cost $30 at the door; call 816-561-6061 for details.
Judith G. Levy
How many times have you sworn that you remembered doing something, only to find out that the vision in your head was an inaccurate reconstruction? Memory plays tricks, forging recalled conversations, fudging childhood scenes that turn out to be based on stories told by your parents. Sometimes you can't even trust the documentation.
But you can trust artist Judith G. Levy. Maybe.
Levy investigates the way memories and histories intersect, using a variety of visual media. "It's about public and private, about memory and history, and I try to create something that can actually be experienced," she says.
Levy studied drawing and painting at Hunter College, and her exhibition and performance history dates back 15 years. It's only in the past six years that she has been a full-time artist. (Her "pay the bills" career was as a public mental-health administrator.) She's a recent alumna of an ArtsKC "Artist, INC" course, and she commutes from Lawrence to her Crossroads District studio several times a week.
In her artwork, Levy creates new parallel universes: places, family histories and accompanying narratives. Her three deeply built tales in The Last Descendants, last fall at Paragraph Gallery, used video interviews (all deliciously scripted to seem absolutely spontaneous and genuine); detailed family trees that filled entire walls with names and dates, and even photographs (demonstrating hours of research and a novelist's imagination); as well as "artifacts" to complete our suspension of disbelief.
"Manipulation is part of creating something," says Levy, who wants to draw people into her work first with a visual appeal (fueled by her precise attention to technical detail) and then — after a viewer realizes that something's not quite right — by forcing the question "Why?"
One memorable example: her series Panoramic Postcards, created for installation in the windows of City Center Square downtown in 2010 and commissioned by the Charlotte Street Foundation. The Sintra-mounted prints are traditional white-border cards, sized for a giant in a fairy tale, but the stories they tell about American history and place are as made up as our mythology about George Washington's cherry tree. They are also just as true.
And they're extremely convincing, due in part to Levy's painstaking digital manipulation. She has pieced together dozens of found cards, culled from hours of hunting in antique stores.
Levy recalls a woman whose response to one of the cards, "Premonition Point, Ozark, Calif.," was the conviction that she had once visited that very spot. In the picture, a woman standing in a dense and colorful bed of flowers gazes at a Missouri riverboat full of passengers — in California.
Her art tackles challenging subjects — gender identity, family conflict, immigration, slavery, the decimation of American Indians' land and cultures — in layered presentations: two-dimensional, performance, video.
Her latest short film, On the Seventh Day, is screening at five film festivals this year, including the third annual New York City International Film Festival, the Indianapolis LGBT Film Festival and the Columbia Gorge International Film Festival.
The film is about resting from daily convention, being your genuine self. It's another "think about it" story from an artist whose brilliant population of imagined characters could justify its own census.
Peter Warren won't mind if you call him messy. In fact, he agrees. He has chosen Se Opp For Rotemannen, a Norwegian phrase meaning "watch out for the messy man," as the title of his upcoming exhibition at the Studios Inc.
And his studio, well, it's not exactly tidy.
"It's insane," he says. "It's really insane."
Warren first came across the messy-man warning in 2010, when he was in Norway for a residency. The words headlined an article on a rash of break-ins, in which the perpetrator trashed people's houses but left behind a remorseful letter apologizing for his actions.
Warren's interest in the story lies in the messy man's leap from chaotic irrationality to sudden lucidity. It's an axis on which his own work turns, with works that range from beautifully finished pieces of wood furniture reflecting a high degree of skill to sculptural installations of repurposed Dumpster-acquired materials that he lets speak for themselves.
"The idea for the show is to see if chaotic and focused can coexist," Warren explains.
He's working in his West Side wood shop to produce the "focused" work, a series of functional tables and tablelike sculptures. Warren has fabricated the pieces from old-growth Southern yellow pine, salvaged from a building in Columbus Park that was torn down after being struck by lightning. He purchased some of the wood to use here in Kansas City; the rest of it went to China to be made into environmentally friendly flooring.
Meanwhile, the chaos is taking shape in Warren's Studios Inc. space.
"It's filled with thousands of objects to make stuff out of," Warren says. "I'm going to freak out. I'm going into the full rotemannen mode."
Complementing the site-specific, process-based installation: a performance at the exhibition's opening by Warren's wife, Trina Thompson Warren, a modern dancer. The couple met while Warren worked as a technical designer for the Trisha Brown Dance Company in New York. They relocated to Kansas City in 2007.
"I'm not going to predict what it looks like," he says of the installation. He admits that it's a risk for him. "I could easily fail as much as I could win. But no one can take the process away. That will be mine forever."
Process is crucial to this self-taught designer. He gained woodworking skills building log cabins with his siblings while growing up in New Hampshire. He makes theatrical sets, furniture, sculpture, paintings, drawings, clothing, bags and lighting fixtures. His recent exhibition at the Late Show Gallery featured suit coats stitched together from lottery tickets. Guests in the special-events room of the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange dine at two of his tables.
But, ultimately, Warren views himself as a facilitator, helping his repurposed materials find a new use, a new shape.
"I have skills," he says. "I can make anything. But I don't enjoy it unless I'm able to come to some sort of harmony between what it is that I am trying to do and what it wants to be."
Gregory Kolsto doesn't make it easy.
