We see you, Phoenix.
When we set our sights on finding up-and-coming creatives pushing boundaries in performing art, visual art, design, culinary art, and urban vision, you suggested hundreds of nominees about to hit it big.
We narrowed down that long list to 15 finalists for the 2014 Big Brain Awards. They burn wood, brew beer, and better Phoenix.
The five Big Brain Award winners will be announced and awarded with $500 on Friday, April 25, at Artopia, a see-and-be-seen party featuring food, drink, art, and performance, at Bentley Projects in Phoenix's warehouse district.
Because this year marks the fifth annual edition of the awards, we're also honoring five Urban Legends, established creatives who have made this city a cooler place to live — and inspired others along the way.
Have a look. Here are the finalists for New Times' 2014 Big Brain Awards and Phoenix's first-ever Urban Legend Award winners.
URBAN LEGEND WINNERS
Kimber Lanning | Urban Vision
Kimber Lanning has always looked at Phoenix through rose-colored glasses. And that is a very good thing. From her earliest days as a record-store owner, Lanning wanted more for this place, looking to the urban core while others focused on strip malls and little pink houses stretching past the city's limits.
But that doesn't mean Lanning hasn't stretched — particularly when it comes to bringing her urban vision into sharp focus. In her early 20s, she says, she got sick of driving to L.A. to see her favorite bands. So she decided to figure out how to get them to come here.
"So many people were leaving, and they were all saying this place has no culture, this place has no soul," she says.
But she liked it here. She stayed. Today, Lanning runs three businesses: Stinkweeds, an indie record store in Central Phoenix; Modified Arts, a gallery space on Roosevelt Row; and Local First Arizona, a nonprofit that aims to empower independent local businesses in myriad ways.
Lanning's an extraordinary multi-tasker. She began Modified Arts as not just a gallery but also a small music and performance space that encouraged indie bands to stop in Phoenix instead of bypassing us for Tucson or other more obvious spots. Modified hosted bands like Arcade Fire before they were huge; Lanning has a knack for spotting talent early. Ditto for her visual art space, which serves as an incubator of sorts for emerging artists. (Modified no longer hosts music.)
And speaking of space, the multi-tasking took on a whole new meaning last year when Lanning turned Modified Arts' physical space into Local First Arizona's office. She bought tables and computers that are easily stored on weekends to bring Modified back to a gallery space. On a recent Wednesday morning, a handful of Local First Arizona staffers kept busy at keyboards in the main gallery, surrounded by — among other things — a display of bras and panties hung from the ceiling, part of a show by Chelsea Pace called "Asking for It: The Consent Project."
Talk about adaptive reuse.
Lanning's out-of-the-box approach extends beyond her own walls, to City Hall and the Arizona Legislature, where she's lobbied effectively for measures and laws designed to make it less onerous to run an independent business. Today, Local First Arizona is the largest local business coalition in the country, with 2,450 members, three offices (the Modified space is one), and 13 employees. Lanning and her members have championed urban "infill" — whether it's taken the form of adaptive reuse of old buildings or growing crops in the middle of town. The farming is popular with younger people, Lanning says, adding that other areas — like procurement reform — are not taking off the way she'd hoped.
And while more people are creating art, she sees fewer willing to offer up the infrastructure necessary to support a vibrant scene.
"I'm seeing the energy around a willingness to share and perform. But the arts don't function unless you have the grunt labor."
Don't get her wrong; Lanning's proud of the work that's been done. But there's so much more. "I want a city that is very diverse, very celebratory of arts and culture," she says. "I want a city that has a lot of community pride."
On the to-do list: affordable housing for all, quality public transit, and socioeconomic diversity "in every sense." Lanning wants people outside Phoenix to stop thinking of the city only as a leisure destination, all golf courses and spas, and start seeing it as the city she grew up alongside.
"It's a tall order," she admits.
If anyone can make it happen, it's Kimber Lanning. — Amy Silverman
Charleen Badman | Culinary Art
"We'll accomplish so much more if we work together," says FnB chef Charleen Badman.
She's sitting in one of the cozy dining rooms at her Scottsdale restaurant, talking about her vision for schools and food education. The James Beard Award-nominated chef is passionate about lots of things — yoga, gardening, and, of course, cooking — and near (if not at) the top of the list is teaching young people where food comes from.
"You have to start young," she says. "It would have been helpful if someone had started [teaching] me earlier."
Badman has become famous for her singular capability to turn vegetables into culinary masterpieces, but she admits she wasn't always a veggie lover.
In 2010, Badman made drastic changes to her diet and lifestyle (including giving up meat, though she still tastes everything that comes out of the kitchen at FnB). As a result, she began to focus more on cooking with vegetables both at home and at the restaurant, which in turn led to an interest in gardening. The hobby started with pots on her apartment patio and since has grown to include two four-by-four-foot garden beds, two large composters, and dozens of potted plants.
In those two small garden boxes Badman's planted dozens of varieties of herbs; produce including strawberries, I'itoi onions, and heirloom tomatoes; and a few unique plants like wheat berries. In the pots scattered around the yard and patio, you'll find everything from colorful edible flowers to a rare yuzu tree, barely big enough to bear fruit.
She uses some of her homegrown harvest at the restaurant but, for the most part, still sources her produce from local farmers.
"I'm not putting anyone out of business," Badman says.
Which is good, because she often partners with food producers like her friend and organic farmer Bob McClendon to bring hands-on food education programs such as Chefs in the Garden to local schools. The project really took off when Badman cooked lunch for some 550 students at Arcadia Neighborhood Learning Center, a public elementary and middle school in Scottsdale.
After learning that macaroni and cheese often was the only vegetarian option in the school cafeteria, Badman wanted to show the students truly nutritious and vegetable-focused food.
Badman's since gotten involved with two other schools, helping each to teach kids about the connections between science, food, and nutrition. At Arcadia Neighborhood Learning Center, she's worked with each class on projects including infusing olive oil, baking muffins, making pasta, and planting school gardens.
"I just want to make sure there's a connection to food," Badman says of the projects, which she tries to tie into whatever else the student's studying.
Her ultimate goal is to create a curriculum that schools could use as a model for incorporating food and nutrition education into the classroom on a regular basis. Badman says she'd like to see every chef in town adopt a school and work with students on projects similar to those she's been doing.
For now, she's been experimenting to figure out what works with each age group.
"I did learn [that] seeds and 6-year-olds aren't the best idea," Badman says with a half-smile. "We'll do plants next time."
But overall, the project is a success, at least when it comes to the students the chef has connected with so far. One parent told her he was shocked, after coming home from the grocery store, to see his child grab a bag of raw snap peas, rather than candy, for a snack.
