Big Brain Awards 2013
Phoenix, we're surrounded.
This year, we set out on a mission to find emerging creatives around the city who could use some cash for their next big projects.
Truth is, there are countless individuals who continue to shape Phoenix through their visual art, performing art, design, online, culinary, and craft ventures. But we had to narrow down the nominations to a group of 18 — three in each category — and this week, we're crowning the winners.
Big Brain Awards 2013
The six Big Brain Award winners will be announced on Saturday, April 27, at Monarch Theatre in downtown Phoenix, and each will receive a $500 cash prize. The party, dubbed Artopia, will include an evening of food, art, performance, and craft, as well as a chance to rub elbows with the up-and-coming class of movers and shakers.
Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
TicketsTue., Aug. 29, 6:40pm
All You Can Eat Value Pack - Mercury v Sun
TicketsFri., Sep. 1, 7:00pm
Phoenix Rising Football Club vs. Seattle Sounders 2
TicketsSat., Sep. 2, 7:30pm
All You Can Eat Value Pack - Mercury v Dream
TicketsSun., Sep. 3, 1:00pm
Phoenix Mercury vs. Atlanta Dream
TicketsSun., Sep. 3, 1:00pm
You can grab a ticket to Artopia and get all the details here. Winners will be announced online on phxculture.com and in next week's paper.
Now, let's roll out the red carpet. Here are the finalists for New Times' 2013 Big Brain Awards.
Brandon Boetto's work is heavy — but not as heavy as you'd expect.
The industrial designer deals in concrete. It's not just any concrete, though. Boetto explains that the mixture he uses is high-performance, meaning it's extremely durable and ideal for use in furniture and home accessories. Sure, heavy items can be crafted, but small pieces, like coasters and bookends, are lighter than they look.
Boetto was drawn to concrete as a creative medium about two years ago, when he found himself in an artistic rut. "I needed to get off my computer and get involved with something tangible that I could shape and sculpt to life with my own hands," he says.
He kept seeing concrete sinks featured on architectural design blogs. He took a class with local artisan concrete worker Brandon Gore of Gore Design Co. and Hard Goods, and he's been hooked ever since.
"The nuances of concrete are so intriguing to me because the beauty in a piece is most often actually the result of mistakes made by the artisan," Boetto says. "The shade, discolorations, voids, and stains all work to add character to a piece, making each creation highly unique. The beauty of concrete is found in its imperfections."
Boetto counts Gore as a mentor and good friend. "He taught me to not be afraid of screwing up. You can't allow your creativity to ever be held back by fear."
Boetto launched his company SlabHaus (www.slabhaus.com) in his garage. But his neighbors weren't too keen on his noisy new hobby. A few months ago, he moved SlabHaus into a shared studio space in a Tempe industrial area. That's where he heads after his day job as marketing director at bluemedia, a digital printing company.
SlabHaus is a solo endeavor, and Boetto says he's still learning as he goes. That's resulted in a few flawed pieces — including his first project. He set out to create an integrated bathroom sink/countertop for his home. He missed a few steps and ingredients along the way, but Boetto still has the sink.
"For me, it's a validation of why I love working in concrete so much. It's symbolic of discovering the perfection hidden within imperfection."
Since then, he's found success in crafting minimalist tables, sinks, furniture, and lighting fixtures with clean lines. Each of his pieces comes with a custom numbered coin embedded in the concrete.
His latest creation is a pair of Hulk hands that can be used as bookends or doorstops. They're modeled after children's toy gloves that Boetto spotted while birthday shopping with his nephew at Toys"R"Us. He says the multipurpose fists are, hands down, one of his favorite projects to date.
Recently, he completed a 100-pound lamp that took two incarnations to get right. The first one wouldn't release from its acrylic mold.
"I decided it would be best to cut my losses and throw it off the roof. Totally fun way to dispose of failed art, but that didn't really end up working out, either," Boetto says.
"When it hit the ground, it didn't even break. It just made a huge dent in the street."
Forget Hulk. Boetto's the one who's going to be a smash. — Becky Bartkowski
If Ashley Cooper likes it, then she'll want to put a pattern on it.
The Mesa-based textile designer creates bold graphics reminiscent of Trina Turk, Jonathan Adler, and Diane Von Furstenberg. Clothing, accessories, pillows, wallpaper: She wants her designs on all of them.
She weaves her work for Ashley Cooper Designs into a maxed-out schedule — one that includes a husband who's studying pre-med at Arizona State University, raising two kids, running her style blog design-parlor (www.design-parlor.blogspot.com), and studying fashion merchandising and design at Mesa Community College.
"In any spare moment, I'm doing design work," says Cooper, 26. "I need that creativity to balance everything else."
Working in the evening doesn't put a damper on Cooper's love of color and prints, which she's appreciated for as long as she can remember. That's thanks to her mom, Sandy Carder, an interior designer whom Cooper credits with teaching her basic design principles.
Cooper's foray into fashion is new. She used to work as an aesthetician specializing in skincare (she still does it sometimes as a side hustle), but Cooper always had a keen interest in fashion. The problem? She wasn't sure whether — or how — she'd fit in. Then, she took a few classes through MCC's fashion program and discovered textiles.
"In my first semester, I knew this was something I could pursue," Cooper says. "It really fueled my creativity."
That creativity has landed Cooper big opportunities. Based on her fashion sketch of a cobalt blue minidress, she was one of four student finalists selected to go to New York in February in the nationwide Aquafina and Project Runway Pure Challenge. She and the other finalists faced a PR-style challenge during their trip: Make a simple white shirtdress into an original design.
Cooper didn't win that challenge or the $5,000 prize money, but she says the experience was priceless. She got feedback from former Project Runway contestants Uli Herzner, Emilio Sosa, and Bert Keeter. And rubbing elbows with former model and Real Housewives of New York City cast member Kelly Bensimon was a pretty good consolation prize for the Bravo fanatic.
Choosing textiles as her focus allows her to stand out among countless high-fashion designer wanna-bes. Anyone can go online and buy her prints by the yard via Spoonflower.com, and her surface designs like laptop skins, tote bags, and stationery cards are available at Society6.com. (Both are similar to Etsy in that anyone can sell through the site's interface.) Want a laptop skin covered in Cooper's purple, pink, and orange Modern Brushstrokes? That's $25. How about two yards of the blue and green, kid-friendly Giraffes print in cotton? That'll be $17.50 per yard.
