Meet the winners of our 2011 MasterMind Awards

MEET OUR MASTERMINDS

For the sixth time, we’re singling out four of Kc’s
cultural leaders. we think they look like classics.

Since the first MasterMinds, in 2006, The Pitch has given $20,000 to local artists. On April 2, four new MasterMind Award winners join a roll that includes some of Kansas City’s most fascinating and dedicated cultural forces. Each new recipient picks up a check for $1,000 — no strings attached. If past winners are any indication, the talented people we’ve chosen this year will only get more interesting.

Each year, we ask our readers to nominate artists, innovators and entrepreneurs who are shaping the community through fashion and design, literature, visual art and performance. This isn’t a popularity contest or a lifetime-achievement award; in fact, several of our MasterMind grants have gone to people who know what it’s like to work with little recognition and less financial reward. With the MasterMinds, we set out to recognize deserving individuals or groups whose contributions have influenced the metro’s cultural and creative landscape. It’s our way of saying thanks — and encouraging the winners to keep surprising us.

We’ll hand out the checks at our annual Artopia party — a night of fashion, music, performance and food — on Saturday, April 2, at the Screenland (1656 Washington). The party that night starts at 7:30. Tickets cost $30 at the door; call 816-561-6061 for details.

Until then, you can get to know the 2011 MasterMinds below.

WINNER: VISUAL ART
David Gant

As though it weren’t obvious from the giant paintings of Crossroads figures, which covered every inch of wall in the giant gallery at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center last summer, David Gant, their maker, declares: “I really like painting portraits.”

He’s only 24 years old, but Gant has been painting portraits for more than half his life. He started out as a doodle-crazy fourth-grader, sketching the seashell whorls of classmates’ ears instead of paying attention in class. And he copied images from Spawn and Ninja Turtle comic books. But he traces what he calls his “fascination with portraiture” to volumes of Civil War photographs he found in the school library. He spent hundreds of hours drawing the features of soldiers and generals. Something about the Victorian look and the somber, still expressions required by the lengthy photographic process appealed to him then and influences him now.

In sixth grade, Gant found a teacher who taught him to see the blue and green under skin tones. But for most of his school career, he got in trouble for drawing instead of doing whatever else he was supposed to be doing. So he rushed through high school in three years and entered the Kansas City Art Institute. He loved it there but didn’t stay long — tuition problems and dorm disputes, he says. Only a semester after he first enrolled, the 17-year-old was living on the floor of a friend’s studio in midtown.

From there he returned to what he’d always done: rendering faces. He got supplies by Dumpster-diving, making canvas stretchers out of old window frames, sometimes painting on drop cloths. “I wasn’t going to let not having money stop me from making work,” he says.

Gant lives and works in his Charlotte Street studio, where he moved about three years ago, and he has gotten to know people in the Crossroads. He started talking about a massive portrait project, and in January 2010, he began. His friend Todd Weiner found him more stretchers, and friends and neighbors dropped in to sit. Word spread, and people jumped onboard. Friends recruited friends to pose. A big box of art supplies, containing thousands of dollars’ worth of oil paints, came his way from someone’s aborted hobby. More than a dozen times, Gant arrived home to find supplies dropped at his doorstep by anonymous donors — half-finished or thrift-store paintings he could paint over. “It’s kind of what the whole thing was about,” Gant says, still amazed at the generosity, “the larger artist community here.”

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In six months, Gant completed 150 portraits, sometimes working on five a day. He had no vehicle, so he gathered 120 Facebook friends to form a parade, marching the paintings the three-quarters of a mile from his studio to Leedy-Voulkos. It was a fittingly communal process for a community project.

“I didn’t get to finish school, so I wanted to make a BFA’s amount of work,” Gant says. “I got to show what I’m capable of when the opportunity’s given.”

— By Grace Suh


WINNER: LITERARY
Gina Kaufmann

Gina Kaufmann’s special year is winding down.

