The Dallas Observer 2011 MasterMind Awards

The winners of our second annual art awards delve into the past and personal loss to bring new visions to Dallas

The Dallas Observer 2011 MasterMind Awards

Art happens, no matter what. Neither poverty, madness, clueless critics or an unappreciative public can kill the relentless drive to re-imagine the world. Sadly, however, all but a lucky few artists must waste valuable creative energy in soul-crushing regular jobs to survive. But no amount of dog-walking, poop-scooping, telemarketing, sperm-donating or even doctoring or lawyering will stop a real visionary. The Dallas artists you're about to meet persevere in telling their stories through dance, photography or found objects, on canvas or through sculpture. They make their marks on this city with paint, sweat and tears.

Awarded to three cutting-edge local artists from a variety of media, our $2,000 MasterMinds grants aim to help our winners keep creating in a city not known — yet — as a haven for great artistic innovators. We hope our second annual MasterMinds awards will encourage and support homegrown talent and help artists fund new projects — or simply pay the rent.

Our MasterMinds were selected by a panel of seven judges: the Observer's own art director Alexander Flores, theater critic Elaine Liner and arts and culture editor Merritt Martin; 2010 MasterMinds winners Karen Blessen and Matthew Posey; and two guest judges, photographer Allison V. Smith and visual artist and interior designer Leslie Ezelle (recognizable from her stint on the most recent season of HGTV's Design Star). From 45 nominations, the judges narrowed the selection to 10 finalists (see sidebar, page 16). From there, two additional rounds of votes provided the three winning MasterMinds.

Frank Lopez delves into 19th century chemistry to create photos in a digital age.
Frank Lopez delves into 19th century chemistry to create photos in a digital age.

We've written in the past about many of our finalists and have followed some of them for years. Today, we salute them, the un(der)sung heroes of Deep Ellum and the Arts District, Oak Cliff and Oak Lawn. On the worst days, you make this city livable. On the best, you finally get your due

Congratulations to our winners Frank Lopez, Katie Toohil and La Reunion, and to all of our finalists.

Frank Lopez

Collodion photographer and educator

The silver nitrate stains on his hands will turn black for a few days, dark as the oil beneath an auto mechanic's fingernails, but Lopez wears them like a badge of honor or, more realistically, the subtle and easily ignored remnants of that morning's shoot.

He sits at a table at a restaurant in Deep Ellum, just a few blocks from his home and studio, where he produces black glass ambrotype photographs from a 19th century formula. The antique process uses photographic plates dipped in a light-sensitive chemical solution and loaded into a camera with a Civil War-era lens. Exposure times are long, and he must race against time to capture and develop his photographs while the plates are still wet. The results are rich, one-of-kind images.

Lopez sips green tea as he talks about cutting and shaving the glass plates that he uses to create art. He's also learning how to restore original 19th-century Union Cases, which will eventually house tintypes for an upcoming show in January. The decorative boxes were once commonly used for displaying photographs, and those Lopez has acquired need new hinges and velvet linings, but their intricate cover designs are in gorgeous condition. He hopes that he will soon be able to reproduce them on his own.

Good with his hands, Lopez grew up watching his father, an auto mechanic, who taught him the family trade and instilled in him a scientific creative process that relies on critical thinking and problem solving as much as Lopez's natural, romantic eye for breathtakingly powerful scenes. As a result, Lopez is an artist unafraid to disassemble his tools just to see how they tick; most of his gear is rebuilt, modified or self-manufactured. Recently, he has retrofitted his truck as a darkroom, so he can process images on location. (Photographers in the 19th century often built horse-drawn mobile darkrooms to allow them to create landscapes using the wet-plate process.) He proudly showed us the big wooden cabinet in his trunk and the tarp he awkwardly drapes over it to work his photographic alchemy away from the studio.

"So, I'm 8 years old and my mom pulls over in this pasture in Oak Cliff — this is when there was still countryside there — and I take a portrait of this horse with a Polaroid. It won an award. There was something magical about that instantaneous result, that capturing of a fleeting moment made permanent," Lopez recalls. In high school, Lopez took a film class in which fell in love with capturing images, and he was the yearbook staff photographer. After a year working in his father's garage, he attended East Texas State University, where he earned a degree in photography in 1990 and worked as an adjunct professor. Today, he teaches honors students at Greenhill School, a private secondary school in Addison where he says his course is as challenging as any college-level class he's taught.

As far as his signature style goes, Lopez is largely self-taught. He attended a one-day workshop in 2005 at the Amon Carter Museum and slowly collected the equipment to produce wet-plate ambrotypes and tintypes, which cast dark-shadowed prints, utilizing a primarily monochromatic chiaroscuro, with bright, almost metallic bursts of unexpected light that "imbue a sense of alternate reality," he says. When Lopez speaks about the technical aspects of his craft, he sounds more like a chemist than artist. His work requires him to delicately fine-tune the "fickle" materials needed to produce the simple tones and shadows that emphasize emotion in his artwork.

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La Reunion. This is very interesting. When I was a boy we would play on the railroad tracks that are east of the property. I hope the City of Dallas builds the Chalk Hill Trail through there so that the folks on the South Side of the Trinity can have a place to enjoy bike rides and the outdoors.

Bill Holston
Bill Holston

great idea, great choices. La Reunion is really a special place, well worth checking out.

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