A look at 10 artistic people to watch in 2017.
It was a whim.
I thought it would be fun to spotlight some of the people I expected to change the Northwest Arkansas arts scene in 2014. Readers liked it. And here we are.
There is no fixed list of selection criteria. The people to watch in 2017 are those we think are making a difference and likely to continue to in the new year ahead, this time selected with the help of What’s Up! staffers Jocelyn Murphy and Lara Hightower.
We salute you, movers and shakers! Without you, Northwest Arkansas would be culturally so much poorer.
(There is no order, by the way…)
1. Stephen Caldwell — In
2012, Stephen Caldwell saw a job posting for the director of choral activities at the University of Arkansas. He thought it might be a perfect fit, and it was. “I like the atmosphere of flagship universities,” he says. “And Fayetteville seemed to be a pretty good place to live.” Ever cautious, he and wife Maura made the decision for her to stay in Philadelphia while he test drove Northwest Arkansas for a year. By the spring semester, she was looking for a job.
“My goal for collegiate teaching is to prepare the students” — and the elite Schola Cantorum, of which he is director — “for life in the real world – the musical world,” he says. “I run as close to a fully professional ensemble as I can. I want the students to realize how hard it is when they leave.”
In five years, Schola Cantorum has toured Arkansas and visited Puerto Rico, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. He considers it “serving our alumni base, recruiting new people to come to the university and spreading the Razorback gospel.”
But next year, Caldwell will take on a new project.
“We’ll pair Giacomo Carissimi’s ‘Jephte’ with a new work that I am currently composing about children with CHD (congenital heart defects),” a condition his baby boy is dealing with. “I received a 2017 Fulbright College Summer Research Stipend from the UA that will allow me to complete the work this summer.”
He’ll also lead Schola Cantorum in Bobby McFerrin music for the Black Music Symposium and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for VoiceJam at the Walton Arts Center.
“We do a lot of traditional classical repertory that brings out a certain audience who appreciate that kind of crunchy intellectual music,” he says. “But the movement away from that in vocal music has been pretty strong. Students coming now are the ‘American Idol’ generation. I need to connect them between Bach and Handel and Mozart and the Tournai Mass and the pop music they love and want to sing.”
2. Jenni Taylor Swain —
Best known in Northwest Arkansas arts circles for her 26 years in programming at the Walton Arts Center, Swain was named executive director of the Arts Center of the Ozarks in October. She says she never expected to find herself at the Springdale arts center. ACO was not even on her radar.
“In fact, if you had asked me when I announced my retirement, I would have looked at you funny and said, ‘Why would I do that?’,” she admits.
But Swain says as she got to know the people involved at ACO, the board members, audience members, arts organizations and the community development group in downtown Springdale, it began to feel like the early days of the Walton Arts Center.
“I found I was enjoying being back working at the grassroots level,” she says.
Swain is leading the movement away from the ACO’s traditional programming to multicultural events intended to unify the diverse Springdale population. That’s also the purpose of her own presenting company, Potluck Arts, which brought two contemporary circus shows to town in October.
Look for the two efforts to bleed into each other in 2017.
“We’re using the arts as a catalyst to bring the community together,” she says. “We’ll also be looking outside of Springdale to some other communities. We’re taking baby steps with that.”
3. Laura Shatkus
—“I like to tell people that Fayetteville got me pregnant with an art baby, and the gestation time was around three years,” laughs the irreverently hilarious Laura Shatkus, who first came to Fayetteville from Chicago to perform in TheatreSquared’s “The Fall of the House” and ended up moving here to attend the UA’s theater MFA program. “I had no intention of going to graduate school or moving to Arkansas, but I came to do the play, the doors opened and I just … went through them.” Shatkus says that the natural beauty of the area played a large part in seducing her to stay — an Illinois native, she had spent 10 years in Chicago as a working actor and was, she says, “starved of nature.”