Because of her presence and accessibility on Spoonflower, Anna Richardson of Lucia Paul Designs found Cooper's orange and white Kim print in a wedding that's being featured in the spring/summer 2013 issue of Weddings Illustrated.
It's great exposure, but she's ambitious and always looking forward.
"Anything that could have a print on it, I'm going after," Cooper says. Watch out. — Becky Bartkowski
Keytha Fixico is prepping for prom night. The 17-year-old Mountain View High School senior is trying to help his date, a friend of his, find the perfect dress. Rather, dresses. He thinks she should have two: one for dinner and another for dancing. She might need some convincing, he says.
He knows he can't be too bossy about what other people wear. But he designed the flowing navy dress his date wore to the junior year winter formal. So he wants at least a say in his prom companion's ensemble.
Fixico's own prom outfit is all set. He'll be decked out in a tailcoat that reminds him of the formalwear that patriarch Lord Grantham sports on PBS' Downton Abbey.
He's not afraid of standing out and compares the hallways at his Mesa high school to a fashion show. Some of it's good, and some of it's bad. "I like to dress up a lot," he says of his day-to-day style choices, adding that cuff links are one of his favorite accessories. It was his love of dressing well that led to Fixico embarking on a career as a fashion designer.
Fixico wants to dress women who turn heads, women like Audrey Hepburn. He wants to hear them say, "I'm wearing a Keytha," and have it result in oohs and aaahs. (You can see examples of his work at facebook.com/keythafashion.)
Born in Oklahoma, Fixico is of Creek and Muskogee descent. He sewed his first button at age 7 and moved to Arizona about eight years ago with his father after his parents divorced. He made his first dress in February 2011, his sophomore year. He says the draped red frock took him five days to finish.
In five years, he wants to work as a full-time fashion designer. And there's not much standing in his way.
Fixico plans to take a year off from school after he graduates. He's hoping to land a gig in retail, preferably something high-end like Prada or Neiman Marcus. Then, he wants to attend the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM) in Los Angeles. He scoped out the school in March 2012 and was impressed by its offerings. Meeting former Project Runway contestant Nick Verreos there didn't hurt, either.
In the library of his father's home, Fixico shows off items from his spring/summer 2014 collection. This room is where he does most of his work, from laying out fabric and conceptualizing his designs to sewing them. He pulls dresses in red and pink onto his form. They have a present-day Hollywood starlet feel to them.
He says he'll show the pieces through June. Then it's time to start working on a fresh collection.
"I don't know if that's how other designers do it, but that's how I'm doing it," Fixico says often, when discussing his work.
Then he remembers that prom is on April 27 and realizes that's the same night as Artopia. No worries. He says that the limo driver can drop him at Monarch Theatre — tailcoat and all. — Becky Bartkowski
MICHAEL BABCOCK and JENN ROBINSON
Ask most any food truck owner and they'll tell you moving to a brick-and-mortar location is the ultimate dream. They'll tell you though that it takes money. And time — lots of time.
Unless you're Michael Babcock and Jenn Robinson.
The pair hit the streets as Old Dixie's Southern Kitchen food truck just last fall and, by January 31, had found themselves a permanent home. It may have been a step up — and a fast one — but they had done the seemingly impossible and settled into what's got to be one of the few restaurant spaces in town with a kitchen smaller than the one on their truck.
In exchange for the lack of space, however, they took the chance to be the next faces in what's becoming the rich culinary history of the Welcome Diner.
The tiny red and white Valentine diner came to Phoenix by way of Wichita, Kansas, in 1980. Since opening in 2004, the kitchen's served as a stage for chefs including Payton Curry, MF Tasty's Eric Gitenstein, and even Matt's Big Breakfast.
Though they love the historic structure, Babcock and Robinson say, it's not always easy operating in a 68-year-old building.
"The diner is old [and] beat up," Babcock says matter of factly. "She requires a lot of attention."
Babcock and Robinson graduated from Arizona State University in 2012 with degrees in environmental science, and they met while she was working at the Phoenix Public Market.
"She was the cute girl behind the counter and I had to know her name," says Babcock, who worked for 10 years at local restaurants including Gallo Blanco and The Duce. He also traveled in search of inspiration, eventually settling on New Orleans cuisine.
When Robinson got a job as a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in northern California, they left Arizona and stumbled into an experience that would change their ideas about food forever.
To save money — because finding affordable housing on a sous chef's and hydrologist's pay isn't easy in Santa Cruz, California — they ended up living at Food Not Lawns, a farming and housing cooperative that also serves as a venue for music, workshops, and art shows.
It was while living there with a dozen other people that they learned firsthand about farming, gardening, animal husbandry, and more. Babcock got a job working in the slaughtering section of an organic farm where he learned to appreciate clean eating. They lived for a time with their "hands in the dirt, every day," as Robinson says.
That was great, but they wanted to be business owners, and life brought them back to the Valley, where Robinson says the dry desert landscape means one can really appreciate what it takes to make things grow. (She still keeps her green thumb in the soil with the two plots of land she's had donated to turn into gardens for the diner.)
Old Dixie's Southern Kitchen food truck was an instant hit, and just months after hitting the road, Welcome Diner beckoned. Babcock and Robinson serve a limited menu (on a limited schedule — go to facebook.com/olddixies for details) out of the space.
Babcock's quick to point out that Old Dixie's presence at Welcome Diner is not really about putting their own stamp on things.
"I think Jenn and I were really people who understood what the diner was about — it's history," he says. "I don't think we really wanted to change it. We wanted to elevate it. We wanted to perpetuate it." — Lauren Saria
HAYDEN FLOUR MILLS
If you're a local, the Hayden Flour Mill needs no introduction. The iconic mill for which Tempe's main drag gets its name has stood at the corner of Mill Avenue and Rio Salado Parkway for nearly 140 years. And though the long-abandoned building recently underwent a substantial renovation as an art space, the historic mill itself is indefinitely out of order.