"That made me happy," Badman says. "Because I grabbed the candy when I was a kid. If I can get one out of 40 to grab the snap peas, I'm happy." — Lauren Saria
Lisa Sette | Visual Art
From its earliest days, Lisa Sette Gallery has always been a grownup — even when its proprietor and namesake was still a kid.
As Old Town Scottsdale battled a reputation as a place to buy kokopellis and howling coyotes and downtown Phoenix struggled to keep a handful of galleries afloat at all, Lisa Sette quietly made a national and international reputation for herself as a gallerist who showed only the finest contemporary art — always with her own elegant appeal, and often from Arizonans like James Turrell and Angela Ellsworth, artists with reputations as storied as her own.
But today, as New Times prepares to present Sette with a well-deserved award for her leadership in the visual arts, we could just as easily present her with our prize for Urban Vision, as the recent news that Sette is leaving Scottsdale for midtown Phoenix is almost as exciting as any of the shows her gallery has hosted in its 28 years.
Sette began her gallery career in the living room of her Tempe home, showing the work of Arizona State University students. Later, she set up shop in two different spots on Mill Avenue, until one day, late attorney and art collector Sy Sacks walked into her small space and famously asked, as Sette recalls, "What the bleep are you doing here?"
Her response: "Who the heck are you?"
And his: "You should move to Scottsdale!"
The rest is history — and will be one for the books when Sette's final Scottsdale show, of the work of painter Carrie Marill, closes. The first Phoenix show, "Hello Midtown!," will open this summer in an Al Beadle building under renovation near Third Street and Thomas Road.
Sette has plans to shroud the semi-subterranean building in fabric. Beadle's signature beams will stay exposed. There will be plenty of wall space in a setting that makes sense in the desert, and Sette is excited about a lot of things — including the fact that she will finally have a kitchen for her staff to use. (Previously, they washed dishes in the bathroom of the Scottsdale gallery, which Sette says someone told her makes the room a "shnitchen.")
This is a bold move for Sette. She's losing street traffic (the new gallery space is next door to her husband's design studio but little else) and density — because even in the middle of one of the nation's largest cities, there's still plenty of empty and/or unused space. But Sette has confidence in the central corridor — mentioning that her North Scottsdale clients already drive to the neighborhood to dine at Bink's Midtown and the Tuck Shop. With Phoenix Art Museum, the Heard, and Roosevelt Row to the south and Upward Projects restaurants (among others) to the north, Lisa Sette Gallery certainly will be a destination spot in the middle.
At least one Phoenician has every confidence in Sette.
"Lisa Sette has always had her visionary finger on the sometimes very erratic pulse of the fine art world and has shown work here that we'd never see anywhere else in Arizona," says Kathleen Vanesian, New Times' longtime art critic. "She's also been selectively supportive of a variety of local artists who have gained national and international recognition as a result of her auspices and hard work.
"Thank God she's decided to stay open and start a new phase of her long career in an iconic midtown architectural landmark she's invested in. I would venture to say she's the Leo Castelli of the Valley of the Sun."
"I feel like things are going to grow toward midtown," Sette says with a rueful smile. "It just can't take 20 years." — Amy Silverman
Charlie Levy | Performing Art
Odds are if you've seen a concert in Phoenix in the past decade, Charlie Levy had something to do with it.
While running his own venue, Crescent Ballroom, he also books concerts through his promotions company, Stateside Presents, at almost every Phoenix and Tucson area venue, not to mention other venues around the state. Coming off the huge success of March's sold-out Viva PHX festival (New Times was a co-sponsor), Levy reflected on Phoenix's music scene and what he has in store for the future.
Originally from Louisiana, Levy moved to Tempe to go to Arizona State University back when Mill Avenue was alive with venues and the university booked huge acts like Cher, Paul McCartney, and Sinead O'Connor at its activity center. Though he majored in sociology, he worked as the student government concert director and quickly found a passion for it.
After college, Levy started booking shows on his own starting in 1995 and transformed the now-closed Tempe venue Nita's Hideaway into a beloved music hub by booking local and national indie big shots like Neko Case and Yo La Tengo.
Flash-forward almost 20 years, and Crescent Ballroom, which opened in 2011, is doing well, though Levy says it's tough to keep the momentum rolling after the honeymoon phase.
"I think the hardest thing is to not burn out," he says. "At first, you're all excited and then fatigue sets in, like on a run or in a relationship."
Levy sees the music scene in Phoenix as unique, with music fans who truly are grateful for great shows. Though he believes concerts give people the most bang for their entertainment buck with a relatively low cost and high payoff, he says more locals than ever are beginning to see concerts as the thing to do on a weekend, too.
"I think people here are true music fans — so appreciative and loyal," he says. "I wouldn't want to open a music venue anywhere else, especially not snooty places like Portland or Seattle — forget that."
Levy says that local music and venues are thriving, but he doesn't see a major hub for music anywhere in town that compares to the Mill Avenue scene in the late
'90s. Instead, several venues around town are destinations. He says that Last Exit Live is one of his favorite places to see a show and he wishes the scene had more all-ages places like the Trunk Space to accommodate the state's restrictive liquor laws at venues. These laws require mid-level venues (those where maximum capacity is less than 1,000 people) to separate the drinking crowd from under-agers, which means extra cost and complication for venues looking to include younger audiences.
Despite being credited with breathing much-needed life into downtown Phoenix with Crescent, Levy doesn't have a master plan for the city's music scene. He's focused right now on taking it easy after the extensive planning and coordinating that went into huge multi-venue festival Viva PHX. The event featured such local and national acts as YACHT, Sir-Mix-A-Lot, and Wooden Indian and took over downtown Phoenix for one night with a crowd of more than 8,000 people.
Of course, he won't be taking it easy for long. Levy already is planning for next year's festival, slated for March 14, and he knows the ways he wants to expand it and streamline it to improve the experience. His ideas include everything from hosting live classical music in an old church to making ticketing lines more efficient and limiting the distance between stages for a more walkable festival. While he hopes it gets "bigger and better" next year, he says his main goal isn't to have the festival grow out of control like South by Southwest has.
Instead, he says he's trying to make something "special for Phoenix, uniquely Phoenix."
He adds, "I was just like, 'Oh, we should do this,' and I had no idea if we could pull it off and we did. As far as what it becomes, who knows?" — Heather Hoch
Mookesh Patel | Design
When Mookesh Patel was growing up in India, a career in graphic design was unheard of. There were only three choices when it came to work for young men.
"Medicine, medicine, medicine," he says with a laugh.
Raised by his maternal grandparents, he lived with an uncle who pushed him toward a career as a doctor. After two years in medical school (during which time, he says, he never cut open animals for practice, choosing instead to draw the practicals so accurately that his teachers didn't discover until his sophomore year that he wasn't participating), he'd had enough.
