Dallas Observer Masterminds 2015: Meet the Winners of Our Annual Art Awards

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They break down barriers and find new ways to communicate. They take risks, but maintain the self-discipline required to create. They venture to the boundaries of art to bring back new discoveries, and they dedicate themselves to preserving what's already here and valuable. In countless ways, they keep Dallas' culture burning brightly. They're our Dallas Observer Masterminds.

Each year, we assemble a panel of creative thinkers from the local art community to help us identify a new set of Masterminds to praise and celebrate at Artopia, our massive annual party taking place at 8 p.m. Saturday at Centennial Hall at Fair Park (1001 Washington St.). You're invited, by the way. It's an art, music, fashion, magic, dance, food and drink blow-out for all. The Masterminds also get a check for $1,000 -- our way of saying thanks for the joy they bring to our community.

To parse through the nominations and pick the six finalists, I leaned on a number of culturevores. The panel included last year's Masterminds: Heyd Fontenot, director of the artist residency CentralTrak; Bart Weiss, the creative force behind Dallas VideoFest; Jeff Swearingen and Bren Rapp, the dynamic duo who've turned children's theater into adult-sized laughter at Fun House Theatre; Vicki Meek, the arts leader who runs South Dallas Cultural Center; Janeil Engelstad, the wonderful woman who heads up Make Art with Purpose; and David Lozano, the arts advocate and artistic director of Cara Mia Theatre. And I asked a small handful of the Observer's arts writers to participate, including theater critic Elaine Liner, copy editor Caroline North, dance writer Danielle Georgiou, and contributors Justin Hunt and Jennifer Smart. We ordered pizzas, threw back a few lagers, and discussed who deserves a few clams for their creativity. They had a week to research or ruminate over the nominations and what you see before you is the result of a final vote.

There are, of course, many more Masterminds in the city than we can recognize in one year, and to all of them, we say thank you for bringing beauty to Dallas, and we hope to see you at Artopia this year and in years to come.

Christopher Blay: A Reflective Man

Christopher Blay speaks slowly. He wants to say what he really means. It's the same with his art, which he uses to methodically map out his anxieties and interests. A photographer by training, Blay is now more interested in pushing the image through the lens and "pulling it out the back" to create large scale installations -- organizations of found objects that are cheeky takes on the image in question, whether it's a satellite or a time machine. As he describes it, his art fosters discussion of communication voids, borders and fences.

"I felt like there was already a world of images and no matter how I manipulated the permutations, I always came up with something I'd already seen before," Blay explains, when asked why we're unlikely to see any evidence of the photography degree he holds from Texas Christian University. "I'm obsessed with images, and even though I don't want to add more images into the world, I want to reflect on images because they're everywhere."

Previous examples of Blay's work include a makeshift time machine, composed of outdated computer monitors and beauty salon chairs, that looks like it was inspired by an episode of The Jetsons. Then there's the representational ark he built around a 20-foot shipping container, which served as a temporary community space for the disparate 10th Street Historic District in Oak Cliff. Most recently he's been a visiting artist at CentralTrak, University of Texas at Dallas' artist residency in Expo Park, where he used photo equipment like tripods and reflectors to create satellite look-alikes that visitors could step into. With that he hoped to launch a conversation about the gap between the art world and the larger world outside it; Blay considers himself a commuter between the two.

"I can clock in and clock out of the art world anytime I want to," Blay says. "I don't have a seat at the table in either world. And I'm very, very comfortable to move in and out of both places."

He derives this comfort from a late entrance into the art world. Blay left behind ambitions in architecture after graduating high school, when a part-time job as a courier for a photography company sparked an interest in art. He studied first at community college, founding a photography collective in Fort Worth before studying at TCU. Although he eventually grew tired of the medium, for Blay the medium isn't too entangled with the message.

"There's a certain universality with materials in art that we can all sort of immediately engage with," Blay says. "How does a two dimensional, flat thing connect with the viewer, and what was in the artist's head and how does that conversation reflect the history of humans? How does your thinking as a human being first, and an artist second, respond to the world?"

