Big Brain Awards 2012: Meet This Year's Finalists
Hey, Phoenix, it's time for some crowning achievements.
We are among royalty this week, as New Times profiles the 15 finalists for the 2012 Big Brain Awards.
New Times feature
This is the third year we've asked readers to suggest emerging creatives in our community who deserve recognition and, in the case of the winners in each of five categories, $500 in cash.
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As usual, it's an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the talent in this city. Don't believe us. Read all about our finalists in the categories of visual art, performing art, design, culinary art and fashion. From bow ties to B-boy moves, we've got it all and then some.
We're having a party to announce the winners Saturday, April 7, at The Saguaro in Scottsdale — and you're invited for an evening of food, drink, fashion, art and performance.
And now, without further ado, here are the finalists for New Times' 2012 Big Brain Awards.
Andrew Hadle's studio hasn't been this clean in months.
The artist, 30, is in his final semester of graduate school at ASU, where he's working on a master's in fine art. He still has a few weeks until the semester is over, and his schedule has slowed down a bit since his well-received master's thesis exhibition at Harry Wood Gallery in late January.
The Kansas native moved to Phoenix three years ago for school, and between teaching a few undergraduate classes and getting out for a jog, he says he's been busy creating work and figuring out where to store it.
Hadle sits in an old desk chair in front of his laptop. His cartoon and pop culture influences are obvious — a few of his comics hang behind him, a quilt he's sewn from potato chip bags hangs on the opposite wall, and something furry is creeping out of a bag on a shelf far above his head — but his commentary is more subtle.
He says his thesis show, titled "1000%," was a reaction to overstimulation in current culture. He pulls a bottle of Advil out of his desk drawer. "See?" he says. "It's always 10 percent more this or 20 percent more that. There's extra-strength, maximum-strength . . . Everything's constantly one-upping the other. There's no standard — no normal anymore."
His exhibition filled the gallery with shrines to celebrities, soda pop, and Axe Body Wash. He created and displayed high-speed videos using his own footage and borrowed commercial clips that looped on TV screens around the gallery. A small plastic bag titled "sack lunch" was tacked to the wall along with an oxycodone and an Adderall.
It's ephemeral work, he says, for an ephemeral culture.
Now that the show is down and he's unofficially done with his schoolwork, Hadle's busy taking inventory of his materials, past projects, and current ideas. He's taking pictures of his sculpted, slime-covered action figures and three-foot yeti, which were featured in 2010 in Scottsdale's now-defunct Squeeze gallery. He's archiving videos on his laptop and scanning the cartoon characters he's painted on iMac boxes. What's left over, he says, he'll give to friends or throw away.
Once he's out of the on-campus studio and has walked across the stage to get his diploma, Hadle says, he'd like to land a full-time teaching gig — but not before he moves all his paints, glues, fabrics, furs, boards, foams, and tools back into his place and makes a total mess. — Claire Lawton
After a long road trip from his hometown of Tsegi (about an hour north of Tuba City on the Navajo Nation), Thomas Greyeyes says he feels stretched.
The artist splits his time among Tsegi, where he visits family and friends; San Carlos, where he teaches art at a community college; and Phoenix, where he says he makes artwork whenever and wherever he can.
Greyeyes, 22, says he's filled with experiences from his two cultures — life on "the rez" and life in Phoenix couldn't be more different. But more often, he says, members of his generation in his community have found themselves straddling the line between cultures and trying to figure out just where they fit in. And in that confusion, he says, is where the art happens.
Greyeyes grew up in Flagstaff and was politically active with a few student organizations on missions to educate people about cultural conflict, land protection, racist pop culture stereotypes, uranium mining, and snow-making on reservation land. Traditionally, he says, Native artwork doesn't discuss these topics and rarely strays from cultural icons and stories that are centuries old.
When he presents his work — images of contemporary Native people and visual statements against political movements and leaders — many don't understand the point.
"There are times when I feel like a black sheep," he says. "But there are so many issues that my generation deals with — both in the city and on our land — that I feel like I have no choice but to express them."
In November 2011, Greyeyes was arrested on charges of criminal damage after painting the word "PEAKS" in mud on buildings in Flagstaff. His work could have easily been washed away with a hose — no damage was done to the building, he says — but the statement against snow-making at Arizona Snowbowl had to be made, he says.
A month later, Greyeyes was asked to be a part of "Rezolution," an exhibition of contemporary Native art at The Hive gallery, organized by artist Thomas "Breeze" Marcus. The show aimed to expose the community to work outside the context of "institutionalized" Native American art.