But that hasn't stopped Jeff Zimmerman from bringing back the name and the grain that once thrived in the Southwest.
A quality management specialist turned slow food activist, Zimmerman's revival of the Hayden Flour Mills process began with his family's growing interest in the resurgence of authentic foods, "just like people bringing back heritage tomatoes, veggies, pork. We just thought, well, let's just see if there are ancient types of wheat."
Zimmerman and his daughter Emma began their quest to reclaim the heritage grains lost in the age of industrialized farming by enlisting the help of farmers, anthropologists, and organizations like Native Seeds Search in Tucson.
Not long after the Zimmermans' operation launched, they connected with pizza-maker and slow food aficionado Chris Bianco.
"He's probably the original guy for using local ingredients in his food," says Zimmerman, "but the one ingredient he didn't have was wheat."
A champion of the Zimmermans' efforts, Bianco invited Hayden Flour Mills to move in behind his sandwich shop, Pane Bianco, setting up their 1,600-pound Austrian stone mill and sifter and producing the various flours used by Bianco's restaurants and other Valley chefs across town. You can also buy the flour at farmers markets and specialty shops (including Pane Bianco) around town. For a complete list, go to haydenflourmills.com
As New Times sat with Zimmerman in the back of Hayden Flour Mills' cozy headquarters, Emma entered through the back door carrying a large white pastry box and declared, "It's a cake for Charles' birthday."
She was referring to Charles Hayden, original founder of the Hayden Flour Mill. April 4 marked the 188th anniversary of his birth, and Emma made a cake using the very same flour he would have milled.
The Zimmermans do well to pay homage to their inspirational founder and his heritage grains. So well, in fact, that direct descendants of Charles Hayden himself have reached out to offer their praise and their support to the operation.
In this sense, Hayden Flour Mills is very much a community organization, a tight-knit family of farmers, chefs, and local food enthusiasts working under the Hayden Flour Mills umbrella. "We have a network of farmers passionate about growing it and a network of chefs passionate about using it," Jeff Zimmerman says.
Even with all this success, Zimmerman does not claim be an innovator. In fact, he modestly denounces it. "If I've thought of something, at least a hundred other people have thought of it before."
True, perhaps. But the Zimmermans are the ones who did it. — Katie Johnson
THE SIMPLE FARM
Picture Grant Wood's American Gothic with a really, really, really good-looking couple and you've got Lylah and Michael Ledner.
It's amazing that reality TV hasn't snatched up these two — yet. They've got all the elements: They're baby boomers who met (relatively) late in life, moved to North Scottsdale, and started a church in their home, then leased a few acres of old horse property between ritzy housing developments to start a farm.
"I used to buy designer shoes; now I buy designer seeds," Lylah Ledner says with a smile, pausing for a moment to chat as The Simple Farm's Thursday morning "French Market" winds down and the April day begins to heat up. Lylah's got fresh dirt under her nails from picking weeds; somehow, her bubblegum-pink lipstick is just as fresh.
She relaxes in a plastic chair at a table draped with black-and-white-checked oilcloth, pausing to empty the big pockets of her apron: a syringe from giving a goat an enema; a French knife given to her by a customer; someone else's business card; and an iPhone with a screen so shattered it's hard to believe Lylah can get it to work. But she does, and you know because she's a frequent poster on Instagram (@thesimplefarm) and Facebook, and you can find The Simple Farm's blog at thesimplefarmmarketgarden.com.
The Ledners got a head start on the local farm craze, moving to the Valley in November 2009, ripping out "oleanders to the sky," and planting a garden as a way of connecting with the land.
Sounds corny, but there's a lot of love on this farm. Love for the customers, the animals (they are now up to six goats that are milked twice a day — that's a lot of milking), the sweet, ramshackle French décor. Lylah tears up more than once, talking about this business that is clearly much more to these two.
A customer walks by and asks Lylah about a tree.
"It's a Pakistani mulberry tree and it won't make you sneeze," she says, not missing a beat, adding that she gives the leaves to her goats to get their milk to dry up. Another wants to know if you can make ricotta cheese out of goat's milk (yes) and another asks how to make quark (Lylah's got several websites to recommend).
For a while, she and Michael sold what they grew (and milked and made — Lylah's a whiz at jellies and apple and pumpkin butters and recently started making caramels) at local farmers markets, but they didn't like that, so they decided to open their own farm on Thursdays. Crowds have reached 500 a day.
The summer squash is coming in; life is good. And the Ledners' goal, Lylah says, is simple — like the farm: "To earn a living." — Amy Silverman
Jon Arvizu is a hired gun. That's how he describes his day-to-day work as a designer, illustrator, art director, and printmaker at Trapdoor Studio.
When he isn't working on freelance projects for a Swiss brewery, a local motorcycle club in need of a fresh logo, or Phoenix-based entertaining guru Cheryl Najafi's website, the 37-year-old indulges his hobbies of letterpress and mono-screen printing.
Arvizu does it all in the backyard studio of his Scottsdale home, where he lives with his wife and their two young sons. The space is a den full of his ideas, experiments, and projects — many of them look like they'd fit right into the Midcentury Modern world of Mad Men. The retro imagery is everywhere from Ralph Haver and Al Beadle homes to a record player, tikis, and pinup girls.
People ask Arvizu about Mad Men a lot, he says. Though he watched the first few seasons of the show, he walked away with more of an appreciation for its style and design than its plot.
That's how Arvizu has taken in artwork since he was a kid. He's drawn toward lines and colors more than anything.
"My earliest memories centered around art, advertising, and design," Arvizu says. "Saturday morning cartoons and comic books; toy packaging and trading cards; Cracker Jacks and Bazooka Joe gum; Crayola's art carousel; Powell Peralta's 'Bones Brigade' logo; Van Halen's 1984 album cover."
All that visual inspiration comes through in Arvizu's playful, graphic work. His one-man operation (trapdoorstudio.com) affords him total creative control, and almost all the new work he gets is due to word-of-mouth marketing. Arvizu's clients include the NFL, Oregano's, and Kraft Foods.
"It might sound corny, but I've always wanted to make compelling art. To create images as impactful to me as the work I loved from childhood."
