But we take what pleasure we can get in the world in which we find ourselves, and by and large my job is, well, fun.
At least that's what I thought right up until the day two weeks ago that I telephoned the four recipients of this year's inaugural Riverfront Times MasterMind Awards and broke the news that we intended to present them with grants of $2,500 apiece, no strings attached.
That, my friends, is pleasure. By which I mean pure, unalloyed capital-G capital-F Good Feeling. Since then I've gushed (uncharacteristically, I might add) countless times to countless people that my goal now is to be rich, just so I can give away money.
As we said when we embarked on this project, the intent of the MasterMind Awards is to honor the innovators whose cultural and creative contributions are helping to redesign — and redefine — St. Louis.
Before we introduce the four 2008 MasterMinds, each of whom is profiled in the pages of the Fall Arts Guide you now hold in your hands, I'd like to single out some of the many folks and organizations that offered their time and counsel.
The Regional Arts Council and the St. Louis Artists' Guild, for generously sharing their resources. Cliff Froelich of Cinema St. Louis, for supplying his much-appreciated perspective, as well as piles of DVDs. Kim Humphries, artist extraordinaire and Critical Mass board member, for his patience and arts smarts. David Clewell, because he's a magus. And, finally, graphics wizard Scott Gericke of designlab,inc for creating the MasterMinds logo and designing the cover of this supplement.
To those I've neglected to mention: Totally my bad! I'll try to do better next year.
—TOM FINKEL, EDITOR
Film/Video Mastermind: Matthew Krentz
Matthew Krentz wrote the script for Streetballers in just 30 days. He took a bit longer — two years, to be exact — to cast the film. Krentz didn't seek his actors in theater departments or formal auditions. Instead, he went to the dramatic epicenter of the city: its basketball courts. He met with ballers in street games and on playgrounds. He consulted with Preston Thomas, the Forest Park Community College coach who once called the shots for the Harlem Globetrotters. And he picked his star, Jimmy McKinney, out of a crowd.
"Jimmy's a natural," Krentz says of the former Mizzou powerhouse who now plays pro ball in Germany. "He has that smile, that charisma. I had confidence in my ability to direct, and I was confident in Jimmy's ability to act."
And McKinney shines as Jacob Whitmore, a sweet guy from the north side who must balance basketball, family issues and his coursework at Forest Park Community College. As John Hogan, an Irish-American ballplayer with a tough family life, Krentz proves that his acting is on par with his significant writing and directing capabilities.
There's a third major star in Streetballers, and that's St. Louis. The film's extraordinary cinematography captures the city's strange beauty and hard truths, from the dark-paneled booths of south-side taverns to the pounding rhythms of north city's pickup-basketball scene. Krentz would not have considered shooting the film anywhere else.
"St. Louis is very authentic, and so full of untapped resources," he explains. "There's just this St. Louis energy that's very supportive."
That energy hummed on July 24, when Streetballers made its St. Louis premiere at the Tivoli Theatre during Cinema St. Louis' annual St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. The screening sold out. People packed the aisles. Krentz was delighted by the warm reception and by the diversity of the crowd. The film took Best Dramatic Feature honors at the festival and will screen again here in November at the St. Louis International Film Festival.
The momentum built by Streetballers gives Krentz hope for his in-the-works projects. He's producing Sugar on the Floor, a female-driven drama written by Streetballers co-producer Vernon Whitlock. Sugar won the Grand Jury Special Prize for best original screenplay at the Urbanworld screenwriting competition. But when actor Blair Underwood (Dirty Sexy Money, In Treatment) offered to purchase and direct the film, Krentz and Whitlock politely declined.
"Vernon needs to make his directorial debut," Krentz says of his friend, whom he describes as talented and determined. "Besides, Underwood wouldn't have made this movie in St. Louis."
Krentz's dedication to his hometown is genuine and refreshing. He finds his best stories here. Krentz isn't much for schmoozy film-scene parties; he prefers to shoot pool with friends. It's during these encounters with "real people," as Krentz describes them, that he finds the rhythm for his dialogue and the inspiration for his characters.
Having never gone to film school, Krentz relies instead upon experience and the mentorship of others. He studied marketing at Rockhurst, a Jesuit university in Kansas City, but quickly found that business held no appeal for him. There was, however, one class he loved: a seminar on cold-calling. The students were asked to sell a product to a customer with no interest in buying. Krentz was great at making the sale — not because he's a consummate businessman, he reasons, but because he loves acting. The film bug bit hard, and upon a subsequent weekend visit to St. Louis, Krentz summoned the courage to tell his mother about his new career plan.
A strange thing happened. Before Krentz even shared his news, his mother handed him a package. Inside were two movies: Ed Burns' The Brothers McMullen and Billy Bob Thornton's short film Sling Blade. Krentz's mother had never shown an interest in independent film before, but he took this unexpected gift as a very good sign.
It's that story of support — from his parents, from his sister, from his fiancée, from his friends — that weaves throughout Krentz's life. He has the talent and the perseverance to be successful, yet he gives much of the credit to others. He speaks particularly fondly of Frank Kane, the owner of Citizen Kane's, the Kirkwood steak house where Krentz has waited tables for six years.