Greyeyes says "Rezolution" was an opportunity to make a statement. Across the gallery, he hung two large paintings that faced each other in a standoff. One showed a punk-rock Native girl (the kind he always had crushes on as a student, he says) standing with an empty bow. The other was a police officer riddled with arrows; next to him was a small screenprint of Sheriff Joe Arpaio suffering the same fate.
"There's a challenge in finding where my work really fits," he says with a slow shrug. "And there are plenty of people in both of my communities who are unwilling to accept what I have to say . . . But I have no choice but to get it out there." — Claire Lawton
As she herself puts it, Lindz Lew is no tortured artist.
"I don't thrive on pain and turmoil," she wrote last fall on her blog, lindzlewsculpture.wordpress.com. "I can't make art while my head is clouded with darkness, like most artists. Life has to be all bunny rabbits and rainbows for me to be productive."
Lucky for us, Lew says she's generally a pretty happy person. She grew up "in the middle of nowhere" (a.k.a. Cave Creek) and found out who she was midway through high school, at New School for the Arts, then a brand-new charter arts school in Scottsdale. After graduation, Lew visited Prague and wound up staying three years — teaching preschool art and working as an interior designer. She loved it but realized she'd need a college degree to do much of anything, so she found herself back in Arizona. In May, she graduated from ASU with a degree in sculpture, her preferred medium.
She gets teary talking about what a difference downtown gallery/music venue Modified Arts made for her in high school, and grateful when describing the mentorship of Modified founder Kimber Lanning. Last year, Lew curated the show "In Your Head and Under the Bed" with Lanning and Kim Larkin, and continues to be involved at Modified, though she now has a full-time job as an executive assistant at Bentley Gallery in Scottsdale.
She makes time for her own work in a small bedroom in the back of her Tempe house that serves as a studio. Though it looks as if Wes Anderson decorated the place, her real inspiration comes from the work of Jim Henson and George Lucas. Labyrinth and '80s sci-fi fantasy, she says, are "still my heart of hearts."
When Henson died in 1990, she spent a week in bed. "My mother was very consoling," Lew says.
These days, she's finishing a series of heads, which include a deer with glowing green eyes and a pig that is altogether too lifelike. She says it's important to stay happy to keep her creepy work from becoming macabre. Indeed, looking around the studio at an owl's nest filled with human-head eggs and a small, scrappy bunny in a wheelchair, it's easy to see the fine line.
But Lew never crosses it. Her work is whimsical and thought-provoking and, yes, happy. It'll be interesting to see how she handles the tightrope walk in an upcoming project, a series based on a National Geographic article about giant floods in Mississippi, during which farmers built sand walls around their homes. Lew is obsessed with the images. "I kinda want to make some little floating houses," she says.
And speaking of home: In the abstract, Lew says she ultimately wants to make hers in either a big city or near the woods. But, she adds, "for the time being, I'm really happy here."
Lucky us. — Amy Silverman
Dulce Juarez is looking around Fair Trade Coffee in downtown Phoenix and pointing out things she could use in an impromptu performance.
"See that chair, this plant, your jacket, that lamp, that man's tie," she says. "I could use all of those things . . . It's a matter of making something out of nothing."
The 25-year-old performer, activist, and teacher says the word for this style is rasquache, a Spanish term embraced by the Chicano art movement and used to describe an artwork or artist who accepts and deals with his or her material limitations.
Juarez is no stranger to the stage. She got her start in Phoenix playwright James Garcia's Dream Act and since has acted in his Tears of Lives, and Teatro Bravo!'s Lloronas. On stage, she has costumes, props, and scripts at her disposal. But the street is where she says she gets the most inspiration.
In 2006, when Proposition 300 passed in Arizona, university students who were not U.S. citizens, permanent residents, or did not have lawful immigration status could not be eligible for in-state tuition or financial aid. Juarez was enraged.
She joined forces with her best friend, Silvia Rodriguez, and formed a small improv group called Teatro Nopalero. Together, they drew crowds during protests, took over sidewalks, and dressed as police clowns to welcome Sheriff Joe Arpaio when he was at ASU's downtown campus for a presentation.
Nopaleros was (and still is) on a mission to educate people — whether or not they have Social Security numbers — about human rights and cultural awareness.
"It has been a very scary time for the Mexican community," says Juarez. "I've been asked for my ID, I've been pulled over because someone thought I fit a profile . . . but I have to stand up to that and I'm not going to pretend it's right or live in fear."