"I broke the news at our New Year's party. There was pin-drop silence," he says. "My uncle didn't say anything for about five minutes. At the end of those five minutes, he said, 'Do what you want!' and got up and left the table. He was furious."
But Patel took that advice. He boarded a train the following day, headed first for architecture school and then, when he realized the admissions deadline had passed, the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, Gujarat — the first of its kind in the country. He graduated in 1975, though he would return as a teacher only a few years later. That position eventually moved him to the United States in the mid-'80s, first to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design for graduate school and then to the Valley for a job at Arizona State University.
His lengthy résumé grew to include consulting for Phoenix Art Museum and his alma maters. His work with both the Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority, as an employed designer for Malcolm Grear Designers, and the government of India for a major traveling exhibition to Russia, "My Land, My People," sparked his interest in visual communication — a departure from the commercial design, chiefly for area hotels, that made him successful in his first business ventures.
Part of his work with the Phoenix Art Museum consisted of designing collections of books related to exhibits. Book design, from cover to cover, quickly became a passion project. He continues creating print formats for everything from academic papers to anthologies related to the design field.
The designer will present his own paper, titled "What Does It Mean? Sense Making of Contemporary Information Transmission," in China this June, as information design is a topic he has recently become devoted to. Computer programs, like Excel, are useful for data collection but lack accessibility. Through controlling what seem like incidental components, like color and typeface, one is able "to give a visual form to complicated data," he says. "[But] I love print more because I can control a lot of things."
Patel, one of one of only two tenured professors in ASU's Department of Visual Communication Design, found himself the subject of breaking news articles in 2009 when his office was the scene of the suicide of a graduate student. The harrowing event shook the College of Design, but Patel never stopped teaching.
After 22 years in the field, the 61-year-old prefers teaching third-year and graduate students — many of whom have gone on to be prominent in the graphic design field. Danielle Gerard, now based in New York City, has worked on web designs for Steve Madden, while Lauren Weiss, part of Studio W Group in Los Angeles, has done product design for cosmetics company Arbonne Intl. and Coco's Restaurant & Bakery. And Justin Holloway, who graduated from the school in 2012, returned to ASU — this time as a web designer for the School of Sustainability.
Those are the moments, as students near the end of their collegiate careers, when the creativity flourishes, Patel says. Students are directed on what to do up until that point, so when the opportunity for self-exploration through design presents itself (something with which he is personally familiar) — well, the process is always rewarding. — Janessa Hilliard
BIG BRAIN FINALISTS
Daniel Mills | Urban Vision
Daniel Mills spends his time thinking about the big concepts: identity, sustainability, and place, to name a few. The 22-year-old ASU English grad got his start as a blogger, covering the local art beat at www.phxtaco.com, but last fall he decided it was time to take his passion for telling stories to a new level. Thus, www.sprawlr.org was born.
"Whenever you talk to people here who are trying to do something a little bit innovative or outside the box, the focus is not just that they are doing something ambitious, it's that they're doing something ambitious under the weight of living in Arizona," Mills says. "We constantly see ourselves as struggling against the hostile desert environment and the hostile cultural environment, but I see this as very retroactive."
With Sprawlr, Mills hopes to combat the corrosive mentality, offering up an alternative way of envisioning our desert home.
"A physical place is a living entity in itself, and it is constantly changing. Instead of seeing ourselves as the subjects of this place that are constantly being affected by it, we should think about how we can also affect and change it."
The project is still in its beginning stages, but after spending four months in the evening program at Seed Spot, a nonprofit organization that supports social entrepreneurs, Mills feels that everything is falling into place. Sprawlr will be structured as a nonprofit that encompasses many projects aimed at positively affecting society. "My overall goal is to have something that doesn't limit me to one thing, but opens me up to a lot of different projects," he says.
Mills wants to get involved with limited-release art prints and public art projects, but Sprawlr's first major undertaking is Sprawlr Magazine, a digital publication with stories that redefine and reimagine Arizona.
"Sprawlr Magazine is a commitment to long-form journalism and trying to find a viable format for that in the digital space. There are a lot of experiments going on with how to carry journalism on into the 21st century, and I want to be a part of that," Mills explains. "There's this perception that people just want little bits and pieces of media, that they just want quick photos they can power through, but I don't think that's true."
Mills has already assembled a small team of writers and photographers interested in covering a wide array of topics, but personally, he's excited to write about the issues surrounding new development projects and construction on the outskirts of Phoenix.
The name "Sprawlr" couldn't be more fitting, but the implications are what really make it interesting: "It's the idea of taking a name that is levied against us and using it as our own — rebranding it for a new identity," says Mills. "It all comes back to this idea of identity. If we're living in this place that's the poster child for sprawl, then we are sprawlers, and our stories of what it's like to live in this place will be the stories of Sprawlr Magazine." — Katrina Montgomery
Phoenix Spokes People | Urban Vision
Anna Allebach-Warble started Phoenix Spokes People thanks to a car accident.
After totaling her car in fall 2011, she decided to use her two perfectly good bicycles to get around town. And she hasn't looked back since. She quickly found that poor cycling conditions made her commute difficult. Almost every day, she arrived at work angry about the state of cycling in Phoenix. That is, until one day she decided to "stop complaining and start talking to like-minded people about how to make it better."
A little over a year after the first meeting, Phoenix Spokes People has accomplished more than just talking about making it better — it has taken decisive action to improve the landscape of cycling in Phoenix through fun group rides and a lot of (admittedly boring) budget hearings.
During 2013's city of Phoenix budget hearings, PSP's Lisa Parks made sure representatives from the biking community attended each meeting to stand up for cycling. All that work and time paid off when the city's funding for bicycle infrastructure rose from $50,000 to $1.5 million. That increased budget has been used to create Grand Avenue's green bike lanes and traffic-calming measures, as well as the soon-to-be-unveiled Grid Bike Share program. Phoenix's bike share will join the ranks of other major cities, including New York, in cementing cycling's status in urban transportation.
PSP also coordinated with the Welcome to America Fund to build 100 bicycles for refugees who use the bikes as their main, if not sole, form of transportation in the city.
Meanwhile, initiatives like the weekly Bike to Work Friday group rides and a holiday bike bell choir, mostly led and organized by the group's coordinator of all things fun, Libby Coyner, demonstrate a dedication to making the cycling lifestyle appealing.
Operating from a desk in the downtown cooperative bicycle command center, PHX BikeLab, which also houses Grid Bike Share and Rusty Spoke Community Bicycle Collective, PSP pursues its main goal: to be out riding around town and speaking at events to act as a voice for cyclists and increase their visibility in the community.
"Our office is our saddles," Allebach-Warble says.