When Arvizu first got his start in design, he worked at Fossil. "Designing and illustrating a series of tins from first sketch to finished printed product was a positive and motivating experience for me," he says. "It taught me about the entire life cycle of a project and what it took to get a quality finished product."
Now Arvizu applies his passion for process to his wide range of projects.
Continuing to push his artwork into fresh territory means saying "yes" to new experiences. Being open to newness is a topic he discussed in his October 2012 lecture for Creative Mornings Phoenix, a free series of talks by local creative types.
After he gave that talk, the team at monOrchid asked Arvizu whether he was interested in exhibiting his artwork. Of course, he said yes. Through the end of April 2013, his 60-piece art exhibition "Every Which Way" is on view in the downtown gallery.
Sometimes creative opportunities just arrive.
When one of his neighbors cut down a tree and asked Arvizu if he could use the wood, he said sure. Then he carved the pair of wooden tiki statues sitting in his backyard. He'd never attempted anything like that before, but had fun trying it out. "I get genuinely excited at the thought of making something new or learning a new skill," he says.
What's next? So much that it's tough to list everything. But Arvizu's ready.
"In school, they preached that you are only as good as your last project," he says. "My coolest work is my next project." — Becky Bartkowski
You get a pretty good feel for Justin Katz's design sensibilities before you even get all the way into his home. The living room is cohabited by an iconic Eames chair and a classic Pin*Bot pinball machine; Katz navigates the balance between professionalism and playfulness effortlessly.
The 30-year-old motion designer, creative director, and producer at Flock of Pixels has his degree in film and animation from the Rochester Institute of Technology but says he's been making visual stories since childhood. "I'm pretty sure I made a South Park version of Macbeth for my high school English class," he recalls, laughing. "I would do all different kinds of stop motion on Post-it notes."
The practice must have come in handy, because Katz won his first set of Rocky Mountain Emmys (the guy currently has five) for a stop-motion video he created in 2011 for Massage Envy. The Valentine's Day ad featured footage of candy hearts dancing across the screen. It looks simple, but when Katz explains his moving each individual heart frame by frame, we can understand why his website lists "patience" as one of his production tools.
As Flock of Pixels (flockofpixels.com), Katz works in two ways. The first is sourcing out his individual talents as a motion designer or animator. The second is full production of a video, for which he hires additional creative talent. "I realized how I was working before. I was always collaborating with another designer, another animator, whoever it was," he says. "I realized we could be this flock of creatives."
Katz's flock consists primarily of local creatives, especially when he's doing work for local companies, like long-term client American Express. Even outside his business, Katz is a staunch supporter of the local arts and design scene. His house is decorated with prints by local artists like former Big Brainer Safwat Saleem, and he gleefully shares a copy of the McSweeney's issue illustrated by current Big Brain finalist Kelsey Dake (his is signed, of course).
But Katz is afraid that people and companies in Phoenix don't always realize how much talent they have right in their own neighborhoods. "Phoenix Design Week should be sold out," he says. "It's a direct allegory to Phoenix itself: low cost, high content."
Katz knows high content when he sees it; he spent the beginning of his career working in New York City with marketing giants JWT and Landor. His experiences there helped him refine his skills so that when he finally struck out on his own in 2008 as Flock of Pixels, he was prepared.
Between apologies for "totally geeking out about this stuff," he enthusiastically explains why a certain transition is great or how a particular frame changes meaning. It's the pre-production elements like concept and development that really set motion-designed work apart, he says. "If you can surprise somebody with the way that a story goes or the way that something manipulates on screen, that stuff is fun and that stuff is memorable," he says.
Luckily for Justin Katz, this is precisely his specialty. — Katrina Montgomery
Lindsay Kinkade's studio, Little Giant, might be hard to find on a map. The 35-year-old designer claims the streets of downtown Phoenix as her true workspace; she is most often found riding her bicycle, gleaning inspiration from the real world. "Everything about the way that I'm building my practice is about being on the street, being in public life, being in the space where people bump into each other and where interactions both good and bad and messy and clean happen," she says.
Kinkade's desire to work in and with the public was influenced by an initial career in journalism. After spending seven years at the Boston Globe, she knew she wanted to get out of the office and back into the community space. But this time, she would do it as a designer.
"Most of my studio work is about creating a space to believe in possibility — to sketch what is possible, to imagine what is possible, to believe in the best possible future, and try to figure out how to make that happen," she says.
Attending graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) gave Kinkade the opportunity to construct a new path using design thinking to facilitate public engagement and community development. Designing interactions and inventing new economies is a big aspect of this type of work, she says. But it's necessary for a designer who wants to improve the public sphere.
The aptly named Little Giant focuses on doing small experiments and using the process to translate results to a larger scale. In a recent project with Phoenix Center for the Arts, Kinkade filled an entryway with pieces of brightly colored paper that read "We are the center of." Anyone passing by was invited to complete the statement and contribute to a what she calls a participatory visioning process. The exercise is small, but it helped kick off an identity redesign for the center that manifested in things like a website rehaul and a mural on the exterior of the building.
Though this type of work may seem somewhat intangible, the results can be very concrete. Kinkade taught a class on public policy and public engagement at RISD and has written a book on the subject. This is her passion, she says, and she can't imagine working in any other way.
Since moving to Phoenix a year and half ago for the increased sunlight and the larger population, Kinkade has been focused on reinventing what she calls the user experience of downtown. Projects like Welcome to Phoenix, a website she is working on with Jim McPherson, seek to reframe how people view the downtown experience. For Kinkade, it's all about increasing awareness of what is out there and constantly inviting people to get involved.
"If the thing we're creating is the best version of a city, we should be inviting all the people of the city into that process," she says.
There aren't too many designers around the Valley doing this type of work, Kinkade knows, but she isn't worried. "We can sit around and be grumpy about Phoenix forever," she says, "or we can see it as a place of constant invention." — Katrina Montgomery
Carlos Reyes takes a sip of his coffee and smiles. It's a big smile, a totally unguarded one. Dressed in shorts and a Superman T-shirt, he blends in nicely with the Saturday morning Roosevelt Row Jobot crowd, plugging away on laptops and browsing open textbooks. But it's a fair assumption that no one else in the room edits what many have described as "the Latin Pitchfork," and even safer to bet that no one in the room finds that particular comparison as funny as Reyes.