Juarez has a master's in higher education from ASU and is paying for most of it through acting and commercial jobs, as well as a gig as an ordained minister. She says she's constantly acting or filling a role, whether that be in front of a classroom, on a stage, in a crowd, or behind a podium — and each has a different change of clothes that she usually has to keep in her car because of her tight schedule.
More than anything, Juarez isn't afraid to be the voice of the struggle. She was brought to the United States from Mexico when she was 5. She talks about friends who can't go to the doctor when they're sick because of their status and young groups she performs for who fight to fit in and stay in the neighborhoods they've always called home.
This woman takes her mission seriously. But she glows with excitement as she talks about her weekend plans; she'll be performing on stage at the national conference of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) at the Civic Space Park, hanging out with friends, helping family, officiating at three weddings. Don't worry, she says. She'll have a change of clothes in the car. — Claire Lawton
Years before Danny "Scooby" Morales found himself installing 4,000 square feet of hardwood flooring, the local, self-described hip-hop head would bring his family out to 9201 North 29th Avenue on weekends to sit on the curb and dream.
The building has a long history in the hip-hop community — years ago, it used to be the spot for late-night parties and dance-crew battles. It was here, and through his involvement as a founding member of Furious Styles Crew dance collective, that Morales met Jorge "House" Magana.
The building's sign has changed regularly; it was a record shop, a jiu-jitsu studio, and a vacant space with a "for lease" sign. A few months ago, during one of his family trips to the spot, Morales says he finally took a deep breath and made two phone calls — one to the building's leasing agent, and the other to Magana.
Morales, 36, and Magana, 39, grew up in the neighborhood that surrounds Metrocenter Mall and Castles-n-Coasters. They remember cruising around the amusement park and hanging out at the mall.
"It used to be the place for young people to be and hang out before it got a bad rap," Morales says. "Now, all the kids go to Arrowhead and the hip-hop community goes elsewhere."
Two months ago, Morales and Magana opened Cyphers: The Center for Urban Arts with a big mission — to bring the community back together.
The name, Magana says, is the term in hip-hop culture for the circle that B-boy dancers, MCs, slam poets, and musicians often naturally form. "The cypher is where the energy is — it's as much the feeling as it is the formation . . . Dancers and performers spend a lot of time competing and performing on stages and for crowds, but it's in the cypher that they truly earn the respect of each other."
Respect plays a big part in the Cyphers operation. Magana says the curriculum for each of the classes offered in the space — from B-boy, breakdancing, and funk dancing to soon-to-come classes in DJing and aerosol art — is rooted in learning the history of each art form. Before developing and fine-tuning the techniques, members build respect for the art and for each other.
Foremost, Magana (who teaches most of the classes) is a dancer. He started dancing as a teenager in Chicago, and through various crews has performed and competed all over world. When he moved to Phoenix in the early '90s, he and a few friends formed "Styles Crew" (now known as Furious Styles Crew), and while he continues to dance at local clubs, he also teaches urban dance in local studios and at Arizona State University.
"When Scooby approached me about the spot a few months ago, I didn't buy it. But he won me over," he says, and laughs a little. "He's a lot bigger than me."
"I've had this idea in my head forever," Morales says. "I wanted a spot for my own kids to learn about hip-hop culture. I wanted them to have the opportunity to be a part of a community and have a safe place to hang out."
The two have loosely decorated the huge space's walls with local artwork and display cases full of old-school boom boxes, high-top sneakers, spray paint cans, and awards given to the Furious Styles Crew. "Most of this stuff came from my house," says Magana. "But it kind of fits here."
Plans for the spot include forming a dance crew of its own, a space for skaters, a recording studio, and a hostel-like area in the back for visiting dancers to stay. "We obviously have a ton of ideas and a lot of dreams," Magana says. "We kept asking ourselves, 'What if?' . . . This place is the 'What if?'" — Claire Lawton
Sitting in a meeting of the board members of local long-form improv's Torch Theatre is like being at a tennis match. This group is quick and funny, with an almost superhuman ability to bounce ideas, comments, and the occasional joke off one another's dangling punctuation marks.
The board includes members Bill Binder, Jose Gonzalez (a regular New Times contributor), Jacque Arend, Sam Haldiman, Nina Miller, Mack Duncan, Shane Shannon, and Tommy Schaeffer. There's no one leader or head decision-maker — the group formed in 2007 when local performance troupes Apollo 12, Galapagos, Remainders, Mail Order Bride, Light Rail Pirates, Phoenix Neutrino Project, and Dangerville came together under one umbrella to offer classes and workshops for the community and perform on a regular basis.