“I could never go back to that,” she says. “The thought of living in the city tires me out. I want to have the quality of life that includes hiking and kayaking and picking wildflowers. I’m just happy that we can make art and be surrounded by it at the same time.”
Chicago’s loss is certainly Northwest Arkansas’ gain, as the talented theater artist continues to make her mark on the area as a vibrant, imminently watchable actress in productions at TheatreSquared — she can next be seen in “Intimate Apparel,” opening in March. February will bring another performance with the Prison Stories Project, which Shatkus has called the “best experience as an actor I have ever had.” She has also taken over the driver’s seat for ArkansasStaged, a collective of theater artists who perform cutting-edge theater in unusual spaces. The company will be the resident company for the 21c Hotel in Bentonville in 2017.
4. Kholoud Sawaf —
Ten years ago, when Kholoud Sawaf “barely spoke any English,” she was a crew member for a production of “Romeo and Juliet” in the city of Shajrah in the United Arab Emirates.
“I didn’t know a word of what was said, but I know I was rooting for Romeo and Juliet and for their love to prevail, and I remember crying every night when they died,” Sawaf says.
Now a graduate of the University of Arkansas with a master of fine arts degree in directing, Sawaf — as an artist-in-residence — and TheatreSquared are creating a version of Shakespeare’s classic set in Damascus, Syria, her home. The production is funded by a $250,000 grant from the Building Bridges Program of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Arts.
Over the course of the threeyear development and production of “Romeo and Juliet: Damascus,” TheatreSquared will foster conversations with local partners like Interfaith Arkansas, the King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies, the Fayetteville Public Library and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. The ultimate goal, she says, “is to humanize this culture and this place” — Syria — and give it “the sense of home” she grew up with, “not what we see on the newsreel.”
5. Mike Shirkey —
Mike Shirkey has made a career of making a place for music, and he’s done it again in 2016. Shirkey was the founder of the GoodFolk house concert series, which continued
from 1991 to 2012 on Block Avenue and later at the Fayetteville Underground. In 2016, he started the Pickin’ Post concert series, the first paid-and-ticketed events at the Fayetteville Public Library. “For next year and beyond, things are still in the planning stage, but stay tuned,” he says.
6. Katy Henriksen
—If you turn your radio dial to 91.3 — NPR affiliate KUAF — between the hours of 8 and 10 o’clock most nights of the week, it’s Katy Henriksen’s voice you’ll hear between the classical movements. In July, her classical music show “Of Note” changed from an hourlong daytime program to an evening program that doubles that time. Henriksen’s just fine with the increased workload though, as it gives her more opportunity to share with people what she is passionate about.
“It allows me the time to have interviews as well — not necessarily with just classical music, but with all the arts,” she says. “Our area is rapidly expanding and in order to have a healthy arts community, it’s great to have [another person out there] who can connect people [with] this artist or this musician they’ve maybe never heard of before.”
That’s also the idea behind Henriksen’s music series outside the studio — the Trillium Salon Series, started this summer. Trillium utilizes the concept of the salon — people gathering together in an intimate setting to enjoy entertainment — to break down those perceived barriers between classical music and the masses. With family-friendly concerts performed by local musicians as well as artists traveling through the area, Henriksen hopes the series will strip away the elitism of the art form and connect people through love of live music and local food. (She partners with restaurants and businesses to provide locally-sourced nosh and drinks at the concerts.)
Henriksen also expanded her digital presence this year so her daytime listeners can still catch her voice when the sun is up through streaming on the KUAF website. She says the consumption of media through digital platforms is an important development she’s noticed in the industry. Keeping up with technology only allows her to reach and connect more people, which she hopes to expand through her programming and Trillium in 2017.
7. Joseph Farmer —
On performance nights at Arkansas Public Theatre in Rogers, Farmer is the one who keeps the wheels on. As executive director of the nonprofit organization, he’s the one who coordinates the volunteers, makes sure there’s food and drink for the patrons, schedules reservations and gets all the bodies into the right seats — and makes it all look smooth and effortless.
