Mary Stephens of Phoenix Hostel: 2014 Big Brain Awards Finalist, Urban Vision (VIDEO)

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You submitted nominations for awards given to the Valley's emerging creatives, and the results are in. Introducing our 2014 Big Brain finalists.

Leading up to the Big Brain Award announcement and Artopia on April 25, Jackalope Ranch and Chow Bella will introduce the finalists. Up today: Mary Stephens.

For Mary Stephens, it's all about intersections.

Walking through the ever-changing courtyard of Phoenix Hostel & Cultural Center in the Garfield District, she meets a Peruvian jeweler staying the night. He's on his way to Los Angeles to sell his wares. "Mucho gusto," she says, as he wheels his suitcase around the incense-scented historic bungalow to get settled in his room.

Stephens, a Phoenix native who bought the 25-bed hostel from her mother in 2010, says she's passionate about "connecting things that don't necessarily go together."

See also: "Urban Legend" Award Celebrates Creative Phoenix Pioneers in Honor of New Times' Fifth Big Brain Awards

Her goal in taking over the hostel was to make it a cultural hub, similar to Mexico City's Casas de las Culturas, which she visited during her many international travels. Thanks to her time abroad, she says, "I have come to really respect the creation of arts spaces as radical aesthetic and intellectual alternatives to the status quo."

Stephens credits her English parents and travels with what she alls her neo-Marxist European worldview with a strong class critique. And in her studies of race, culture, history, and identity in plays, she developed her interest in performing arts as a sociopolitical outlet.

At her hostel, artists and performers converge and uniquely experience Arizona. Its success is obvious. With performances and events held on a nearly weekly basis and past notable guests including Manu Chao, Ana Tijoux, and Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against The Machine, it's clear the space has become a destination for both staying and performing.

But that's only a fraction of what Stephens calls her work-driven life.

"At any given time," she says, "I am working on four or five projects that, in general, deal with border issues, whether that means geographical borders or identity borders. "

Stephens, 34, works as a professor at Arizona State University's School of Film, Dance and Theatre and serves as producing director of the university's Performance in the Borderlands program, which presents performances often at the hostel. The initiative has presented previously banned plays like Hungry Woman and Ubu Roi, acclaimed Japanese dance duo Eiko & Koma, and Columbian street theater group Nemcatacoa.

She admits that standing at the crossroads of so many projects is exhausting, but there's nothing else she'd rather do.

And there's no other place she could do it.

Arizona's an epicenter of controversial laws, she says, where cultures come together regardless of whether people like it. But that mishmash of ideas and people can be a beautiful thing.

Stephens says the borderlands can be understood as a freeing proposition, as opposed to a battle, in which diverse cultures and world views can inform each other. That's central to her work: melding social issues with art to enhance understanding.

She points to a mural she commissioned from La Muñeca on the south side of the hostel. It features an Oaxacan pattern and a portrait of a woman in bright blue, burgundy, and red. Not your typical color combination, but, much like Stephens' view of culture in the borderlands, it comes together to create something utterly unique and surprising.

Artopia will take place from 8 p.m. to midnight Friday, April 25, at Bentley Projects in downtown Phoenix. Tickets are $25 in advance and $35 the day of the event. See more at www.phoenixnewtimes.com/bigbrainawards.

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