For Torch, the goal always was to find a home. They describe themselves as a bunch of nomads who moved freely from downtown's Space 55 and Trunk Space to a public meeting room in the library.
They continued to improve as a group and developed specific curricula for their classes. Though a crew of them continued to teach classes and develop regular shows, Binder made a weekly commute to study improv at iO, a theater in Los Angeles, and Haldiman spent a summer studying in Chicago.
In 2010, the group found an old barber shop on Central Avenue. They remember cleaning out the hair and repainting the walls. They raised money, kept each other sane and motivated, and worked through a slew of paperwork delays from the city. A year later, in July 2011, they did one last sweep, set up the theater's 30 chairs, and opened the doors.
Since, the board has seen a few graduating classes, countless performances, and a wedding. The eight members have done some custom decorating, made a cozy green room in the back of the building, and established a solid weekly schedule of performances. They've also introduced new levels of instruction, and they organize the annual Phoenix Improv Festival (scheduled for late April).
Still, they insist, the theater isn't theirs.
Binder says the theater has always belonged to the community and, hopefully, will continue to be a place where local actors and improv fans can find a new passion and take some pointers from others.
"We've had the idea of establishing a home for long-form improv for a long time," says Gonzales. "It was just nice to find a place to put the walls." — Claire Lawton
Long before Jon Ashcroft moved to Phoenix, landed a gig at Fender, and then quit to do design work for a regional church, he created event fliers for his friends' bands in high school.
The 27-year-old designer grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico. After high school, he enrolled at New Mexico State University. He thought he'd study business. A few classes in, he was miserable.
He liked his art history class, so he switched to the school's photography and design program, where he says he developed an eye for clean lines and good composition — two elements that are at the core of everything he designs now.
There's no denying Ashcroft is talented — and hardworking. He says his experience at Fender was unbelievable (on the back of every 60th Anniversary Telecaster guitar, you'll find a metal plate with Ashcroft's simple, clean design), but that there was a glass ceiling of sorts, so he took a full-time gig at the church he and his wife attend. The flexibility gives him time to freelance (he illustrated three pieces for the Atlantic last year) and the freedom to orchestrate a brand for a growing community.
He talks about his upcoming projects while flipping through a flat file of his own work and posters he's been collecting. He's passionate about giving a good name (and lending some great design) to Phoenix, which he says was often referred to as a cow town in the design world before the community came together several years ago to take part in Phoenix Design Week.
In April, Ashcroft — along with Dorina Bustamante, Jonce Walker, Jeremy Stapleton, and Nicole Underwood — will host the first PEDAL CRAFT PHX, which aims to unite the design and urban cycling communities with a bicycle-themed, locally designed poster exhibition and a showcase of unique bike racks.
He'll also be doing a little rebranding for himself (the fact that there's a political figure with the same name hasn't done Jon Ashcroft's website any favors, even with a different spelling of the first name) and getting back into doing more freelance jobs. And for now, he promises, he's definitely sticking around. — Claire Lawton
In Phoenix, people are always talking about building community and how impossible it is to bring folks together, but Kim Rawlins and Katie Hibbs have the secret.
Not just any junk — we're not talking about your average yard sale or even your favorite thrift store on a really good day. High-quality junk: industrial metal racks, globes, cloches, cake plates, and card catalogs. The stuff you drool over on Pinterest, the stuff Pottery Barn knocks off. The really good junk.
Fill a warehouse on Seventh Avenue with it. Put out the word on Facebook. And even on one of the hottest days of the year, even without air conditioning, they will come. In droves.
Rawlins and Hibbs were no novices when it came to junk — they'd met years ago in neighboring booths at an antiques mall in Chandler, and before that, Rawlins threw "kick- ass" garage sales in Minnesota, while Hibbs honed her skills on eBay. But they'd never attempted the holy grail — the monthly flash store. After running a successful vintage shop (Not Too Shabby) on Cave Creek Road for years, the two took the next step — renting a spot on Seventh Avenue (prime junking territory), hand-picking dealers and inventory, and choosing a theme.
"Midsummer Night's Dream" debuted August 18, 2011, and given the temperature that day — 118 degrees — it could have been a nightmare. But it wasn't. There was a line out the door before the shop opened, and it's been the same every month since. Even bigger. One of the most gratifying parts of this whole process for Rawlins and Hibbs has been watching community form before their eyes — people meet in (the really long) line to make purchases and recognize one another the following month. Treasures are discovered, friendships are made. And, yeah, there's squabbling from time to time over a particularly wonderful armoire.