Blay has proven himself adept at these conversations, both as himself -- on countless panels, committees and advisory boards throughout Dallas and Fort Worth -- and as a performance art character named Frank Artsmarter. For years, Artsmarter would pop up at galleries or in Internet videos with spoofs of art world patrons, artists and promoters. In both his art and his person he is constantly wrestling with the art world and its deficiencies. Lately, he's been troubled by the inability to define what makes something art. This inclination toward institutional critique might make a lesser man jaded or bitter, but Blay still holds romantic notions of art and artist.

"The materials already exist," says Blay. "As an individual moving the world around with the things that surround me, I'm happy to call that art."

Jeff Gibbons and Justin Ginsberg: Well-Traveled Artists

Open iTunes and find some kind of all-American music about the great outdoors. "Appalachian Spring," perfect. The first movement, "Very slowly," is meant to sound like a sunrise. Let it serve as background music as you hike through this interview with Jeff Gibbons and Justin Ginsberg, the restless nomads who collaborate as Apophenia Underground. Two years ago, they hopped in a truck, said "East or west?" and westward they went, driving 13,000 miles without a thought to where they were going.

You might say Gibbons and Ginsberg are the Dallas art-world version of Hollywood's Seth Rogen/James Franco team. They're also buddies who create things together, including a full-length film about their road trip across America. The collaboration could easily be described as a "bromance," and just imagine what a slacker comedy about their life would look like. Except Gibbons and Ginsberg aren't slackers at all. In addition to their own art practices, they've spent the past three years organizing exhibitions in abandoned buildings -- a project called Deep Ellum Windows.

Upon second glance, theirs is more like the story of a pair of teenagers trapped in a small town: They met while in graduate school at the University of Texas at Arlington and bonded over their shared fascination with abandoned buildings and anxiety about sitting still. Ginsberg works with glass, challenging preconceptions of how the material can be used. (He likes to break stuff.) Gibbons works in mixed media, posing highly philosophical questions in installations filled with sculptural pieces and video; he's the dreamer. The pair began working together when they became neighbors. They traded ideas about artistic constraints, and sought to challenge each other to stay uncomfortable. When a rousing talk with a real estate group ended with an offer to utilize vacant spaces in Deep Ellum, Ginsberg teamed up with Gibbons for their best-known project.

What made you guys team up? Gibbons: We both wanted to explore artistically, and just in life, what happens when you stick your neck out. Like when we were on the road traveling around a couple summers ago, you don't know where you're going to go, and you don't know what is going to happen next, and all of these things happen along the way, and one thing connects to the next, connects to the next.

Tell me about the road trip. Gibbons: We got in a truck and said "East or west?" and said "Oh, we'll go west." Then we ended up doing this big arc around the U.S., up through Colorado, Utah, California, Washington -- stayed there for a while. All along the way we're camping, seeing old friends, those friends are introducing us to new friends, we're making work, documenting everything with photographs, audio, video.

Ginsberg: We came back rejuvenated. We didn't have much expectation of what was going to happen other than having that experience. We came back almost a little bit sad. I missed sleeping on the ground in a tent. I got to eat and make art; it was a nice experience. Justin driving 13,000 miles for six weeks.

Gibbons: When you let yourself lose control a little bit, things work out anyway. And so we were really just looking at that and dissecting it and making work in that vein. Deep Ellum Windows was the same way.

Talk more about Deep Ellum Windows. Ginsberg: I love space, and I love free space. We make work all the time. We don't wait for a show to come up and think, "I want to make work now." We're always making. You have all the spaces that show art and fill their roles, from museums to galleries, but it's not always a very free experience for the artist. There's something nice about walking into the space and saying, "We don't want anything out of you, but for you to make work and put your work in here." There were no expectations on how many shows or how it would go.

Gibbons: No different than the expectation we had for our own stuff. In my own mind I don't think of myself as being a curator, I don't think either of us do. It was just an extension of our work. In the same way that you look at one thing and another thing, and realize you want to do something with those things. It was the same, except this was a space and this was a person. I feel more like we were instigators more than facilitators. We ended up with 64 artists and something like 30-odd shows.

So in your individual practices and in your collaborations what are you aiming for? Ginsberg: Well, in all of it but especially with the road trip, we were trying to experience something that was real life.

Gibbons: Which wasn't real life at all. Ideal life maybe.

Ginsberg: It was something.

Katelyn Harris: She's Got Rhythm

If there's one thing Katelyn Harris wants you to know, it's the history of tap dance. And that tap dance is fun. With Rhythmic Souls, she's proving this through classes and performances in and around Dallas.