The strategic planning committee of PSP has about 20 core volunteer members. Allebach-Warble has a host of other jobs, including co-creating the Peace Pi Festival, teaching yoga, and working as a photographer. Coyner is an archivist for the state. There are a lot of different personalities coming together to form the Spokes People, but the group is learning how to use its members' strengths to accomplish a common goal.
In the future, a major goal of PSP is to attend every budget hearing this year to further demonstrate the demand for safe cycling options in Phoenix. Currently, the organization's main objective is to get 501(c)(4) nonprofit status (reserved for social welfare organizations) so that it can lobby for change on a state level and endorse bike-friendly candidates (unlike 501(c)(3)s, which are barred from trying to influence legislators) in addition to taking on more grassroots and community-focused initiatives. Coyner says that specific nonprofit designation would allow the group to be tax-exempt and fight for bike rights in ways other nonprofits can't — even though it would limit its ability to get much-needed grant money.
"We realize that when you try to seemingly limit the rights of drivers in the city, the debate gets very heated," she says. "The streets of Phoenix are a political issue."
Until then, Phoenix Spokes People plans to provide bike valet services at different events, hoping to raise enough tip money to keep projects going — like installing bike racks at local businesses. While a fundraiser is planned to raise the cost of filing for nonprofit status (about $800), they say a Big Brain Award would go a long way. Whether or not it wins, PSP has big plans for Phoenix's roads in the future.
"I can't wait to see what happens in the next five years," Allebach-Warble says. "It's exciting to be in Phoenix now because we're creating what we will be known for." — Heather Hoch
Mary Stephens | Urban Vision
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."
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 her travels with what she calls 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 Colombian 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. — Becky Bartkowski
Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. | Culinary Art
Arizonans are accustomed to seasonal beer trends: hefeweizens in the summer, pumpkin ales in autumn, and the occasional holiday cider.
But thanks to one up-and-coming brewery, Arizona is finally experiencing a trend that's truly fresh.
In the seven months since opening, Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. has produced 65 beers in 44 styles. It's a turnover rate that earns the Gilbert-based beer business both devoted followers and frustrated fans. But brewery co-owners Jonathan Buford, Patrick Warem, and Brett Dettler wouldn't have it any other way.
At Arizona Wilderness Brewing, beer culture is as protected as it is intertwined with the environment around it. Using locally sourced ingredients like farro from Hayden Flour Mills, coriander from Somewhere in Thyme Spice Co., and Sel Gris French sea salt from Go Lb. Salt, the brews distilled at Arizona Wilderness are about quality rather than quantity and, as such, their time on tap is brief.
"Think about our brewing company like walking through the wilderness," Buford says. "You're going to go through your seasonal changes. You're going to go through your different climates and different terrains, and that's kind of what we model our beers after."
It's a model that the trio developed less than three years ago in Buford's Gilbert garage. The longtime outdoorsman had left his window-cleaning business to pursue what he describes as "art meets creative science." After absorbing every podcast and book on brewing (including John Palmer's How to Brew, which he still views as the beer Bible), Buford turned to Ware and Dettler to fill what he considered the voids in his beer-making operation.
Despite initial financial challenges (Buford had to dip into his wife's 401(k), and Ware sold his car), the trio managed to turn their passion into a reality, transforming the outdated former space of a Godfather's Pizza into a packed East Valley restaurant and distillery that hardly sees an empty seat during lunch hour.
"We knew we would be great," Buford says. "We had that in us. I said, 'Give us a moment to shine and watch us shine. It's going to happen fast' . . . And it did."
Suffice it to say the brewery's quick success has gained the attention of beer festivals and brewers alike, including Danish brewer Mikkeller, which is set to produce a collaborative brew with Arizona Wilderness in June.
With that success also come investor proposals for Valley expansion. But Buford's not interested.
"We have not had to change our ethics or values at all," he says. "No one demands that of us. I think people come in looking for us to not do that. If we came out and said we're going to open a production facility and brew five beers, people would be appalled."
Appalled? Perhaps. But can we really blame the Valley for wanting more access to Gilbert's best kept secret? Certainly not. — Katie Johnson
Aisha Tedros | Culinary Art
"Anyone can do it," Aisha Tedros says as she prepares a cup of strong coffee flavored with ground ginger, a specialty from her hometown in Africa. "I was always told that about America, and it's true."
Tedros moved to the United States 12 years ago from Keren, the second-largest city in Eritrea, a small eastern African country just north of Ethiopia. Back then, she spoke no English and could neither read nor write. Like so many others, she came in search of the American Dream, having grown up being told that in America anyone can be anything they want.
Tedros taught herself to speak English, and these days you can hardly get her to stop. The coffee shop owner switches back and forth with ease between English and the six African languages she also speaks. Tedros says her innate chattiness always set her apart from other Eritrean women. It's part of the reason she says America immediately felt like home.
"When I got here, I called my mom and said, 'Everyone here is like me!'" she says with a laugh.
Before opening A.T. Oasis Coffee and Tea Shop in Phoenix with her husband, Abdul, Tedros spent years working as a server at Mimi's Cafe at Mesa's Fiesta Mall. A framed letter from the restaurant's manager sits on a shelf inside the shop. It thanks Tedros for her years of service and commends her for exceptional customer service.
It's still one of her strongest assets as the owner of a small business.
Sitting at one of the small tables in the shop and sipping a cup of coffee (sweetened with two spoonfuls of sugar, at least), Tedros explains that she wants her coffee shop to serve as a community gathering place for both African immigrants and those who might not be familiar with the culture. And, thanks in no small part to her affable personality, it is. On any given night you'll find tables of customers enjoying a drink while chatting away.
"A lot of Africans, when they come here, they're a little isolated," Tedros says. "So I'm trying to bring everyone together."
But Tedros doesn't just want her shop to be for African immigrants seeking community. She also sees A.T. Oasis as an opportunity to educate Americans about her culture through something universal: coffee.
Tedros says more and more customers have been coming in and asking to see the traditional Eritrean coffee ceremony. It involves roasting green coffee beans over a burner, grinding them (traditionally, with a mortar and pestle), and boiling the coffee in a special clay pot. Tedros has had to buy more of the pots to accommodate the new customers.
For the ceremony, she sets up each table with its own tray. On it, there's one of those pots, a set of small cups, sugar, incense, and dates. Guests can then participate in the ceremony by pouring their own coffee and sweetening it to taste. The dates are to be eaten along with the drink. If you come in to try it, Tedros likely will be happy to sit and answer your questions — about coffee, Eritrea, or just about anything else.