Junking is tricky in this part of the country. The state's only 100 years old, after all, Hibbs reminds us, and people have come from other places — leaving their would-be future castaways behind.
And as with many things, it took Phoenicians a while to catch up to the industrial junk trend. But they have. "People think everyone is into kokopellis here," Hobbs says. People are wrong. Feeding the need is the biggest challenge.
"It took a while to get kind of a junk trail here," Rawlins says, and now that she's got one, she's super-mum about it. The ladies admit they drive to California to do much of their hunting but only mention the largest and most obvious sources — the Rose Bowl and Irvine flea markets — when asked for specifics.
Hey, those are trade secrets. In fact, the theme for the next show, opening the third Thursday of April, is "Salvage Secrets." Joanne Palmisano, author of a book of the same name, will be there to do a signing. And Rawlins and Hibbs promise they have a big secret to share with their shoppers.
You'll like it — we promise. — Amy Silverman
Victor Moreno remembers sneaking across the street from his parents' house outside Los Angeles to a video store to rent as many B-list movies as he could get his hands on. He saved his money and rented two or three at a time, each for 50 to 75 cents. In a few years, he'd gone through the store's inventory.
Moreno's a proud film buff and easily can talk shop about what's coming out next week as well as what was coming out of Japan in the late '70s. When he moved to Phoenix, he renamed half its destinations after movie and television references (Liberty Market is Mayberry; Paradise Valley is 90210).
And when he finally put his movie obsession together with a love for design, he says, it all kind of clicked.
Moreno, 33, comes from a family of lawyers and moved to Phoenix to go to ASU's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. He'd always been interested in art and film — and taught himself design — but was told (kindly) by his parents that he had to go to "real" school and get a "real" job to support his passion.
He spent the next three years designing websites for Sony and MySpace pages for big-name bands to pay for law school .
He met fellow film nerd Andrea Beesley, who was programming films at the now-defunct Paper Heart in downtown Phoenix. Fast friends, Moreno followed Beesley to MADCAP Theaters in Tempe and then to The Royale. The two worked together on programming events. Beesley and Moreno chose the movies, and Moreno started designing limited-edition movie posters for each event.
He says he designs each poster after watching the movie (more than) a few times and can usually pick a character or scene that sticks out. He'll then either hand-illustrate or use design software on his computer to compose the scene in a way that usually differs from the movie's original poster — and would be something he'd want to hang on his own wall.
The posters became as popular as the movies, and soon Moreno brought other local designers on board. When The Royale closed in December, Beesley took a break and Moreno took his operation back to MADCAP, where he currently heads up Cult Classics, a monthly screening of a cult film with live entertainment and limited-edition prints.
Since his freelance design and film programming careers have taken off, Moreno says his parents are warming up to the idea of not having another lawyer in the family.
"It's not everyday a theater gives you the opportunity to watch your favorite movies on the big screen and invite the neighborhood to join," Moreno says. "And I can't help but think that if I'm not bringing cult classics back to the big screen and creating a community event, then that opportunity just goes away." — Claire Lawton
We all know about food trucks. But a fashion trailer? Yep. Ashley Eaton runs her vintage boutique Merry May Shoppe out of a vintage 1961 Shasta Airflyte.
Indeed, the concept was born at a panel discussion about owning and operating food trucks, then morphed to fit Eaton's interests, which run more to hot dresses than hot dogs.
Pulling pieces from her own stash of clothing, Eaton had plenty to launch her store. The only thing missing was the venue.
She drew inspiration from Canadian mobile shops she'd spotted on blogs (some of which have gone on to open brick-and-mortar locations), and the trailer scenes in Austin and Bisbee. Voilà, Merry May Shoppe was born.
Eaton found the trailer she wanted on eBay, and, after some back-and-forth bidding — she lost.
In a strange twist, the trailer's winners ended up not wanting it, and, long story short, Eaton soon was road-tripping to Oklahoma to pick up her white and peach prize. After some tire and electrical maintenance upon returning to Arizona, Eaton debuted her movable fashion feast at Chow Bella and Roosevelt Row's Pie Social last November.
"I like the idea of traveling, and that's why I chose to do it," she says. "In a way, the clothes are traveling through time — being vintage and in the trailer going from place to place."
Eaton, who works in accounting by day, cites Frances boutique owner Georganne Bryant as an inspiration in her pursuit to make fashion her full-time gig. She remembers walking into Bryant's shop wearing a hair ornament that she had made. Bryant liked it and asked if Eaton would be interested in making some to sell in the boutique. Eaton agreed and launched Merry May Handmade, which she went on to operate as a craft space in Butter Toast Boutique on Sixth Street.