"A lot of people when they think of tap dance, they think of Sally Sue with some bows on her shoes doing a few steps," Harris says. "But once people are in the door and they see it, they realize how cool it is. I mean, everybody likes tap dance."

Growing up in Dallas, Harris studied with local tap dance legend Buster Cooper and went on to train professionally all over the world, eventually landing a gig with Austin's Tapestry Dance Company. When she returned home she brought her obsession with her, founding the Drawbacks Youth Tap Ensemble with longtime dance collaborator Keira Leiverton in 2008, and later creating Rhythmic Souls as a professional component. Since then she and her dancers have tapped their way through local festivals and main-stage shows, collaborating with both music and theater companies.

"At the beginning it was just that I wanted somewhere to dance," Harris says. "And all along the way, I've wanted to educate people on this all-American art form, and share the joy that I find with young dancers and audiences."

Today, Rhythmic Souls is both a performance troupe and a dance studio. The studio occupies a back room in the house Harris shares with her sister Jackie, who manages the business side of the company.

But Harris has even bigger goals. For one, she wants to build a full-fledged tap dance company that offers paid dance positions. She's also hoping to pursue more collaborations with musicians and other types of dancers. Oh, and she just founded the Rhythm in Fusion Festival, a three-day event with performances and workshops at the Majestic Theatre, from January 17 to 19.

"All around the world there are these tap festivals where people who love the art form get together," Harris says. "I wanted to bring this experience to Dallas because I know how much it affected me."

Harris' passion to raise tap's profile in Dallas has caused her to transition from dancer to artistic director, which she describes as a steep learning curve.

"I still don't know what I'm doing half the time," Harris says, laughing. But about two minutes later she's relaying an idea for an experimental tap series. "I have so many things I want to do."

Cora Cardona: Woman of the World

When Cora Cardona arrived in Dallas in 1984 as a young actress trained in Mexico City, she had a small setback. After years of pursuing any role she wanted, her accent had become a problem -- that and the fact that she wasn't, well, white.

"I did my exam in drama school with the Importance of Being Earnest," she says with a laugh. "They didn't tell me I needed to be British. I was just an actress doing the play. With that mentality I came here, and suddenly my accent was a limitation. There was no one producing plays I could be in, and no one knew anything about Latin America."

Instead of moving home, or leaving for New York City, she founded Teatro Dallas -- the first Dallas theater to cast colorblind, and one of the only theaters in the country, even today, translating works into English. Now in its 30th season, Teatro Dallas is among the oldest theaters in the city. In its lifetime it has seen the birth of Cara Mia Theatre, the Latino Cultural Center and numerous other groups and institutions invested in the Latin American experience. You might consider that a mission accomplished, but Cardona now hopes for her company to be embraced as "del mundo," not just Latino.

"My experience is related to everybody," she says. "If you start thinking about who you are, you'll find your connections spread out through the world. We are one race; we are the human race."

This is why, in addition its programming celebrating the Spanish language, Teatro Dallas hosts the International Theatre Festival -- a month-long, cosmopolitan event featuring companies and performers from outside the U.S. Cardona also notes that her company is one of few to represent Dallas at festivals in other countries. Mexico's Day of the Dead will always be marked as Teatro Dallas' signature event, but Cardona feels the company is about much more than that.

Not only has Teatro produced hundreds of English translations, it has also been a breeding ground for Dallas artists who otherwise might not have seen theater as a viable career path. Now many of those artists -- including David Lozano at Cara Mia, Christopher Carlos at Kitchen Dog Theater and Christina Vela at the Dallas Theater Center -- are mentoring artists themselves.

"You raise artists like you raise children," Cardona says. "When you're just in love with what you do like I am, you don't think about time. You just keep doing it, and loving it and others who are affected by you, well, it's a beautiful, rewarding feeling."

Merritt Tierce: The Writer Grows Up

Inside her cozy Denton home, Merritt Tierce thumbs through her diary before marking a place and handing it to me. In the surprisingly intelligible scribble of a 6-year-old, it reads, "I wrote a book this morning." Then, on the next page, she declares it the worst day of her life.