"When I started the blog, I didn't even know what Pitchfork was," the 25-year-old Reyes says with a laugh. "The blog" in question is Club Fonograma. Boasting the tagline "We Are Iberoamerican Pop," Club Fonograma represents the efforts of Reyes and 10 volunteers to focus on Latin American "pop," a wide reaching term, Reyes says, encompassing garage rock, electro, dance, reggaeton, funk, and whatever else excites Fonograma's contributors.
A native of Santiago Papasquiaro, in Durango, Mexico, Reyes moved to Phoenix when he was 13. He launched clubfonograma.com in 2008 while studying film and media at ASU.
"I didn't see the approach to film criticism — with an emphasis on 'context,' — being applied to Latin Alternative music the way it was to Latin American film," he says. Inspired by reactions to Puerto Rican band Calle 13's album Los de Atrás Vienen Conmigo and his collection of Slant magazines, he began blogging, mostly for fun.
"I started doing it for myself and my friends," he says, noting that a gap existed in Latin Alternative coverage. As if to prove his point — that people want to read about exciting, adventurous music from Costa Rica, Argentina, Chile, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and other Latin American countries — the site quickly began attraction readers worldwide.
"I don't promote it," he laughs, "but people started getting interested."
Today, the site attracts about 150,000 unique visitors a month and boasts endorsements from singer Julieta Venegas and Carla Morrison, a former Phoenician who fronted beloved indie band Babaluca before heading to Mexico and picking up two Latin Grammy Awards for her latest, Déjenme Llorar. Club Fonograma was an early booster of Morrison's work.
Club Fonograma brought Reyes to the atención of MTV, Pitchfork, and NPR Music. The latter approached him about contributing to its Alt.Latino blog in 2011. Club Fonograma does have its detractors, he says, noting that though dozens of Latin American music blogs have popped up in the wake of Fonograma's success, many criticize the site for being written in English. It's a grievance Reyes is keenly aware of.
"I could love to have a bilingual site," he says, "but I don't have the resources right now. When I started the site, it was partially to work on my English. It was a very personal blog."
The site's roots may be in the personal, but it's become a destination for music fans looking to get a glimpse into what feels like a whole other world of kaleidoscopic pop sounds. The site creates exclusive MP3 mixes, which have proved to be big hits.
"People love them," Reyes say. "In fact, I haven't made one in a while, and people are starting to get impatient, saying 'When's the next mix?'"
Demand is a good problem to have, no?
"Yeah," Reyes says, with a beaming smile. "I better make one soon." — Jason P. Woodbury
DUST CIRCUIT RADIO
Ziggy Kennedy has a hard time defining the focus on his Internet radio program Dust Circuit Radio, but he's certainly enthusiastic about trying to pin it down anyway.
"I guess we focus on Americana and roots," the jovial 41-year-old laughs. "I sometimes say, 'If it has a banjo in it, I'll probably play it.'"
But Dust Circuit Radio is hardly strict about its roots format, just as likely devoting time to thrashing rock 'n' roll or spiraling shoegaze. It's an anything-goes format, but instead of alienating listeners, it's quickly attracted them. The 24-hour stream consists of pre-recorded segments, live shows, and an archive of "DCR-approved songs." Kennedy features a cast of hosts in the DCR HQ (his house), including shows hosted by his wife, Kerry Kennedy, Mills End frontman Jeff Bump, Shain Mayer, and World Class Thugs player Jim Bachmann. (Kennedy calls Bachmann's show, "Ripsnort Radio Hour," DCR's "finest program.")
Kennedy launched the site (dustcircuitradio.com) with local musician Jason McGraw in October 2012. McGraw since has departed, but Kennedy's kept up, surviving strictly on donations, mostly from the very bands that Dust Circuit Radio plays and the kindness of musicians like Carol Pacey. ("Dust Circuit wouldn't exit without Carol," he laughs.)
"People do beautiful stuff if you just give them a chance," he says, his voice still betraying his Oklahoman ancestry.
He's been in Arizona for 11 years, playing in local bands and impressing himself in Phoenix culture, and while Dust Circuit Radio plays a lot of Phoenix bands, there's music from all around the world featured on the station.
"My motivation was to be a conduit to unite fans with bands and bands with listeners, without a commercial agenda," says Kennedy.
Listenership varies, Kennedy says, from 80 listeners to 500, depending on the show and time. Unsurprisingly, Kennedy's freeform format hasn't attracted a lot of advertisers, but that doesn't bother him. The station occasionally features sponsors, but mostly he likes to keep it free and wild. The music — even bumper music and show intros — is cleared directly by each band played. "We play stuff that's a little blue, maybe askew," he says. "No need to involve the FCC or BMI."
The station has recently begun broadcasting live from events at local watering holes like the Ice House Tavern and Yucca Tap Room (at the time of publication, DCR was set to live broadcast all 14 hours of the infamous Valley Fever Quarantine at the Yucca). The live events fit the social nature of his broadcasts. "People plan BBQs and parties around our shows," he says. "People put it on in their shops and just let it play for hours."
Dust Circuit Radio's format may be hard to define, but that's part of what makes it thrive, Kennedy says.
"We cuss, we make strange references," he says, still laughing. "Our fans get turned on, big money gets turned off." He wouldn't have it any other way. — Jason P. Woodbury
Jonathan Simon has a tendency to geek out. A lot. You can tell when it's happening, as the 32-year-old blogger usually sports a boyish grin when discussing things he's passionate about, such as space ("I'm a big solar system nerd"), Super Nintendo, and sci-fi novels (Nick Harkaway's post-apocalyptic tome The Gone-Away World is a fave).
He wears an even bigger smile when gushing about a particularly favorite subject: the joys of local geek culture. Over the past three years, he's explored, chronicled, and celebrated homegrown nerd-dom in the Valley on his renowned blog Lightning Octopus, (lightningoctopus.com).