Nowadays, Eaton has put handmade items on the back burner. Instead, she is focused on beautifying her shop and keeping it stocked with covetable vintage finds. "I try to handpick stuff that fits my aesthetic," she says. That means super-feminine finds in floral prints and pastels, ranging from girly '50s pieces to bold '70s styles with a little bit of edge.
But that doesn't mean Eaton will abandon her crafty roots. "My dream is to make a dress line," she says, although that project isn't formally in the works.
In the meantime, Eaton says she wants to take her trailer to as many special events as possible. Making shopping at Merry May an occasional occurrence is fun for her and gets shoppers excited to spot Eaton and her trailer — and whatever new old goodies she's hawking. — Becky Bartkowski
Aaron Kimberlin grew up in Chandler, graduated from Arizona State with a design degree, then took off for Chicago to get a master's in urban planning.
"I wanted to learn everything I could about a city," he says. He's home now, and landed a nice day job: assistant director of PURL, ASU's Phoenix Urban Research Laboratory, where — among other things — he's heading up the first-ever Phoenix Urban Design Week, starting April 9.
So are Phoenix and Chicago anything alike? Not at all, Kimberlin acknowledges.
"With Chicago, the things found you," he says. Here, you have to find them. Or make them.
And so when Kimberlin's grandfather died, leaving a pile of vintage ties that Aaron inherited, the urban planner knew what to do: adaptive reuse.
No one was wearing skinny ties like these, although the patterns were cool. But bow ties — already big in cities like New York, San Francisco, and Portland — hadn't hit Phoenix yet. Kimberlin set out to take care of that.
He hired a seamstress, designed a website and came up with a name — Dapper + Dash — broad enough to someday include his other ideas (he's mum about this, for the moment). He'd only worn a bow tie once in his life, with a ruffly tuxedo shirt, to a New Year's party. These ties are different — preppy and edgy and equally appropriate with a suit or jeans.
Kimberlin kicked off the line with a party at The Mercantile in Phoenix, the exclusive local purveyor (you can also buy them online at www.dapperanddash.com). And now he's looking for a second seamstress.
The bow ties are made from ties purchased at estate sales, vintage fabrics ordered online, "Anywhere I can find cool patterns," Kimberlin says.
So far, his grandfather's ties have remained untouched. But it may just be a matter of time.
"I don't have the heart," Kimberlin says. "Not yet." — Amy Silverman
When Pennsylvania native Greg Kerr was 18, he had a phrase tattooed on his leg. It's from the final stanza of the Robert Frost poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."
Now Kerr is 32. He has accumulated tattoos up and down his arms, launched a successful resin belt buckle company that's counted Fall Out Boy and Dominos Pizza as clients, and his T-shirt business, Miles to Go, shares its name with that thoughtful line he had inked almost 15 years ago.
It's no surprise that the unabashed bookworm would draw inspiration from writing to name his line of graphic Ts. After all, each of his shirts features a graphic depiction of a piece of literature, and he's covered everything from Moby Dick and Edgar Allan Poe to Catcher in the Rye and Charles Bukowski.
Kerr started screening the shirts about five years ago after toying with the idea while working at Acme Prints in Tempe. At first, he printed his own cover designs for jazz albums and classic movie posters, but Kerr soon moved on to books.
With super-soft tri-blend crewnecks from American Apparel as his base, Kerr screens each shirt by hand at Acme, using discharge ink (a dye that essentially bleaches the fabric) to color the designs into the shirts' material, as opposed to building ink onto the textile.
Kerr takes pride being in control of every aspect of it. "It's a very personal kind of brand," he says of his one-man business.
He's turned down offers to have his pieces stocked at Top Shop, Nordstrom, and Urban Outfitters. Instead, he prefers selling directly to his customers and working with small boutiques.
He compares his role in overseeing the line to that of an art director. Kerr seeks out artists from all over the world, chooses color schemes, and works through their designs to form two focused collections a year.
Kerr released his latest spring line in mid-March, and it includes shirts depicting Ted Hughes' The Iron Man and Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves among its 12 new designs.
He strives for designs that aren't too literal. "People get that the whale design is Moby Dick right away," Kerr says. But many of the other designs are less obvious, resulting in an instant connection for those who can recognize what books are being referenced. "I'll throw in more esoteric things here and there."
Although, Kerr adds, he's had customers buy shirts solely because they like the designs, which have inspired them to read the books.
Either way, Kerr already is plotting his summer reading list, which will influence what books will become shirts for his fall release. He will go into a sort of hibernation for reading and brainstorming, synthesize his ideas, and then get artists involved.