And that’s not a reference to the fact that, after supporting her writing habit with various streams of part-time and freelance income for much of her adult life, she has spent roughly the past six months just being a writer.

With some luck, that could continue. But this is 2011, and until June, Kaufmann is 33: She’s a double-odd age in a double-odd year. “That won’t happen again until I’m 55,” explains the petite brunette with her typical unaffected enthusiasm.

This is the quirky, slightly neurotic thinking of a writer.

Full disclosure: Kaufmann spent some time in the early 2000s as The Pitch‘s full-time calendar editor. But even then, she was far from living what one envisions as the writing life: holed up in her apartment, hunched over a laptop at coffee shops, or journeying to small-town museums for research.

She got her present opportunity to live her dream after winning an assignment to write the Kansas installment of a 50-state book series about historically significant women. The publishers won’t let Kaufmann elaborate on her subject, but she’s nearly finished with her part of the project. At the same time, she’s also wrapping up a master’s degree in creative writing through a distance-learning program at the University of British Columbia.

“I don’t know if my life will ever look like this again,” Kaufmann says, “but it’s been cool.”

Getting used to the lifestyle of a full-time writer, with its isolation and inherent absence of structure, took confidence. “In the beginning I would get really down on myself,” Kaufmann says. But being a social creature, she figured out that she couldn’t stay in her apartment all day, every day. So she’d change locations every few hours. “All the baristas know me,” she admits, slightly more rueful than proud.

Kaufmann isn’t just a good customer. She was co-host of The Walt Bodine Show for about two years. And since 2003, she’s been known for putting together popular storytelling events twice a year, usually at the Brick. “I’m still always surprised that I say I’m going to do this thing, and people show up,” she says.

She keeps those events minimalist. Kaufmann chooses a theme in advance and solicits friends and local celebrities to show up with related anecdotes. There’s no band, no prizes, no gimmicks — just people packing into a bar and telling stories in a concentrated, raucously entertaining, sometimes moving celebration of art. It’s literature in its simplest form. “Stories are the least common denominator of art,” Kaufmann says. “Knock-knock jokes and opera have stories in common.”

That’s the seed of Kaufmann’s master’s thesis and what she hopes will become her second published book. In it, she profiles people she worked with over a summer when restlessness drove her to take a second job at Green Dirt Farm, a sheep farm 45 minutes outside Kansas City. She’s unsure exactly why she felt so compelled to take on a commute and hard labor. Kaufmann explains: “I think I’m trying to create what is going on with the American profession and American lifestyle and how the local food movement fits into that, on a deep human level.”

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Spoken, as usual, like a writer.

— By Crystal K. Wiebe


WINNER: PERFORMANCE
NewEar

It is a spectacularly beautiful Sunday afternoon, the day before the first day of spring. Mark Lowry, founder and percussionist of NewEar, Kansas City’s first and only contemporary classical music ensemble, and Ingrid Stölzel, its resident composer, sit on a bench in the sun on a quaint stretch of downtown KC. They’re straight out of central casting (classical-musician division): sensible shoes, baggy jeans, well-scrubbed faces, not a trace of grooming product.

Lowry’s soft blue eyes are magnified slightly by wire-rim glasses. Stölzel’s voice is pleasantly vibrato; her accent, after 20 years in the United States, still declares Germany as its country of origin. They both display the deep rationality of those who spend their days in — literally — measured and harmonious pursuits.

So it’s a bit of a Bourne Identity moment when these mild-mannered citizens reveal an ambition of world-takeover dimensions. “Our mission,” Stölzel says calmly, “is to present the widest possible range of new music that’s being written in our time.”

OK, so maybe that statement doesn’t sound diabolical. But considering that many people remain unsure what exactly “new music” is, NewEar’s is a bold undertaking. Stölzel speaks not of ladies Gaga and Antebellum but of recent compositions by living composers — 21st-century classical music.