Since launching in 2010, Simon's exhaustively championed the imaginative efforts of like-minded local comic book scribes, fantasy authors, indie auteurs, and countless creatives of a geeky kind. He also has given the lowdown on nerd-oriented events throughout Arizona.
It also helped reinvent his life.
Sitting inside his cozy office, a recent addition to the Mesa home Simon shares with his wife, Darby, and their three children, this implementation analyst for a local staffing company ("It's as boring as it sounds") describes how Lightning Octopus transformed him from a cubicle drone and reclusive homebody into a nerd about town.
A trip to Phoenix Comicon on a lark opened Simon's eyes to the Valley's vast geek scene and provided the impetus for the blog he'd been itching to create. Nights spent watching TiVo gave way to unforgettable experiences with hackers, cosplayers, monsterologists, and zombie hunters, often with his family in tow.
Much as he did, Simon implores others to pull a Luke Skywalker and ditch the homestead in search of adventure.
"I've become an evangelist of opening your door and seeing what's going on right in your neighborhood," he says. "I was super-blind to it, to all this stuff to explore here, stuff I never would've done before."
Like hanging with R2-D2 at Tempe's Geeks Night Out, riding in a DeLorean during KAET's Nerd Walk, or other activities that would've made his younger self insanely jealous. Star Wars and Back to the Future were beloved to this child of the '80s, who preferred science and spaceships over sports while growing up "on the mean streets of Sandy, Utah."
Simon has reduced his blogging recently due to increased parental responsibilities (including another baby on the way), but makes time for Lightning Octopus' newest feature, the aptly named Electric CephaloPodcast. It debuted in February after web developer/graphic designer Austin Baker and Chris Dodson, a network engineer, approached him about a podcast emphasizing homegrown geekery.
"It was a match made in heaven. Austin had the microphone, Chris is good at editing audio, and I had the blog," Simon says. "Basically, we're all geeks who have fun chit-chatting about nerdy stuff."
Currently one of the few Valley-centric geek podcasts of its kind, each episode is a blast of breezy, brainy fun. Listeners feel a part of some laid-back conversation among old friends, where the topics are purely geek and meander between the silly (Simon discovering a half-eaten PowerBar with a wrapper featuring Eureka star Colin Ferguson at Phoenix Comicon) and the cerebral (recapping ASU's mind-bending "Storytelling of Science" panel).
Local guests occasionally "come on and nerd out" about their passions (like Valley improv comedian and soda geek Preston Smith, who shared his favorite Phoenix spots to perform or enjoy gourmet pop) or gush about choice books, movies, or comics.
"We joke that our ultimate goal is getting Stephenie Meyer on the podcast because she's from here," he says. "We'll have truly made it then." — Benjamin Leatherman
The members of Man-Cat are a secretive bunch. They won't disclose their names or ages and refuse to remove the matching plastic tiger masks that cover their faces.
Anonymity is vital to Man-Cat, helping reinforce its edict that "identity is irrelevant" and avoiding reprisals from the targets of a series of culture-jamming stunts, gleeful pranks, and other guerrilla-like activities they've dubbed "projects."
The Phoenix-based music and art collective boasts countercultural DNA hewn from bits of Anonymous,
Adbusters, and the Occupy movement, with heaping handfuls of Fight Club's Project Mayhem and Negativland thrown in for good measure. It makes for one of the more unique bands in ages to storm the occasionally milquetoast Phoenix scene.
The group's site (mancatmancat.com) claims they are both "thieves of intellectual property" and "ruthless garbage disposals of pop." Its music, art, and antics have reinforced the description since its beginnings. As a one-man remix project in 2007, Man-Cat released the mash-up "Thuggy Stardust," juxtaposing David Bowie's androgyny with rap's ghetto machismo. That got the attention of Rolling Stone, but it wasn't their only foray into pop deconstructionism.
Gathered inside their cramped, disheveled studio and lair at a CenPho warehouse, Man-Cat's four artists describe how, in 2009, the act grew in both membership and scope. It became more an art-rock/noise hybrid that "regurgitated pop" by mixing samples of pop songs and discordant sounds in with distortion-filled guitar noise. Lyrics of Top 40 tracks are excerpted, repeatedly translated to foreign languages and back to English, before being used in Man-Cat songs.
"Identity has become a constructed, almost fabricated, manufactured thing. A lot of music has kinda shifted too much that way, especially pop," one Man-Cat says. "So we're moving the opposite way, deconstructing things, removing identity and just focusing on the product, the ideal, and the message."
The group also has reworked pop culture remnants into their often-scandalous creations, such as a music video for "Yeast," which consists of "pizza guy porno" clips obscured by a Man-Cat eating slices of round pie.
Culture-jamming antics and other gags include selling religious candles featuring celebrities like Oprah and Snooki as beatific deities, plastering the ASU campus with propaganda-style posters emblazoned with ridiculous pop lyrics, and wheatpasting enormous tiger mask prints around Tempe and Phoenix.
The most attention-getting stunts, however, have involved pop stars. Before Justin Bieber infamously vomited onstage during a September concert at Jobing.com Arena, Man-Cat and three dozen masked followers had gathered outside the Glendale venue 30 minutes beforehand, presciently wielding signs declaring its "Regurgitate Pop" dictum.
Sheer coincidence? Or were they responsible for Biebs' barfing? "We can neither confirm nor deny," states Man-Cat.
Months later, when irreverent indie popper Lana Del Ray brazenly sung "My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola" on her newest album, Man-Cat struck. They created downloadable labels for "Pussy Cola," a near-identical mockup of the soda's packaging (complete with its red-and-white logo resembling women's naughty bits), and affixed it to Pepsi bottles at Tempe chain stores. Fans were encouraged to do the same.
It was meant to poke fun at the ludicrousness of Del Ray's lyrics and Pepsi's history of shilling pop with pop stars.
"The best way to prove a point is to turn something on its head, having it prove itself," one Man-Cat member says. "We could say how ridiculous she is talking about vagina and soda. Or we could have fun."
The singer never reacted, but PepsiCo did. Man-Cat received legal mandates demanding they nix the stunt. The band complied and shied away from a parody defense due to the potential cost of a court battle and the chance it might reveal their identities, and thus "kill the project."