But his fashion aspirations don't end at pleasing literati. He's currently at work on a line called Old Souls — a reference to a poem that Kerr wrote himself. He describes the collection of button-downs and ties targeted toward young, creative professionals as "new beatnik," classic and clean, like something Kerouac might've worn.
Clearly, this guy doesn't plan to sleep anytime soon. — Becky Bartkowski
John Cavanagh is busy.
The guy has a full-time job as general manager of The Tuck Shop, and he's getting ready any day now to introduce Astor House, a breakfast/lunch/snack/wine shop opening next door to the popular dinner spot. On the side, he does some consulting for other restaurateurs, and in his free time, he's rebuilding a motorcycle.
And on his day off, he — singlehandledly, from scratch — brews tonic syrup for his own private label, "John's Premium."
On a sunny Monday afternoon in March, Cavanagh's alone in the Tuck Shop kitchen. He's chopping lemongrass and consulting a recipe he's made dozens (hundreds?) of times but still pins on the wall in case he forgets something. Sounds stressful, tending to a giant pot of boiling lemongrass, citrus, a few secret ingredients, and, the most important one, Peruvian bark powder (the stuff that gives tonic its distinct, bitter taste and is used to make quinine, which cures malaria, among other maladies). Cavanagh insists it's his time to relax.
"It's just me and the store . . . I chill a little," he says, watches the Discovery Channel or his favorite, reality shows about failed businesses. He loves "watching people make huge mistakes while they're trying to make a living."
Making a living hasn't always been so easy (albeit busy) for Cavanagh. He moved to Phoenix in the '90s from Conrad, Montana (high school graduating class: 32 kids), to get a degree in drafting. He got a job and got impatient, knowing it would be years before he'd be more than a gofer in a profession that demands dues-paying. And then he got laid off.
He switched careers, going into food service. At Blimpie's. "Yes, Blimpie's," he says, smiling, continuing to chop lemongrass 'til it fills the giant pot.
Eventually, he found himself in the front of the house at a new restaurant in CenPho, The Tuck Shop. The owner, an architect named D.J. Fernandes, didn't want soda guns in his restaurant. Cavanagh didn't have a place to store a lot of bottles. And so the idea of making tonic was born. He tinkered with a few recipes he found online, settled on ingredients, and made the first batch.
When it was done, Cavanagh recalls, he poured himself a glass and tasted it. But he didn't know what to think. He realized he'd never tried plain tonic before.
So he poured himself a G&T.
"It was for a cause," he shrugs, laughing.
These days Cavanagh makes about 120 bottles of syrup a week — enough to keep the restaurant and his growing number of mail-order customers happy, as long as he doesn't get a mention in, say, the Wall Street Journal.
That week got a little crazy — more than 25,000 hits on his website, johnstonic.weebly.com. Cavanagh designed his own site, designed the elegant label on the bottle, and crafted the recipe, though he has no formal culinary training. The only place he needed professional help: trademarking the name "John's Premium." Luckily, he has a cousin who's a trademark attorney.
"John's Premium" hardly feels like a back-pocket business. The stuff tastes so good — rather, it'll make your gin or vodka taste so good — that it's got a cult following. Cavanagh insists it's nothing fancy, explaining that he used Phoenix as his test market.
But that doesn't mean it isn't something special. — Amy Silverman
Whether chef Esther Mbaikambey is serving up creations such as her Caribbean jerk chicken or the Nigerian thick soup eugusi, she often responds to her grateful guests with the phrase, "It's my pleasure."
The words are spoken slowly, always with a smile, and in Mbaikambey's thick African accent. Her mannerisms and movements suggest a calmness not typically found in the restaurant business, especially from first-time chef/owners like Mbaikambey.
"People are surprised that I am so calm," she says, "but I'm a hard worker — I don't like to give up. I like to push through."
Mbaikambey's years of quiet determination eventually led to the opening of her restaurant, Fu-Fu Cuisine. The fun-to-say name may mean little to the average American diner, but the moniker, referring to the starchy food staple of Africa and the Caribbean (where it is sometimes described as mofongo), speaks to the restaurant's offerings of cuisine from both areas of the globe.
Mbaikambey grew up in Nigeria. The oldest of six children, she took to cooking almost immediately, watching her mother prepare meals for the family. After attending high school in Montego Bay, Jamaica, Mbaikambey came to the United States, where she spent two years in Atlanta before coming to the Valley to attend Phoenix College. Without giving herself any time off, Mbaikambey finished college in three years and with three degrees in business, food service administration, and culinary arts — this in addition to several hours of volunteer work. She said the idea for her own restaurant came at various parties in college, where her friends would talk about her flair for cooking and tell her what dishes she should put on her imaginary menu.