Tedros also imports raw coffee beans directly from Ethiopia, in some cases working directly with the farmers. By doing so, she says, she's able to give them a larger share of the profits than if she were to go through a coffee broker. She uses only these Ethiopian beans at A.T. Oasis and also sells the raw product to some of the city's best-known coffee shops. The list includes Cartel, Echo Coffee, and Bergies.
Within the next year, Tedros hopes to organize a group trip to Africa to visit some of the farmers she buys her beans from and continue educating people about her culture. And, of course, she wants to see her hometown.
"Keren is my home," Tedros says. "But Phoenix has given me a lot." — Lauren Saria
Stephanie Teslar | Culinary Art
Stephanie Teslar has really outdone herself.
While curating the cocktail menu at the Hotel Palomar's Blue Hound Kitchen and Cocktails, she created one of the Valley's most unique and instantly alluring mixed drinks: the Lawless. The show-stopping drink combines whiskey, wormwood liqueur, demerara sugar, and Teslar's handmade "truck stop" bitters, which contain "everything you'd buy at a truck stop," like chocolate, coffee, and tobacco. With that smoky, sweet, and dark combination of flavors stirred and chilled, she smokes a glass with vanilla caramel pipe tobacco and pours in the concoction.
The result is an aromatic, sippable cocktail that embodies all the best elements of drinking whiskey while smoking a cigar. It's this innovative, unique approach that sets Teslar apart.
Teslar got her start as a barback in her hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, when she was 17. Eventually graduating to a role of bartender at the upscale and old-fashioned steakhouse, O'Malley's, Teslar began by mixing up the classics — though she admits she shook up many more martinis than she would've liked to.
Teslar came to Phoenix to head Blue Hound's bar in September 2012 after running Criollo, a tequila and mezcal bar in Flagstaff, and immediately began experimenting with flavor and accessibility in craft cocktails.
"Working in a hotel is a new challenge because I have had to modify my personal techniques for high volume without losing integrity," she says. "I want people that aren't well-versed to find the cocktails approachable, but still be unique enough for the aficionados."
In terms of flavor, Teslar loves using bold, bright local citrus and herbs from local farmers markets, and she's recently developed a love of aromatized wines. Her use of local ingredients shines in components like a McClendon's Select blood orange syrup and her in-house infused gin, which features locally grown botanicals like white sage, sorrel, creosote, ribena, and juniper.
Although Teslar isn't an Arizona native, she says the community of bartenders in town has become her family. She looks forward to the next five years of cocktail culture in downtown Phoenix, which she sees as a future hub with recent and upcoming additions like The Local and Bitter & Twisted.
"I see the cocktail culture in Phoenix growing exponentially in the future," she says. "The more bars we have opening up, the more Phoenix will be a destination."
Though she admits that Phoenix can't be like New York, with its über-specialized cocktail lounges, she says Phoenix's cocktail culture forces local bartenders to be more creative and versatile. That, in turn, allows her to experiment with tiki cocktails, foreign spirits, and modernizing classics.
However, what really sets Teslar apart is her commitment to making customers feel welcomed and not judged for anything they might say or order. Her hospitality extends equally to everyone, friends or strangers, as if they were guests in her home — even if they order a shaken martini, which is one of her least favorite drinks to make.
"I want everyone to know when they're coming into my bar they're coming into my home," she says. And that means there's no such thing as a bad drink, especially if it makes someone happy, she says. — Heather Hoch
Alexandra Bowers | Visual Art
Alexandra Bowers stands on the back balcony of the north Scottsdale house she grew up in, a house she moved back into after graduating from ASU with an art degree in 2012. The house now serves as her studio and command station for her clothing and art brand Iron Root. She points out to the neighboring housing development behind the yard's fence.
"This all used to be expansive desert land when I was growing up, and it's been paved over," she says. "It's kind of sad."
If you saw them at Eye Lounge last summer, you probably never would have guessed that Bowers' intricate works of wood-burning were driven by her family and childhood. Drawing inspiration from hiking, that empty desert behind her childhood home, and a coyote skull her boyfriend found in the desert, Bowers' work is an exploration of the bits of desert beauty that disappear with every new subdivision.
Back in her studio space, which she says her mother graciously lets her use, it's clear that family has a lot to do with her work. The professional wood-burning kit she uses was jointly gifted to her by her mother and father, but she started wood-burning with a soldering iron bought on a trip with her dad to Home Depot (one of her favorite places).
Since then, Bowers has grown and experimented. Now, she works primarily with birchwood boxes assembled by local artist Tony Zeh. Her early pieces are beautiful, but it's obvious that she's progressed immensely in the six years she's been working with wood. With works commissioned by friends, art lovers, and boutique Frances, Bowers enjoys tailoring pieces to reflect someone's passion in nature — be it a sparrow or a sunflower — always in stunning detail.
Though Bowers reluctantly has done her fair share of dog portraits, it's clear she's more interested in creating works that showcase the raw and sometimes macabre beauty of the Sonoran desert. She also makes plenty of small pieces priced at $50 and less, because she loves the idea of art being affordable enough for anyone to own a piece that makes them happy.
With just three tools, which achieve finer or thicker lines like different brushes for a painter, Bowers has taught herself techniques that employ use of negative space and texture. She says pieces typically take "hours and hours and hours and days and days," and she usually loses track of time in podcasts and audiobooks like her most recent listen, Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch.
She left her spot as an Eye Lounge member recently. Now Bowers is looking to challenge herself and step out of her comfort zone. She says she would like to show her work at Modified Arts, Willo North, or the new Step Gallery in downtown Phoenix. Fans of Bowers' work can expect experimentation with geometric patterns and color to accompany her new pieces.
While Phoenix's art scene isn't as established as other large cities, Bowers says the Valley holds unparalleled opportunity for emerging artists in many other ways. She says that artists here have the chance to do something new, create communities, and even stumble without it ruining their careers.
"There's so much potential for growth in Arizona," she says. "You really have the opportunity to do new things and stand out." — Heather Hoch
El Peezo | Visual Art
For a guy who craves anonymity, El Peezo certainly is on a lot of street corners.
And walls of abandoned buildings, as well as occupied ones. And in parking lots and alongside bustling restaurants.
Since first surfacing on the street art scene by appearing on the concrete of downtown Phoenix, El Peezo has brought an increasingly popular and accessible form of public art to the Valley: wheatpaste.
The urban art form was first used by guerrilla artists and protesters to adhere posters and flyers and has since been reappropriated by artists like Nether and Banksy. The mixture, which consists of simply wheat flour or starch and water, doesn't permanently deface anything but also struggles to withstand the elements — which is why many of El Peezo's paste people are missing half a head or have shredded feet.
He seems to emulate Banksy in more than just his chosen medium. Throughout Banksy's career, the hyper-popular and now commercial, yet still controversial, artist has chosen to remain anonymous — which, of course, has only made him infamous. Phoenix's El Peezo, it would seem, hopes for a similar approach, explicitly and repeatedly declining to be interviewed by anyone.