Stölzel is aware of the disconnect. “A lot of people have never heard new music and think that it’s something they can’t emotionally relate to,” she says. “But it’s not true.” To reach out to audiences, NewEar holds a talk before every performance to introduce works, demonstrate techniques and answer questions. And a reception after gives audience members, composers and performers an opportunity to mingle.

With no artistic director, NewEar’s programming decisions are reached by ensemble consensus. This broader perspective means an eclectic repertoire as well as close collaboration with local artistic groups. Coming up, for example: a program with the Owen/Cox Dance Group called Chromatic Collaborations (April 29 and 30 at Union Station’s City Stage).

New music has traveled light-years from the lush romanticism associated with classical music, as surely as fiction has advanced from Tolstoy to Murakami. New music is often characterized by our modern affinities for spareness, indirection, dissonance, spontaneity and sensation, as well as global elements — gamelan rhythms, say, or klezmer wails. It is, in other words, the sound of our time.

While many similar groups around the country occupy themselves with the classics of established 20th-century masters such as Steve Reich or Joan Tower, NewEar is committed to exploring new works and new composers. Seventy-five new compositions, including numerous commissions, have received their premieres here in Kansas City in NewEar’s 18 seasons. That means NewEar brings artistic innovation not only to our city but also to the world at large.

Outsized ambition indeed.

— By Grace Suh


WINNER: FASHION & DESIGN
Sarah Nelsen

When young designers, drunk on dreams of winning Project Runway, come to Sarah Nelsen for advice, she encourages them. But she also warns them against tunnel vision. “I tell them to continue their art classes — not just fashion or just design — because all of those other things feed into what you’re going to do,” she says.

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She would know. Nelsen makes dresses and outfits that incorporate high-tech methods and sensual fabrics, but she also builds websites and marketing strategies. Cross-pollination is at the heart of her artistic process.

For last year’s West 18th Street Fashion Show, Nelsen fused futurism and nature,
accessorizing subtle animal-print and digitally printed fabrics with jewelry made from an old chandelier. Her illustrations for a Kansas City hotel’s ad campaign blend muted earth tones, leafy patterns and tall buildings to suggest an urban Eden.

“I like patterns,” she says. “And I like to try to translate 2-D to 3-D.”

The striking, willowy Nelsen favors a starker look for herself. After a day of working on assignments for local ad agency Barkley, she shows up for an interview at a Crossroads restaurant wearing skintight, reptilian, black leggings beneath an oversized black-and-white shirtdress. With her close-cropped, black-dyed hair, the impossibly tall young woman resembles a prettier Karen O. “I traditionally dress in a lot of black,” she says.

Attention to style comes naturally. Both Nelsen’s mother and older sister work in the fashion field as retail-merchandise buyers. That’s why Nelsen, who grew up in St. Louis, insisted on studying graphic design at the University of Kansas, even though she started modeling at 14. “I wanted to steer away from the family plan,” she says.

Nevertheless, after moving from Lawrence to Kansas City in 2006 to work full time in graphic design, Nelsen found herself seeking a noncommercial outlet for her creativity. She started taking sewing and textile classes, and she swooned when she first saw fliers for the West 18th Street Fashion Show. Getting into the show led to costume work for popular local performance group Quixotic.

“That opened up my world of connections, just knowing other creatives out there,” Nelsen says.

Because of her efforts and easy personality, she’s getting a well-deserved reputation for being an ambitious and cooperative member of the artistic community. And her professional credibility matches her creative vision.

Nelsen is now spearheading the marketing end of a new fashion show to be held in downtown Overland Park in the fall. If she has time, she’ll create a new line of scarves for the event, in addition to a separate design idea that involves laser-cutting leather and satin or silk. “Every project that I take on, I want to incorporate something I’ve never tried before,” Nelsen says.

That list is pretty long and includes starting a jewelry line with her sister. “I’m always jotting down lists for future goals,” she says. Like having her own fashion line in stores by the time she turns 30. She has three years to go, and she’s off to a hell of a start.

— By Crystal K. Wiebe

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