But new restaurants don't just materialize out of ideas and goodwill. They take money and planning. And once Mbaikambey settled on her dream, she set about to make it happen, in her deliberate manner, by working at Applebee's for a staggering 12 years. For nine of them, she also ran a personal catering business.
Finally, late last year, Mbaikambey opened Fu-Fu Cuisine on the city's west side.
Fu-Fu Cuisine's well-prepared Caribbean fare — such as meat pies, jerk chicken, and soup dumplings — may be most familiar to the Western palate, but it is Mbaikambey's flair for food served in her home of Nigeria and throughout the African continent that is the most unusual and a joy to experience. There is the exotic yassa chicken topped with a sauté of dijon mustard, peanut oil, green olives, onions, and bell peppers; fried, doughnut-like dumplings called pof-pofs; and eugusi, made from the seeds of the same name. Of course, most of Mbaikambey's African dishes are accompanied by fu-fu, a staple of the continent. White and sticky, it is eaten with the hands and used as a utensil for scooping up seasoned stews and soups.
Although a restaurant on the city's west side specializing in both Caribbean and African cuisine is an anomaly in the Valley, Mbaikambey doesn't seem concerned. Her ever-present calmness seems to override any anxieties.
"It's just something I love to do," she says. "I want it to be different." — Laura Hahnefeld
When you consider the Garfield neighborhood, thoughts turn to its rough-and-tumble history or recent popularity among artists and hipsters. But it hardly inspires visions of bucolic landscapes and vegetable gardens.
Unless you're John Milton. Milton, who prefers to be called Farmer Woody, has a goal for Garfield: Turn back the clock nearly 150 years, to a time before the area was divided into residential plots. To transform the neighborhood into "The Garfield Gardens."
The project unites his biggest passions: food and farming. Drawn to the kitchen at an early age, Woody began working at the Wigwam Resort on the west side of town at 16. On a trip to a local farm to pick vegetables for the night's dinner service, he realized farming's fundamental role in food production. Not long after, he left the kitchen to pursue a job at Sun Fresh Farms in Litchfield Park.
"It sort of dawned on me, like, 'Wow, farmers are even more vital than the chefs,'" Woody says. "Yeah, chefs cook food, but it's farmers that make the food."
Farmer Woody — unassuming in a plaid blue button-up, dirty work boots, and a straw farmer's hat with two long blond braids trailing out — doesn't look like a city planner. But labeling him a "farmer" doesn't feel quite right, either.
It would be more accurate to call this guy a farmer-construction worker- stonemason-electrician-plumber and general handyman rolled into one. As a boy, watching old-timers like his father — who, Woody recalls, had the skills to fix and build anything — motivated him to become the ultimate craftsman. For the past two decades he's put in the long days and backbreaking work to live up to his own idea of "a real man."
Today, he wears his Farmer Woody hat — literally — as he oversees volunteers working on a 14,000-square-foot space near 10th and Pierce streets. He hopes this plot will become not just a space for community improvement, but also a testing ground for future farmers, chefs, and backyard gardeners.
The space will house a 3,000-square-foot amphitheater for cooking lessons, art demonstrations, and live music, in addition to a greenhouse, tilapia pond, and garden. Also included in the design: a drive with space for two food trucks where Woody would like to see the community's youths taking their first forays into the culinary world.
"We've received so much for this project," says Woody, who usually works alone and has used his own money to finance past projects. Valley Leadership helped him secure donations this time; Richard Melikian donated the land. "I have a hard time accepting so much. I want to pay it forward."
With his "business hat" on now, Farmer Woody says his desire to turn the farm into a cooperative. This summer, he'd like to challenge 18- to 20-year-olds to a "Survivor-style" competition involving hard work on farms; the winner takes part-ownership of the land. Woody, who works at Superstition Farms (as well as part time at Nachobot), knows firsthand the potential for a farm to become a tourist attraction.
Blue eyes twinkling as he looks out over the piles of mulch and dirt meant to evolve into his most impressive project yet, he explains this is just another stepping stone on his way to something bigger. The vision of his own city keeps him flitting from farm to kitchen to wherever he thinks he's needed for now.
"I'm telling you, this whole neighborhood is going to be one crazy garden," Woody says. "I just want to show the impact of what one small group of people can do in one neighborhood. You can do this everywhere." — Lauren Saria
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