"I began my work as El Peezo in hopes of bringing fun and lightheartedness to my life and my environment through satirical street art," he writes in an e-mail to New Times.
"The content and placement of my work is done exclusively without permission. To preserve the essence of El Peezo, I choose to remain anonymous in the Phoenix art scene. Continuing to maintain complete anonymity is of utmost importance."
Because his work depicts popular characters, like E.T. and Alf, with whom the public already has relationships, people tend to seek them out. It's not uncommon to see a driver pause for a photograph, while Instagram searches unearth an array of portraits posed with a piece.
When shared on social media, either on his account, www.instagram.com/elpeezo, or others, his work becomes like a real-life Where's Waldo? book. (El Peezo actually created a Waldo wheatpaste last year. It has since disappeared.) Many are hidden off side streets deep downtown, and everyone wants to know where, though they tend to tear and tatter or are painted over before long.
Arguably his most noted pieces, Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas and a scene from Where the Wild Things Are, are also his most publicly accessible. The former adorns the western wall of Phoenix Public Market Café, while the latter can be seen directly from Seventh Street, since the major commuter artery passes by Palabra hair and art collective, which plays host to the piece and of which he is a member.
Palabra's owner, Jorge Torres, learned of El Peezo when he saw the artist's work on his building. El Peezo has since joined the collective, but Torres has never met him — they communicate via e-mail.
"[His work] is cool," Torres says. "It's widespread and open to all demographics. The fact that he's branched out and accessible to everyone, that's pretty legit." — Janessa Hilliard
Becky Nahom | Visual Art
Becky Nahom puts people first. The 23-year-old curator who co-founded Halt Gallery last fall spends her time creating shows that encourage connections between visitors and artists in hopes of bolstering the art community and bridging the divide between high art and the public at large.
"It would break my heart to see people walk into a gallery and then turn around and walk away because they felt that they didn't belong there," she says.
Though Halt Gallery (www.haltgallery.com) is a relatively new undertaking, Nahom has held a variety of art-related positions in the past; she has either interned or worked (or interned and worked) at nearly all the major art institutions in metro Phoenix. Currently, Nahom is both a gallery attendant and an assistant preparator at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. She is also an events and exhibitions assistant at Scottsdale Public Art.
It's wonderful to have a day job that relates to her curating, she says. "Obviously my preparator skills transfer to me being a preparator for my own shows, which is awesome, but a lot of what I've learned and what's making me a better curator comes from being a gallery attendant," she explains. "As a gallery attendant, you are seeing how the public interacts with things: their walkways, where they won't go, what they see and what they don't see, what they're more drawn to touch or break the rules with."
Nahom says she particularly likes group shows, in part because they offer more chances for viewers to connect with work. During "Rinse and Repeat," her first independent curating endeavor outside of ASU (where she got her start curating student shows), Nahom focused on bringing in lots of different artists. She continued down this path with subsequent shows because it allowed for connections to be made for and between the artists themselves.
"The main thing that gets me inspired is seeing excited artists," Nahom says. "For the curator, it's not just about the art, it's about how the public interacts with it and how the artist is seen. You want to make a great show for them so that they will have more opportunities in the future as well."
Working with her business partner, Julia Bruck, under the umbrella of Halt Gallery, Nahom has been able to take her curating to the next level. Halt Gallery does not have a physical location but curates shows in a variety of spaces around the Valley, with work appearing most recently at Eye Lounge and Modified Arts.
And the duo has big plans for the coming year. Nahom says Halt Gallery hopes to expand its horizons, bringing in artists from all over the country for future shows.
But, she stresses, this branching out is not meant as an insult to Phoenix artists. "I'm always just trying to develop new connections between art," she says. "When Julia and I are curating a show [as Halt Gallery], we talk about how each piece or artist connects to one another. Our curatorial style is definitely a little more abstract, but it's always about connections between work."
In the end, Nahom makes these connections and then steps away, letting the art happen on its own. "Ultimately, the job of the curator is to disappear," she says. — Katrina Montgomery
Mike Kennedy | Performing Art
Mike Kennedy is too pretty for Tent City. At least, that's how he sells it on stage, in between telling tales of Ecstasy-fueled orgies in Reno, getting a DUI on national television, and relating to his half-Hispanic teenage daughter.
Kennedy's career path to stand-up comedy hasn't exactly been a straightforward trajectory. The Wisconsin-born 44-year-old funnyman moved to Arizona shortly after college in his 20s. He majored in political science and planned to pursue the next logical step: law school. But, like many aspects of Kennedy's life, things didn't go as expected.
Between working for the man and ultimately working for himself, Kennedy stumbled through as many story-worthy situations as he did substances, ultimately finding a home for all of them in his stand-up performances.
"[The] biggest challenge with stand-up is finding out who I am," Kennedy says. "I think that's a problem outside of comedy, too, though. It's a continuing struggle for me."
That journey of finding himself led Kennedy through decades of various jobs, including working for a repo man in the late
'90s, catching shoplifters in department stores, driving a taxicab, and eventually getting licensed as a private investigator, a job that proved Kennedy had a knack for calling other people out on their shit.
"My jokes come from my life," Kennedy says, reflecting on his past experiences and, incidentally, the main source of his comedic material. "I've never really been interested in doing things the way I was told. I have lately been interested in finding out why people do things. Not what they tell other people, but the actual reason they do things. When I meet people, I can sometimes ask too many personal questions. I guess I'll always be a private investigator in that sense."
But it's that interaction with others that gets Kennedy the big laughs. He constantly puts himself in situations that most people only feel comfortable experiencing from a distance. Standing as a perfect example of this is a photo of Kennedy with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, which he uses as the main image for his Facebook fan page.
"A friend of mine asked me if I wanted to roast Sheriff Joe at The Phoenician," Kennedy says. "I had a DUI in 2005. So the idea of meeting him and making fun of him was really appealing to me. I spoke with him for 45 minutes backstage. I talk about it in my act."
That act is the ideal warmup for any traveling comedian performing at such local establishments as Stand-Up, Scottsdale! and Stand Up Live. And, despite having only started his stand-up career in 2007, Kennedy has quickly been evolving from crowd-pleaser to crowd-bringer.
"Comedy seemed a natural extension of what I had been doing my whole life," Kennedy says. "I've always been a storyteller who wasn't big on whether or not something was accurate as long as it was interesting and/or funny." — Katie Johnson
Orange Theatre | Performing Art
Describing Orange Theatre is a bit difficult.
"It's cross-disciplinary," says artistic director Matt Watkins. "It's multimedia. It incorporates film and TV. It incorporates computers, technology, the Internet, dance, visual art . . ."
