Grand Center Inc. will be presenting its annual Visionary Awards to six area women on May 13 at The Sheldon. Ranging from theater to music and every art form in-between, these women are making a difference in the St. Louis artistic community—and they don’t plan on stopping any time soon.
Whether it is dance or opera, theater or architecture, you’d be hard-pressed to find an arts organization Joanne Kohn has not been involved with. “We need publicity,” says Kohn of keeping local arts alive. “We need to get the word out.” Kohn has worked with The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Dance St. Louis and the Missouri Arts Council, just to name a few. Despite her amazing past accomplishments, Kohn continues to work to improve the St. Louis area and is eager to spread the word. Kohn currently is board chair of the Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park. The organization’s annual lecture is free and open to the public, and will take place on April 7 at 3 p.m. at the Missouri History Museum.
Successful Working Artist
Lydia Ruffin is, at her core, a singer. “My voice is what has propelled my career,” says Ruffin, who was the founding artistic director of the Art & Soul Café. Working under the tagline, ‘Where spirit and creativity meet,’ Ruffin says the Art & Soul Café functions using the café model, as opposed to being a restaurant-type location, and allows participants to “go deeper into our spiritual selves through the arts.” These days, the organization is a mobile experiment that allows for “inter-spiritual dialogue” to explore various “spiritual paths through the arts.” Outside of the Art & Soul Café, Ruffin says she is toying with the idea of a community choir, something that she has led before. Ruffin currently is performing with the band, Mayor Taylor, and they are preparing to record a live CD. “I also want to continue doing my own song-writing, in addition to everything else.”
Outstanding Arts Professional
“Theater has changed my life for the better,” says Agnes Wilcox. “I figured if it worked for me, it could work for someone else.” Wilcox, founder of Prison Performance Arts, speaks specifically of inmates, and explains the benefits they can receive from a theater program. “It teaches critical thinking,” she says. “You’ve got to figure out why a character is doing what he or she is doing and what effect that has on other characters.” Wilcox notes the program also increases literacy among inmates, saying “it gives them a reason for wanting to read or write.” The program currently works with three adult and two juvenile institutions. “I thought that prison inmates were probably the most underserved audiences,” says Wilcox. “As one of the men said, They’re the last group people are allowed to hate.”
Andrea Purnell, communication and artistic director at UMSL’s Missouri Institute of Mental Health, is driven to spread social messages through theater. “It takes people using their power of the arts to educate those who would not normally be able to be reached by the message,” says Purnell, who recently wrote and produced the play Depression, Whose Disease Is It Anyway, which offered audience members post-performance mental health assistance. “In the wake of a lot of tragic events, people are starting to take a closer look at behavioral disorders,” Purnell explains, saying this search for more information can quickly become nothing short of a manhunt. “I’m glad that it’s getting this flashlight look, but I also want the community to realize they’re people, too.” Looking toward the future, Purnell, who is studying to become an interpreter, says she feels passionately about incorporating the healing power of the arts in serving the deaf community.
Outstanding Arts Educator
Lynn Rubright always has a story to tell. Rubright was the co-founder of what’s now the Metro Theater Company and the founder of the St. Louis Storytelling Festival, both of which are approaching their 40th years. “Storytelling is very comprehensive,” she says. “It’s movement, it’s dance, it’s music… It’s not just Once upon a time…” Currently, Rubright is working as an artist in residence at Old Bonhomme Elementary School, where 90 second-grade children will be performing her opera, Little Red the Folktale Hen. “Learning and literacy happen when children are immersed in the arts integrated with their curriculum—get artists into the classroom as partners.” This year, the St. Louis Storytelling Festival begins May 1, and Rubright’s seven-day UMSL course on storytelling will start June 20. The class is “for anyone who wants to learn more about storytelling” and features drama, music and other storytelling beyond the narrative.
Major Contributor to the Arts
Constantly working to improve St. Louis and the local arts scene, it is no surprise that Carol Voss is being honored for her continued support. “Understand that having a lot of arts opportunities creates a better quality of life and makes St. Louis a better place to live, work and raise a family,” Voss says. Everything from the Matthews-Dickey Boys & Girls Club Sheer Elegance Fashion Show to the Fontbonne University board of trustees, the Arts and Education Council to The Shakespeare Festival St. Louis has included Voss in one beneficial form or another. “There is such a variety of arts opportunities in the area that people should find something they enjoy and support,” she says, adding “and bring their friends along!” Her favorite local arts events include Arts and Education Council’s St. Louis Arts Awards Dinner and the Dance St. Louis Ballet Ball. Voss’ continued support reaches further than local arts, as she is involved with education, wellness and social justice, among other things. In 2013, she will co-chair The Sheldon and the Grand Center galas.