"I was your classic little bookworm kid, I didn't have much use for humans," Tierce says. "I would read books when we were out for dinner. I read everything."

An avid reader and writer for much of her life, Tierce this year published her debut novel, Love Me Back, to widespread critical acclaim. Her account of a young female protagonist coming of age in the service industry, loosely based on her time waiting tables at Nick & Sam's, is devastating yet beautifully written. But for Tierce, who grew up in the small town of Gatesville, it took years of life experience before she felt she had anything to write about.

"I felt like I was happiest when I was writing from a very young age, but I didn't have a clue how to make that into something," Tierce says. "I also didn't have a whole lot to write about. I was a really sheltered kid and had so little perspective on my life."

After graduating from the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science in Denton, an accelerated high school program, Tierce finished her bachelor's degree at Abilene Christian University. And then, to hear her tell it, she spent eight years trying to go back to school. She fell in love, married, had children, divorced and waited tables for money. All the while she kept a journal when she could and applied for any master's program that sounded interesting, getting into most of them. But it wasn't until 2006 that she wrote her first short story, "Suck It," which was published in the Southwest Review.

"I think it had been gestating my whole life and I was finally old enough and formed enough to let it out," Tierce says. "I wrote most of it in one sitting, in one night, because it was just there."

That story, and the encouragement from the Review's fiction editor at the time, Ben Fountain, was the urging Tierce needed to throw herself back into writing. Not long after, she applied to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, a prestigious creative writing program where she was a fellow from 2009-2011. Fast forward to September 2014 and she's leaving behind her day job as executive director of Texas Equal Access to write full time -- and, oh yeah, publishing Love Me Back with Random House.

"I think like a lot of writers early in their careers, you just expect that it will never happen because that seems like the most logical thing," Tierce says. "It's been fucking fantastic. Just to have strangers read your book and think about it so hard and 
appreciate the things you love about it is amazing."

At the moment Tierce is still in the whirlwind 
of publishing her book. Once that calms 
down, she's lined up a few fellowships 
for the next year. For now, when she has a few minutes to herself, you'll find her in her bedroom closet where she's arranged a cozy writing nook, complete with comfy-looking blankets and pillows. A nook that might be straight from a 6-year-old aspiring writer's dreams.

Karen Minzer and Dee Mitchell: A Way With Words

Karen Minzer and Dee Mitchell bonded over their interest in booking a Dallas show for sex columnist Dan Savage. This was sometime between 2008 and 2009 --- you'll never get them to agree on a date. At the time, Minzer was a longtime member of Wordspace and Mitchell had recently been invited to sit on the board. The idea of booking expensive acts was foreign to the organization, which poet Robert Trammel founded in 1994 as a platform for writers.

"I remember that meeting very well, because the board at the time said they didn't have that kind of money and I said, 'Well, we don't spend our own money on this,'" Mitchell says with a warm chuckle. "And we were talking about $20 tickets, and they didn't know who spent that kind of money. 'People who go out at night,' I remember telling them."

"He was the white knight riding in," Minzer says.

In the years that followed they would become the head honchos at Wordspace. It's clear that Minzer and Mitchell's talents differ: She's the creative engine and he's the business sense. Officially, he's the president and she's the executive/program director. They bounce ideas off each other and collaborate on strategies for achieving their goals, with the help of the board of directors and Kessler Theater artistic director Jeff Liles.

Together they've crafted a series at the Kessler that boasts big names and even pricier tickets (Laurie Anderson's performance last year was a well-spent $40). Thanks to Wordspace, writers such as John Waters, Amy Sedaris and Sandra Bernhard have sold out shows in Dallas. Those shows pay the bills for the other Wordspace events, which are free.

Throughout the year, Wordspace programs events that celebrate all kinds of word artistry. You'll see book clubs, poetry readings, songwriting workshops, author talks and intellectual salons that bear the group's name. Each program is as stimulating as the one before. And now that you know the name Wordspace, you'll see it pop up all over town at DIY spaces, coffee shops, The Reading Room, The Wild Detectives and in private homes.

"We have a different audience for everything we do, and I think we're still identifying and expanding the audience for literature in Dallas," says Mitchell.

"Really, Wordspace is just a love of word presented in any form, any way," Minzer says. "So really experimental stuff. We're the last flag wavers of the avant-garde, as far as spoken word goes."

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