Behind the scenes, Farmer is more. He is one of the APT’s stable of directors, most recently guiding the off-kilter Christmas comedies “The Santaland Diaries” and “Season’s Greetings,” and he’ll be directing “Dead Man’s Cellphone” in the summer. And he’s supervising a long-awaited overhaul of the dressing rooms. And he’s celebrating what he calls the graceful transition from Rogers Little Theatre to Arkansas Public Theatre and from dinner theater to cabaret seating.
His reward? He doesn’t recognize a good portion of any given audience. “And that’s so exciting.”
8. Hannah Withers —
This petite whirlwind is involved with a myriad of Fayetteville’s most beloved establishments and events. She and her husband, Ben Gitchel, opened The Little Bread Co. on Block Avenue before moving across the street and investing in a renovation of the iconic Maxine’s Tap Room. They managed to kept the spirit of its original founder, Marjorie Maxine Miller, while still delivering it stylishly into the modern age. A co-founder of the first phenomenally successful Block Street Block Party in spring 2011, Withers continues to serve as one of primary hosts of the event. Oh, and in her spare time, she serves on the Fayetteville Advertising and Promotions Committee.
She’s not just known for her crack business sense, either. Withers has been called the “Unofficial Mayor of Fayetteville” on more than one occasion — her love for Fayetteville and its residents, culture, and traditions is palpable and genuine and one of her most winning features.
“I work hard because I get excited and inspired to do things,” says the wunderkind. “I wish I had more hours in my day to execute 30 new things that would be great for our city. And when I get one that I just can’t stop thinking about, that really keeps me up at night, I spring into action until it happens.”
In 2017, look for the opening of Sit & Spin, Withers and Gitchel’s (and A.B Merritt’s) new business that combines a restaurant and bar with an eco-friendly laundromat. Withers also says she and Gitchel hope to become more supportive of the Roots Festival through additional sponsorship. Whatever Withers does, we’ll certainly be watching.
9. Morgan Hicks —
As director of education and program development for TheatreSquared, Hicks — a co-founder of the nationally recognized regional theater — is single-handedly responsible for theater touching the lives of tens of thousands of Arkansas schoolchildren through in-school residencies, a summer Shakespeare Academy and a statewide tour that visits more than 70 high schools each fall. Yet as impressive as that accomplishment is, it’s the tip of the iceberg for Hicks.
The prolific director starts her year with “Lysistrata” for the University of Arkansas; the assistant professor — who teaches theater arts classes — will direct her own adaptation of the Aristophanes classic in February. She’ll then move on to directing “The Dingdong” for TheatreSquared in May, and, following that, she will be co-producing T2’s Arkansas New Play Festival. Summer will find her directing for ArkansasStaged.
“I try not to get bored,” says Hicks. Apparently so. In addition to her directing work, Hicks also serves on the board of the Fayetteville Film Fest and performs regularly with the Artist’s Laboratory Theatre — where she hosts a monthly information variety show called “The All You Need to Know Show” that airs on KUAF — and the Roughhouse Comedy Collective, with whom you might have seen her performing during their show at the Last Night Fayetteville event.
“Fayetteville is an amazing place to live and work,” says the busy talent. “There is a sense of community among artists here that I think is really unique.”
10. Kat Robinson —
Robinson is based in Little Rock, but foodies across Arkansas know her as an expert on what makes our regional cuisine unique. She’s on this list because a national audience is about to get to know her, too. Robinson, who started her career in radio and TV and spent time with Arkansas Parks & Tourism, contributes to Food Network Magazine, covering food throughout the Mid-South. She’ll be sharing her expertise with seminars throughout Arkansas, including at the new Northwest Arkansas Community College Brightwater School for Food. Robinson is also developing a local TV show and shopping an Arkansas food glossary book to publishers. You’ll definitely see more of her in 2017 — and, as she says, be the chubbier for it!
Jenni Taylor Swain