His coffee shop, Oddly Correct, is located on a grimy, chrysalis stretch of Main between Westport Road and 39th Street. The dark sign doesn't exactly leap off the building. Parking can be tough, particularly during the place's narrow business hours: 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Inside, you'll wait about five minutes for your cup, which is lovingly prepared using Kolsto's pour-over method. Want cream or sugar? Screw up your courage and ask for it.
It's hardly the tightly planned stuff of MBA programs. But then, when was the last time a revolution shot out of a graduate-level management-theory course? And make no mistake: A revolutionary spirit is in the air at Oddly Correct.
"What we wanted to do here was create a space that facilitates conversation and a culture, and then figure out how to engage with that, and how to make it more about people than it is about us," Kolsto says. "We're not trying to be offensively weird, but we also aren't holding back our idea of what Oddly Correct can be. There's a sense of liberty here. People have accepted our challenge of challenging them."
Raising the coffee status quo in Kansas City is Kolsto's professed mission, and he's working to achieve that via three avenues: by the cup, wholesale and mail order. You can now find Oddly Correct roasts at Nature's Own, the Filling Station, Blue Bird Bistro, Aixois, Mud Pie, and Soho Bakery, among other places. (At Succotash, you can taste Oddly Correct espresso.)
"Right now, the focus is on pursuing beautiful coffees," Kolsto says. "We call them 'rock stars' — these seasonal, limited coffees that are here for a few months and then gone."
Beyond that focus, he also dabbles in printmaking and design, which filters into the Oddly Correct concept. "We want to curate a coffee experience," he says. "Offer these limited-edition type of coffees and pair them with art — numbered prints that we've created to go with it. That type of thing is what gets me excited and keeps me engaged."
If Kolsto is driven more by artistry and the desire for perfection than by economics, there's also something restrained and prudent about Oddly Correct. "We're not trying to be something we're not," he says. "We're not going to shell out a bunch of cash for something we can't afford just because we want to make it happen. Look around this place: Plywood is the new oak for us, you know? We feel like it reflects the texture and the simplicity with which we approach what we're doing."
Not that he lacks ambition. With two new accounts in the works — one with Lil Freshie, a soon-to-open organic snow-cone and popsicle shop on the West Side, and one with Port Fonda — Oddly Correct is looking more and more like a fulcrum of Kansas City's creative-services class. Kolsto is giving the city something it didn't know it needed: really, really great coffee, and a space in which to savor it (and talk about savoring it).
"We're not ever going to be like a normal coffee shop, if there is such a thing," Kolsto says. But why be normal when you can be Oddly Correct?
Owen/Cox Dance Group
When composer Brad Cox met dancer Jennifer Owen 11 years ago, their chemistry went beyond romantic attraction. They inspired and challenged each other on an artistic level. And so, the jazz-minded musician and the ballerina with directorial aspirations decided to collaborate on a short performance project.
The collaboration was good, but the time wasn't right for going into business together. They married shortly before Owen left for a yearlong stint with the Hong Kong Ballet. When she returned to the States, other opportunities outside Kansas City beckoned. Eventually, she was ready for the next step in her dance career.
"I always wanted to choreograph," Owen says. "And what better way to start an ensemble than with your composer-husband?"
Now in its fifth season, the Owen/Cox Dance Group averages three big shows a year, plus a handful of smaller performances and guest appearances. The troupe features no full-time dancers — other than Owen — although performers are recruited from around the world.
Outside the company, artistic directors Owen and Cox teach their respective art forms and engage in other performance projects — Cox founded the People's Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City — but remain focused on growing their collaborative endeavor.
When they produce together, Cox enjoys translating his often improvisational style to something that dancers can move around. "I love composing," he says, "and it's fun to have this other element that makes the process so much richer." Sometimes the music comes first. Sometimes the dance does.
Cox describes his wife's choreographic style as musical. Owen calls it contemporary, an organic outgrowth of the classical technique she had studied since childhood and practiced professionally for 13 years on international stages.
Her evolution and the couple's shared experimental vision are apparent at a rehearsal for their spring production. A few weeks before the premiere of the new piece "For the Beauty of the Earth" on the H&R Block City Stage, six dancers spring across a room, inside St. Teresa's Academy, to otherworldly music that blends with bird calls, crickets and mechanical-sounding percussion.
Cox usually leads the ensemble of musicians that accompanies Owen's troupe of dancers. The collaboration often features other forms of locally generated creativity.
For an original twist on the Nutcracker, Owen/Cox recruited 2007 Pitch MasterMind Peggy Noland and another creative Kansas City power couple, horn sculptor Mark Southerland and artist Peregrine Honig, to help outfit their dancers. Another collaborator, National Endowment for the Arts fellow Nate Fors, designed costumes, including inner-tube tutus, for a circus-music-driven Owen/Cox performance called "Bottom of the Big Top."
Owen and Cox say they feel lucky to be able to work with such a talented pool of creative minds. "This is a good place to start something new," Owen says of Kansas City.
Growing will mean taking their shows on the road. The group has appearances scheduled in Lawrence and St. Louis.
"Ideally, as the group evolves, there will be more opportunities to tour," Cox says.
Luckily, the married muses can now do their artistic jet-setting together.
—Crystal K. Wiebe