Instead, they posted photos of themselves eating pizza using cease-and-desists as napkins. PepsiCo's smackdown hasn't discouraged Man-Cat in the slightest.
"Quite the opposite," a Man-Cat member says. "The fact that we got this big corporation's attention made us feel like, 'Cool. What else can we do?'"
Work on their next album and a major project aimed at a "very successful" female pop icon in the weeks ahead, that's what. True to form, Man-Cat's mum on any additional details. We can't wait. — Benjamin Leatherman
Performance poet Leah Marche, a Phoenix native, says she's always been active in the local arts scene. "My mom put me in pageants when I was little," she recalls, "and there'd always be that question, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' And I'd always say, 'I want to be a writer.'"
Her love of writing led her to college courses in journalism (she was the editor-in-chief of Glendale Community College's weekly) and, later, to a job as art director at a local music magazine. Journalism was great, but Marche secretly yearned to perform.
"The first time I got up the nerve to get up on the mic as a performance poet was in 2005," she admits. "I used to go to poetry slams to be inspired by others, then I'd go home and write. But I always challenge myself, and so I forced myself to go on stage. I've been addicted to performing poetry ever since."
That addiction led Marche to co-found Black Poet Ventures (blackpoetventures.com), a performance poetry group based in Phoenix, that same year. "Artists can be finicky and sensitive," she says, "and that can lead to a lot of disconnection among us. I wanted to create a place where poets were coming together, collaborating, supporting one another in creating great new work."
That great new work includes an upcoming Mother's Day show called Evangelina in collaboration with local actor Rod Ambrose. "It's about the power of women and our voices, and how mothers can make a difference in the world," Marche says. Concurrently, BPV is producing an ongoing biorhythmic series, which presents biographical stories set to a poetic beat, as well as a show about the life of jazz musician Miles Davis.
Marche, who works in the Herberger Theater Center's marketing department, has also participated in National Poetry Slam teams and is putting the finishing touches on a program for poets who want to cast a wider net. "I'm calling it Send a Poet," she says of the project, "and it emulates the e-card model, but with videos. I'll teach poets how to put together a video of their performance that they can send in an e-blast. Poets can engage a larger audience by inspiring people via our digital world."
In what's left of her spare time, she hosts The Bungalow Show, a weekly interview program on Radio Phoenix, an all-volunteer station that streams at radiophoenix.org. "I interview artists about their perspective on culture and arts in the Valley," she says. "I really try to emphasize alternative arts — those unheard voices and unknown performers who are out there working."
Marche sometimes worries that poetry performance tops the list of those under-the-radar art forms. "There are so many poets working here, and constant events featuring poetry, and yet not many people know that we're out here, doing this work. I've sort of given part of my life to making sure that performance poets have a wider visibility in the Valley." — Robrt L. Pela
SPACE 55 THEATRE
"We're like a home for wayward artists," says Shawna Franks, cofounder of Space 55 Theatre (space55.org), the tiny, off-beat playhouse that's lately been taking downtown Phoenix by storm. The nonprofit, all-volunteer company operates less like a conventional theater than a theater cooperative, offering late-night and series productions created and produced by a revolving cast of actors, writers, and directors.
Opening a theater, Franks says, was not part of her plan when she moved here from Chicago in 2005. "I didn't know anyone in town," she recalls, "but I'm a theater person, so I started to invite actors to my house for dinner. Actors are usually hungry, so I figured if I promised to feed them, they'd come. We read plays together, and we ended up liking one another, and it became a theater company."
The company, officially founded in 2006, took its time finding its proper audience. "When we first opened, people would walk in and say, 'Oh, take me back to Scottsdale!' But eventually, the people who love a writers' theater, and who really want to see original and contemporary work, were showing up and saying, 'Oh, this is just the thing I've been looking for!'"
That's been Space 55's agenda from the start, Franks says. "If we've been successful — and sometimes I don't know where we find the funds to go on, but we always do — it's because we're offering the kind of theater that wasn't here before." That includes the company's popular Second Friday comedy series, and its signature Seven Minutes in Heaven program, which finds performers of all stripes taking the stage to present seven minutes of entertainment. Sometimes, Franks admits, those seven minutes aren't strictly heavenly. "Occasionally, it can be just awful," she says, laughing. "But often, there's real brilliance up on stage. There are so many bizarre performers here, that's part of why I created that series — to give them a place to shine."
Franks insists that Space 55's success has little to do with her, yet she admits she keeps her hand in every facet of the business. "I do everything!" she says. "But the artists who work here have really taken ownership of the work, and it shows. We've got a place now where everyone can find their own vision, including the audience that has found us, acting and writing our hearts out down here." — Robrt L. Pela
DAVID EMITT ADAMS
An artist is not someone who sits in cafes sipping lattes and sketching. Photographer David Emitt Adams is sure of this.
Adams is sitting in a coffee shop, but he's not sketching or sipping on anything. He's talking about his art.
"My life is art," Adams says. "That's what I do."
Adams, 33, was born in Yuma, but he wasn't there for long. His parents worked for the State Department when he was a kid. That meant moving every three years. He lived in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Jakarta, New York, and California.
Adams is moving constantly still.
He's wrapping up a one-year artist residency at Gilbert's Art Intersection, a gallery and workspace that has served as his studio and a venue for teaching. He's commuting to Tucson two days a week as an adjunct professor teaching experimental photo techniques at the University of Arizona. He's going to the New York Portfolio Review later in the week to make new connections in the art world and get feedback from industry folks. Then he's off to Léhon, France, for the summer as an artist resident in the Alfred and Trafford Klots International Program for Artists, supported by the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Despite all the globetrotting, there has been a constant in the artist's life: his late grandfather's farm in Southington, Ohio. Adams visited the 50-acre apple farm every summer during his childhood. Now Adams' father runs the farm, and Adams says that someday it will be his.
The proximity to the farm is why he attended Ohio's Bowling Green State University for his undergrad degree in photography. The time he spent on the farm instilled in Adams an awareness of and respect for history, reflected in his photography and desire to create physical objects.
Adams works primarily with a Civil War-era photography process called wet plate collodion.
