Dallas Observer Names Nine Dallas Artists as Finalists in Its First Annual Masterminds Award

Times are tough all around, and especially for artists. Grant money is scarce and patron support isn't what it was during boom times.

Why not offer Dallas artists and creative entrepreneurs a shot at some money and a bit of buzz-generating publicity? Dallas Observer's first MasterMinds competition, launched in September, is doing just that by awarding no-strings-attached prizes of $2,000 to each of three local artists working in a variety of media—visual arts, performance, video, film and arts advocacy. The goal: To honor cultural innovators with funds to do with as they choose, whether it's seed money for a new project or just to pay rent. OK, it's not a MacArthur Genius Grant. At least not yet. But we hope the money will allow the winners a little breathing room on their bills, or even inspire them to help out a fellow artist in need. (This year's winners will participate in choosing next year's prize recipients.)

We received more than 70 submissions during the month-long nomination period. The nine finalists, chosen by a panel of Dallas Observer editors and critics, all contribute considerable energy and talent to Dallas' cultural landscape. From this group, we'll choose the three winners who will be profiled in a cover story November 11. We'll celebrate them and all the finalists on Saturday, November 13, from 8-11 p.m. at our first Artopia event in Victory Park, where many of the finalists' work will be on view. Hope to see you there.

Now meet the finalists (in alphabetical order):

Karen Blessen

Artist, writer, teacher and peace advocate Karen Blessen saw her life and career take a dramatic shift after an act of violence left a stranger dead on her front lawn in Lakewood a decade ago. She says she spent "three dark years" chronicling the effects of the murder on the victim's family and friends as well as the families of the perpetrators.

After publication of the story she wrote and illustrated titled "One Bullet," she felt the need to shift her creative energies into a more positive direction. Immersion in a meditation practice that includes memorizing lines of sacred texts resulted in a creative burst. Over several months, Blessen built a series of small sculptures titled 29 Pieces, a collection of assemblages and script-covered tableaux that contain bits of text by mystics and religious figures such as St. Theresa of Lisieux and St. Augustine. Her long-term plan is to recreate each piece into a huge room-size (or larger) multimedia installation that will become a traveling exhibit. "It's time for artists to work on a larger scale," she says. "Art is going to manifest in ways we can't even anticipate yet."

A Pulitzer winner in 1989 for her work as a graphic artist at The Dallas Morning News, Blessen, 58, now is dedicated to using "art to create awareness of social issues." She's the co-founder of the nonprofit Today Marks the Beginning, which uses art and the teaching of art to promote peace and justice. She started and now manages the sister program MasterPEACE, which teaches lessons in non-violence and peace through artistic expression to classes of fifth-graders in eight Dallas-area schools. Using yoga masters, actors, musicians and other artists, MasterPEACE introduces students to Heroes of Peace, including Gandhi, Mother Teresa and others. Blessen has had these kids' art pieces—much of it constructed from found objects—displayed publicly and published in coffee-table book form.

Frank Campagna

Many a young artist's career has been launched from the walls of Frank Campagna's Kettle Art Gallery since it opened on Elm Street in Deep Ellum in November 2005. Campagna has only one requirement for submissions by unknown, un-shown artists. "You have to drop in here on a Thursday night, show me the stuff and shoot the shit with me for a couple of hours," he says. If he likes the art and the artist, the work will be up in the next group show (there's a new show every three to six weeks). If the work sells, the artist is bumped up to a three-artist show, then possibly a solo. Campagna keeps prices affordable and the work edgy and raw. "What's underground today will be mainstream 20 years from now," he says.

It's Campagna's own work as a muralist that has added to Deep Ellum's color and character for the past three decades. He estimates he painted on the outside wall of the Gypsy Tea Room 1,000 murals promoting acts that appeared there over eight years. He organized several end-to-end paintings of the now-demolished quarter-mile Good-Latimer tunnel and, during federal hearings about art for the new DART station in Deep Ellum, he fought against the installation of anything there that wasn't locally made. He won. Deep Ellum's own Brandon Oldenburg and Brad Oldham were awarded a $1.38 million contract to construct the three Traveling Man sculptures.

Business is down at Kettle lately, but Campagna, who's been mentor and father figure to a generation of North Texas artists, hopes the renewed revitalization of Deep Ellum sees things pick up. With daughter Amber helping to run the gallery, Campagna, 54, still has one unfulfilled dream as a muralist. He wants to spray-paint a huge wall in the style of the Impressionists. "But art is what does not pay," he says. "I want to see music and art happen side by side in this city again. But it's tough."

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