"Frank wants everyone to succeed," Krentz says. "He takes care of everyone. He gives his dishwashers full health insurance; he gives me four months off if I need to go work on a film. That's St. Louis right there — someone in a local business supporting you. No one can say that you can't make it in St. Louis. We can direct here. We can produce."
When Streetballers screens at the BET Urbanworld Film Festival in New York City next month, agents and distributors from across the nation will see just what can be done in St. Louis. And Matt Krentz will take it all in stride: working hard, smiling humbly and dreaming of more ways to share his city with the world.Visit the film's official website at www.streetballersthemovie.com.
Visual Arts Mastermind: Sarah Frost
From a quiet residential street on the Hill, Sarah Frost contemplates the world's economies and the links between all humans. "All of this fits together," Frost says. "I have a real interest in how this all fits together — how all these economies are interwoven and how one thing, one place, will affect so many other people."
A self-described pack rat, Frost has converted her garage into a tidy studio space, which she uses to work and store many of the elements that make up her sculptures. From knotted phone cords to those cards that come in the mail with every unsolicited credit-card application, Frost has collected much through trips to scrap yards and junkyards (and her own mailbox), and she incorporates and reuses as much as she can in her work.
"I have this weird fascination with used objects," the artist explains. "Like that [Walter Benjamin] quote, 'To live is to leave traces,' the traces that tell a story about the people who used the objects." Creating this second economy, or second life, inspires Frost.
For one of her installations, she went to an estate sale to cull through the items and find those that were white. After paying just $15, she walked out with four full boxes. The family was thrilled that the objects were going on to a good home, a place where they'd be a part of something larger. But Frost felt like she was the real winner: "I don't know how much that stuff would've been new. But to me it had so much more character because it was used," she marvels.
Born in Detroit and raised in Rochester, New York, Frost moved to St. Louis to attend college at Washington University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in painting. Some years later, having discovered the potential of three dimensions, she went back to school and got her master's in sculpture and painting at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Frost's assemblage installations contain everything from inflated air bags to obsolete computer mice. "I realized that instead of making an allusion to something, a material itself could have such immediacy," she explains. "Rusty steel hits me in the gut in one way versus plastic in another. And then to start choosing materials that have this patina of human use — that's an immediacy that paint just doesn't have. Some life — and maybe that person isn't even alive anymore — used it, lived with it, loved it, hated it, whatever, discarded it. And now here it is."
Ivy Cooper, professor of art and design at SIUE, says that "in Sarah's hands, miles of those sorry gray computer cords become densely meshed, towering columns; deployed airbags get a delicious candy-apple treatment; and a mural-sized accumulation of obsolete white plastic appliances verges on the sublime."
In addition to her personal work, Frost paints scenery for the Muny and other theaters in town and also works on various public arts projects. As a brand-new mom, Frost has a lot to juggle, but she stays motivated. "I think the whole art scene in St. Louis is pretty exciting," she says. "I came here in the late '80s, and I think there's so much more going on now."
Through exhibits at Mad Art Gallery, the Regional Arts Commission, the Foundry Art Centre and other spaces, Frost has been able to leave traces all over the metro area — and beyond. She sees us all as part of a larger tapestry: "There's a common thread of humanity: Everybody's trying to make a living to take care of their family."
Literary Arts Masterminds: Tim Lane
Tim Lane isn't anyone, he's everyone. That's not an insult. The transplanted Minnesotan, who moved to St. Louis four years ago, is a graphic novelist, an instructor at Washington University and a regular contributor to Riverfront Times. And as the unveiling of his new collection, Abandoned Cars, ahem, illustrates, tapping into the lives of paranoids, wizened racists and motorcycle-riding romantics is his way of uncovering the extraordinary in the (relatively) ordinary.
If pathos comes in colors, Lane's black-and-white depictions are the gold standard. The deep pool of black hollowed out in the eyes of a waitress or barfly — that is loneliness. The fuming cigar whose plume of white smoke resembles gun smoke a few panels later — that is foreshadowing.
The writing's not too shabby, either. Lane, whose sources of visual inspiration range from Francisco Goya, the painter some consider "the father of modern art," to Howard Gossage, who revolutionized the advertising business by fusing it with modern art, cites storytelling influences such as Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver.
Lane says he likes Carver because his stories "don't tell you what to feel or think," while Hemingway's In Our Time convinced him vignettes could work as well as stories — something he has demonstrated time and time again during You Are Here's three-year run in RFT. Two other writers, Henry Miller and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, inform the column's tone.
"The way they wrote is very lyrical and beautiful, very conversational as well," Lane says. At least as important, he adds, is that Miller and Céline managed to break convention without forgetting that "they too were just bums. The writing style is very vulnerable. I have tried to emulate that to the best of my abilities."
This artist, whose sartorial signatures include a shaved head and aviator sunglasses, is as modest about his work as he is intensely committed to it.