Orange Theatre can't be confined to a single genre of theater — or even a single space, for that matter. The troupe had lacked a permanent home for rehearsals and performances up until April 1, when it announced via Facebook that it had finally found a new downtown Phoenix home off Grand Avenue at 1711 West Culver Street, suite 15.
Moving from place to place is nothing new for the experimental theater group, which evolved from a small ASU play-reading group on Tempe's Orange Street. Facing the financial challenges of being a not-for-profit but not tax-exempt organization, Orange has relied heavily on grants to fund its shows and the generosity of business owners for places to practice and perform them. The troupe has performed at various spaces, including Bragg's Pie Factory and Levine Machine. They currently practice at the Phoenix Center for the Arts and plan to move to their new space in May.
"I don't think we ever really sat down and said, 'Let's start a theater company,'" says Watkins, who unintentionally founded Orange Theatre with his thesis production of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.
With years of play production under their collective belts and all of the seven-person team working other jobs to pay the bills (both Watkins and technical director Steve Christensen work at other theaters), Orange Theatre has become their sole avenue for performing theater that interests them: the kind that's more about the act of performing in the present moment.
"We try and draw on what's happening in the room right now and to make it more about the interaction," Watkins says.
The result, Watkins says, is that the theater becomes "more about the music, about the sound of the piece, the shape of the piece, the tension that you create, the volume. It becomes more like a sculpture or a painting. It becomes about the colors and the movement. It becomes more like a dance. It becomes about how you move and at what tempo. And how fast do you speak your lines? And with what feeling behind it? And you can appreciate those things as notes in a song or as shades in a painting, and that exists simultaneously with whatever elements of narrative we weave into the piece."
That narrative, incidentally, isn't always set in stone. "What we want you to see when you see an Orange show is us in the process of asking the questions and trying to sort of answer them," Watkins says. "And maybe we don't. And we want that to be okay."
That's one of the reasons Orange Theatre, with such pieces as the still-evolving Blood Wedding (presented in part in 2013), produces shows over extended periods of time, sometimes months, allowing audiences to witness them at different stages of completion.
All Orange shows are presented on a pay-what-you-can basis, which doesn't exactly bring in the big bucks, but it does keep them afloat. "The company has to stay in the black in order to exist," Watkins says. "But is the goal to make money? No. Making money is how we continue to exist in the world. The goal is to make the work. The goal is to sustain the company, to sustain the relationships, to contribute to the community, to contribute to art and theater, to preserve live performance as an art form for the future." — Katie Johnson
Kristopher Pourzal | Performing Art
Kristopher Pourzal has an expressive personality. He talks with his hands, deliberate motions to illustrate his stories while gazing out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the Nelson Fine Arts Center in Tempe. The large practice room is empty, save for a grand piano and a handful of chairs lined against the wall where Pourzal sits, barefoot, dressed in light layers for optimal movement.
When he dances, which he will shortly, the room remains silent save for his sharp breathing. He stares ahead, always ahead, even while rolling on the floor. Even when his arms and legs seem to flail and move separately from his body. When he finishes, the space seems to deflate, emptied of energy. He walks the lengths of it, hands on his hips, and catches his breath.
When he dances, he says, "those are the moments when I understand why I'm here, in a meta sense."
Born and raised in Falls Church, Virginia, Pourzal got his undergraduate degree from James Madison University. His background was in theater and music. He originally studied music education, practicing the flute upward of 18 hours a day because, as he says, performing was always an interest to him. Performance, he says repeatedly, before everything.
"It's an excitement. An energy. There's something about this concentrated work toward this thing that gets to be seen," he says. "It's an invitation to be seen."
It wasn't until halfway through his collegiate career that he discovered dance. After taking an improvisation course, he fell in love with the liberation he got from the movement and asked his professor how he could continue to do this.
"She said, 'I've been waiting for you to ask. I see a dance major in you,'" he says.
Pourzal, who graduates next month from ASU with a master's in dance, recently participated in the Dance Graduate Choreographic Presentations with a group of dance students from the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. A hybrid of modern dance and theatrics, the pieces are similar to one Pourzal choreographed and performed in November 2013. Clocking in at an impressive — and exhaustive — 55 minutes, "I'll Go to the End of Time for You (And You Don't Even Know My Name)" was a nine-month endeavor, an exercise in multi-faceted post-modern contemporary expression.
"The nature of my work [has] this experimental sort of avant-garde component," he says. "It doesn't cleanly fit into dance. It doesn't cleanly fit into theater or music."
Lately, he's introduced a vocal component to his pieces, a nod to his early interest in music and an experiment with what he calls full-body-based performance, akin to the types of pieces produced in CONDER/dance's contemporary Breaking Ground show, in which Pourzal has participated.
For the first 10 days of May, he'll partake in a mass performance piece in New York City titled Topologie, in which a group of five dancers will enact an elaborate, citywide score organized by French choreographers Annie Vigier and Franck Apertet. This summer, Pourzal, who will turn 25 in July, is moving to Brooklyn, where everything, except the sublet he'll be staying in, is up in the air. The prospect is exciting in a professional sense, but he says the sense of freedom he's discovered in the Southwest will be missed.
"I moved to Arizona for ASU and — this is a little bit esoteric but I also very literally mean it — I've gotten space," he says. "It was actually jarring. 'Nobody's going to tell me what to do. Nobody's going to tell me what my work is supposed to look like.' I'm so grateful for that space to get lost and find my voice.
"I have been so nourished by how much sky I'm able to see here. I bike everywhere; I don't have a car here. And every day I'm in awe by how much sky is above me. And I think that's really important." — Janessa Hilliard
Scott Biersack | Design
Scott Biersack's unbridled enthusiasm is contagious. He says his work is a reflection of himself, and with the gushing positivity inherent in the painted and chalked phrases that adorn the walls of his small apartment in South Phoenix, we are inclined to believe him.
"I would never paint anything negative, because positivity literally makes the world go 'round. Nothing is out of reach when you are positive," Biersack says. "Seriously, if you're not positive, what is there?"
The 20-year-old is finishing his third year in ASU's graphic design program, but he has already begun making his mark in a slightly different field: Biersack is a hand-letterer. Though you may be hard-pressed to find others practicing this traditional art form in the Phoenix area, the Internet is fit to burst with the rise of hand-drawn or hand-painted inspirational quotes (hello, Pinterest).
But Biersack is no amateur. Though he is self-taught in terms of hand-lettering, he explains, not just anyone can take it up as a hobby. "You start with design because you have to understand the basics of how each letter is structured, but then you can take that design sense and use illustration to make the letter forms come alive," he says. "Design is very structured, but lettering allows for creativity within that structure."