He began using the vintage method while completing his master's in fine arts at Arizona State University. Adams set up a recycling bin for his students to dispose their film canisters. Those became surfaces for his photos.
That led to his most recently completed body of work, "Conversations with History." Adams collected rusty metal cans discarded in the Sonoran Desert and printed onto them photos of desert scenery. The works explore the cans' displacement, impact on nature, and connection to the landscape around them. The process required that Adams transport a mobile darkroom with him on his adventures into the wilderness.
Currently, Adams is working on a series he calls "Power," for which he's printing images of oil refineries and power plants onto lids of discarded 55-gallon steel oil drums. To create the images, Adams uses a 24-by-29-inch ultra-large-format camera.
He plans on traveling around the country — Texas is next on the itinerary — collecting images for the barrel lids and creating the new works. He's not sure how long the project will take. So far, he's made four pieces for the series, using lids found in a junkyard.
He has other big ideas in the works but isn't ready to discuss them quite yet.
"As we move forward into digital technology, people are going to want to go back," Adams says.
Wherever his work takes him next, David Emitt Adams knows where he'll end up. And it won't be a coffee house. — Becky Bartkowski
Kelsey Dake can remember who beat her in a coloring competition in second grade, and though she won't name any names, she says it was a pivotal moment in her creative career.
Dake now works as a full-time freelance illustrator. Her client list includes McSweeney's, Business Week, Lucky Peach, Wired, New York Times, and New York Times Magazine (to name a few). At 23, she's a big name in the national illustration scene but says she's ready to focus on her hometown.
She grew up in Phoenix, went to Chaparral High School, and moved to Los Angeles to attend Art Center College of Design. After graduation, she flew across the country and set herself up in New York to make contacts with local publications and other illustrators. But after a year or so, she realized that for as much as she was paying to live in a tiny studio, she could move back home and live in her own house built by one of her favorite architects. So she jumped on a plane and flew back to Arizona.
Step inside Dake's 1958 Haver home and studio, and you'll see that she's a champion of Phoenix. She has vintage city maps on the wall and stored in flat files; she has a collection of Midcentury Modern furniture she's raced around town to lay claim on; she just finished creating a series of images of iconic Phoenix signs (including the Log Cabin Motel and Mesa's Diving Lady), which are on display and up for grabs at Phoenix Metro Retro.
"I know people leave all the time to go to the cities I've come from, and I often feel the need to stand up for Phoenix," she says. "But here's where I can make a difference . . . More than anywhere else, I feel like I belong here."
Dake says she's on a mission to connect with local illustrators and find a place in the local art scene, whether that's attending and supporting local events like Modern Phoenix Week and Phoenix Design Week or opening her own pop-up gallery for illustration work (fingers crossed). And all this while continuing to challenge herself.
She's known for her bold and detailed editorial work and celebrated for her unique style, which she says can only be described as "how I draw."
"I think, more than anything, it's just important to be yourself and stay true to what you do and how you do it," she says. "The second you try to be different or force your own work to be something that's unnatural, you're just being someone else." — Claire Lawton
Local artists Michelle Ponce and Damian Jim have worked on small projects and art pieces together since they met a few years ago, but when they connected over the idea of a contemporary Native art zine, the two knew they were in it for the long haul.
Jim is from the Navajo Nation and Ponce's family is from Puerto Rico, but the two have a shared affinity for Native culture and artwork. They published the first issue of Ziindi, a simple stapled art zine, in early 2012 and hosted a launch party in a pop-up gallery in downtown Phoenix. That's when things really clicked — not only did they realize there was a real reaction and need for a contemporary Native outlet, but they saw firsthand that the local community was interested in seeing contemporary Native art up close.
Ponce says Ziindi's target audience is Native youth growing up on reservations throughout the Southwest. She and Jim hand-deliver hundreds of zines to schools and community centers in Native communities as soon as they roll off the presses. But as important as arts education and awareness for youth on the reservation is for the two, they also wanted to create a space where Native artists could gather while passing through town, where emerging artists could show their work, and where the community could come see a cultural artform that Jim and Ponce say has been largely misrepresented and commoditized by local institutions.
So between their day jobs and personal art projects, the two continued publishing Ziindi (ziindi.com) and began brainstorming and looking for a spot they could settle into and create a cultural hub for music and art.
In December 2012, Jim found an online ad for a space open on Sixth and Roosevelt streets in downtown Phoenix, and the two jumped on the opportunity. As they moved in, they learned more about the space's history in the Phoenix art scene. It was built from rubble by local art champion Greg Esser back when Roosevelt was in its ghost-town phase. The space became an artist residence and studio for artists including Brian Boner and Mike Lundgren, among others, and has served as Roosevelt Row headquarters and, later, Regular Gallery, which Esser opened in 2011.
And so the life cycle continues. Jim and Ponce named the gallery 1Spot because it's the "one spot" you'll always be able to find contemporary artwork by emerging and established Native artists. And though they're both careful to acknowledge the presence of the Heard Museum, they also note that emerging artists in their community need a space to showcase modern art — beyond the traditional work that's generally on display at the museum.
The two happily admit that 1Spot is a bit off the beaten First Friday path, but they agree it's fairly easy to find. The front of the gallery was given a fresh (and fitting) paint job long before they moved in by Native artist Thomas "Breeze" Marcus. As part of Jackalope Ranch's exhibition of maps by Phoenix artists in 2011, Breeze covered the wall in his own interpretation of an archaeological map of the Hohokam canal system and ancient village sites.
Since they opened their doors in late December, Ponce and Jim have showcased work by Jeff Slim, Jaque Fragua, Averian Chee, Eunique Yazzie, and Shamie Encinas. And, lucky us, they have no plans of slowing down.
The two recently were given a chance to curate an exhibition at the Navajo Nation Museum in northern Arizona, which Ponce says pushed the envelope in a community that hasn't fully accepted contemporary artwork. Plans for the next zine (which Ponce says will also include native Latino artists) are in the works, along with a full schedule of exhibitions throughout the year. And if what we've seen is any indication, this year is going to be a busy and exciting one for contemporary Native art. — Claire Lawton
122 E. Washington St.
Phoenix, AZ 85004
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.