"I'm only a small piece of a huge story that's too big for me to comprehend," a largely autobiographical character says in Abandoned Cars. "And one of my character flaws is seeking meaning in experiences that may not have any." It's a rare dose of introspection you won't find many artists engaging in. You don't have to pan thick prose for literary gold here — epiphanies surface in minimalist nuggets.
Eric Reynolds, an editor and publicist at Seattle-based Fantagraphics Books, which published Abandoned Cars, sees Lane's work evoking a noir appeal that carries with it a Midwestern vibe, though "you don't get a lot of specific geographic locations from it." John Hendrix, Lane's colleague at Washington University, says Lane's strength lies in the clarity of his work: a two-dimensional formal approach, and a dichotomous palette of black and white that make his images more akin to film than to classic illustration. "I think Tim's making a real mark on the scene," says Hendrix, who published Lane's work in the New York Times during a stint as art director of the paper's op-ed page. Hendrix adds that Lane and others who stand out on the local landscape of underground comic illustrators — Chris Samnee, Dan Zettwoch, Kevin Huizenga, Sacha Mardou, Ted May — might do for St. Louis "what grunge did for Seattle."
In the meantime, Lane says he will be working steadily to finish the next two graphic novels in an anticipated trilogy. A self-acknowledged night owl who's as comfortable talking Picasso in 20th-century Paris as he is throwing back pints of Schlafly, Lane says moving to St. Louis from New York City was a financially pragmatic decision. When he isn't teaching at Washington University, Lane logs hours at the Soulard Fine Arts Building in his favorite neighborhood. His commercial clients include Rolling Stone, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
"The side of art that has to do with money and is based on financial worth is not a game I want to play," says the artist, whose Eden would include trains rumbling past overhead and live blues shows.
Of course, romanticizing a lifestyle that requires juggling numerous jobs and working every day of the week is dangerous. Lane says the "unsophisticated advice" he doles out to students who attend his classes and wayward souls who contact him via e-mail goes something like: "Get a portfolio together, start pounding the pavement, bring an umbrella because it might rain."
As deadpan as it sounds, a metaphor probably lurks in there somewhere.
Performing Arts Mastermind: Magan Wiles
Theater can be an amazing tool for social justice."
St. Louis actress Magan Wiles believes that theater can have an impact on everyday life. After growing up in small towns throughout Ohio, Wiles came to school at Saint Louis University — she calls it "one of the best-kept secrets in the Midwest" — and so far her St. Louis theater credentials run the gamut from SLU theater, where professor Gary Wayne Barker described her portrayal of Catherine in Standing on My Knees as "one of the finest performances by an undergraduate actor that I have ever seen," to her upcoming title role in Evie's Waltz at the Rep.
Besides making her mark on the St. Louis theater scene, Wiles also teaches her craft. This fall she will work with Prison Performing Arts at the St. Louis Juvenile Detention Center and will begin her fifth year teaching with the Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma. At the center Wiles runs a performing-arts group for refugee high schoolers, providing workshops and acting training. "We write our own play and produce it for the community," Wiles explains.
Wiles, who originally planned to be a missionary doctor before her theater debut — one line in an eighth-grade production of Oklahoma! — sees the big picture. So when she planned a trip to the West Bank through the International Solidarity Movement, she prepared herself as best she could. "I went to Palestine and I knew I wanted to do something," she says. "Something" turned out to be the play Beautiful Resistance: Confessions of a Hoosier in Palestine, a catalog of Wiles' experiences during her three-month trip.
"I knew within a week of being in the West Bank that I had to write a play about what I was seeing," Wiles says. "Military occupation is something that happens all over the world, it's not something that you can understand until you see it with your eyes." After e-mailing her experiences to people back home and documenting details as best she could (her tape recorder was stolen), Wiles returned to St. Louis and composed her play.
"I've always been a writer, and I'd actually had some writer's block for years and years before that, but I couldn't write fast enough when I was there," Wiles says.
RFT theater critic Dennis Brown attended Wiles' initial performance of Beautiful Resistance in a SLU classroom in February 2007 and says he recognized her transformation: "She was very successful at conveying what she had felt and experienced, which is what theater is supposed to do."
Sharing her experience goes on, including the play's most recent stint in July at SLU, for which Wiles rewrote her work, expanded it for an ensemble and incorporated improvisation and playback theater. Wiles says she has plans for future incarnations of Beautiful Resistance, which she admits will continue to evolve but is something she still desires to share. "I think I'll be writing and performing that for the rest of my life," she says.
Wiles got acting work right out of SLU, joined the Actors' Equity Association and hasn't stopped. She's been nominated for three Kevin Kline Awards — Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Play (for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis' The Tempest), Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play (for The Sugar Syndrome, staged by Echo Theatre Company) and Outstanding Ensemble in a Play (for the Orange Girls production of Playhouse Creatures) — and has worked with more than six different St. Louis theater companies.
Eric Little, who directed Wiles in The Sugar Syndrome, says the actress possesses a rare combination of talent, passion and hard work. "It's a great gift for a director when an actor inspires you to do more," Little says.
"She's going to change wherever she's at for the positive, and lucky for us she's in St. Louis," he continues.
Adds Wiles: "There's so much going on in the arts world in St. Louis. I can't imagine being anywhere else."