He says his own lettering really took off after "Project 365," a self-assigned exercise that had him creating a new piece of lettering every day for a full year. He posted the project on Instagram and ended up getting lettering work from State Bicycle Co., T.G.I. Fridays, and others as a result. With over 9,500 followers on Instagram (www.instagram.com/youbringfire) and accounts on Dribble, Behance, Tumblr, and Facebook (www.facebook.com/scott.biersack), Biersack says social media has been the key to getting paid for doing what he loves.
Still, the young designer and illustrator keeps a foot planted firmly in the tangible world, inhabiting the unlikely intersection of old-school methods and new-school technology. "I have to start on paper," he says. "The computer is just a tool to provide the client with what they want, but the idea and the concept and everything is all in my head and I can produce it with my hands."
Biersack has a reverence for the past; he collects antique packaging labels because he admires the time and effort that used to go into designing and producing such seemingly inconsequential objects.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Biersack thinks of hard work as one of the most important values. And work hard he does: Currently, he's juggling school, freelance work, a job at design firm Zion & Zion, and his own personal projects.
Still, he gets up early every Saturday morning to create a new piece on the public chalkboard outside the Coor Building at ASU. When asked about the impermanence of his chalk work, Biersack smiles. "I know I'm going to keep creating for the rest of my life," he says. "So it's not such a big deal to me." — Katrina Montgomery
Manny Mares | Design
The one-story house is on a corner in a suburban neighborhood of south Mesa. The window is open slightly to let in a spring breeze, carrying with it the voices of neighborhood children playing outside. Manny Mares has a radio on — top 40 hits — but the room is thick with concentration, and no one is really listening.
"Can you —" he gestures to a brightly lit stool in front of a white backdrop. The small room, otherwise barren, is bright with Christmas bulbs strung on the ceiling. "I want to test the light."
Mares, 26, has been making photographs since receiving his first camera (a $200 point-and-shoot, as he describes it) as a high-school graduation present back in Edison, New Jersey.
Once he realized his friends were able to take pictures of the local punk bands he was listening to, Mares dove headfirst into the lifestyle, shooting groups around Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City.
Born in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Mares moved to the Valley with his family in 2009. He continued to spend his time photographing musicians in spaces like the Clubhouse in Tempe, touring with the band Title Fight on the club circuit, and transitioning from concert photos to behind-the-scenes images.
When his digital camera broke on stage right before a tour, Mares invested in a film camera. The raw look of the resulting shots and the rough composition of Polaroid instant film drew him in. He began shooting friends in their homes. Those early prints became the blueprints for his creative compositions.
It was this kind of work that led to fashion.
"I was doing digital for awhile because it's easier, but there's definitely more of a feel to film — stuff that digital can't really capture, you know?" he says. "All those chemicals that add to the film definitely puts a layer on it. I'm in the process where I want to start doing film again.
"I wish I could have been taking photos in the '70s and '80s, because there [were] actually less photographers and definitely more people that were doing interesting stuff. Now it's just like everyone has a camera."
It wasn't until early winter 2012 that Mares began to photograph for fashion agencies almost exclusively, starting with a shoot of model Alexandra Smith, whom he had met via Instagram (www.instagram.com/mannymares). There, Mares met Smith's friend and fellow model Titus Fauntleroy, also represented by Agency AZ. He snagged some shots of Fauntleroy, too. Little did he know the model was going to show them to his agents and Mares' professional career was about to change.
Flip through publications like Arizona Foothills Magazine and Java — Mares' images color the pages. They range from American Apparel-style adverts (the company's bodysuits and undergarments appear in most of his early shoots) to high-fashion editorial shoots that have made it into national magazines like Runway.
These days Mares photographs for a number of agencies, including Ford Robert Black and Wilhelmina Models, and works with the likes of makeup artists Jess Fierro and Lizzy Marsh on rising models such as Sam Mershon and Kyra Transtrum.
But Mares isn't satisfied. More opportunities lie outside the Southwest.
"I want to do a lot," he says. "I want to tour with big musicians. I want to travel and see how far it takes me." — Janessa Hilliard
Ashley Weber | Design
Disembodied dragonfly wings, gemstones by the handful, teeth, and a variety of flora top the tables and fill the many tiny drawers in designer Ashley Weber's home studio.
The small space is jam-packed with baubles in various stages of completion and tools including dowels and a variety of colorful pliers that would look at home next to a dentist's chair.
Despite the methodical laboratory vibe, the jewelry she makes for her company, called against the grain, is inspired by the outdoors.
"Nature has always been the muse behind my work," says 28-year-old Weber, an avid hiker, camper, and backpacker who collects leaves during her exploits. "Every adventure I go on, every trip somewhere new leaves an impression, sparks a thought, inspires me to push my work in new directions and use my tools and materials in different, unexplored ways."
Lately, she's experimented with rolled organics to create rings and necklaces. It's a method that involves creating an imprint of a leaf or one of those dragonfly wings on metal. Once the imprint is created, the specimen is rendered crushed. So there are no repeats if something goes wrong.
"You're either devastated or you're like, 'Ah, that's amazing,'" she says.
The process is a challenge for Weber, who studied product design at ASU and found jewelry-making as an outlet for her creativity in a major that was more technical than she expected.
Weber has worked for another local jeweler (whom she'd prefer not to name) for nearly a decade, learning the business side of design and gradually taking on fewer and fewer hours there so that Weber can spend more time working on her own business.
Very soon, she says, she hopes to devote all her working hours to against the grain.
She admits that the transition to being her own boss full-time is terrifying. But the self-taught metalsmith says that this year she wants to challenge herself to see what she can really do.
"Against the grain is about me turning in the direction of my dreams, grabbing my courage by the horns, and diving in against all odds," Weber says. "It's about taking the road less traveled."
That means paying "crazy attention to detail" with every handmade item to ensure that she's making jewelry as well as she can.
This level of craftsmanship has earned Weber fans both locally and in the online space.
Her Instagram account, www.instagram.com/ashleyweberdesigns, features her photography and early looks at new pieces and trial runs: a ceramic bowl that Weber made in a pottery class, a walrus tooth necklace, scenes from her outdoorsy excursions. The platform has been great for business, she says.
And she's found a network of Phoenix fans, too, thanks to boutiques Bunky and Frances, as well as the gift shop at ASU Art Museum, all of which carry her wares.
Of course, the business-minded bottom line matters, but that's not what it's ultimately about.
"When there's a torch in my hand, I just feel right," Weber says. "I understand it. And I'm moved by my own love and passion. I am inspired by my own past accomplishments, by my failures, and I am driven by what can be.
"That's how I know that I'm exactly where I need to be." — Becky Bartkowski