100 Creatives You Should Know in Metro Phoenix

Every other year, New Times takes a closer look at the Valley’s creative set — painters, dancers, designers, and actors. In no particular order, here’s a quick introduction to each and every one of them. Meet the 100 Creatives of 2016.

Nicole Olson
Dancer and Choreographer
Scorpius Dance Theatre

Even as a child growing up in a small town outside Milwaukee, Nicole Olson knew what she was destined to do: dance. Now based in Phoenix, the dancer and choreographer serves as both the head of the dance department at Metropolitan Arts Institute and as the associate director and choreographer of Scorpius Dance Theatre, whose A Vampire Tale features her as queen of the bloodsuckers. All of which keeps the dancer in near-constant motion.

Andrew Pielage
Say the name Andrew Pielage, and a few images might spring to mind: a massive haboob, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, and breathtaking landscapes. It was after capturing a sprawling dust storm roll through the Valley that Pielage’s work gained a national audience. “It wasn’t really until July 2012 with my photograph of a haboob that really put me on the map and kickstarted my career in photography,” he says. “Still one of my favorite all-time images.”

Jessica Rowe
Visual Artist
Jessica Rowe has been drawing for as long as she could remember, but couldn’t quite see how to make a career out of it. After becoming an interior designer, she started offering prints of her breathy but bold works, which often feature close-ups of parted red lips. “It wasn’t until people started asking to buy my paintings and the demand continued to grow that I realized my dream job — being an artist — was actually possible.”

Danny Neumann
Senior Designer
Esser Design

Danny Neumann’s ardor for figurines goes way beyond collecting. Nicknamed Cantina Dan, he’s taken on the childhood dream job of “action figure anthropologist.” It’s a role he assumes once the “work bell rings” at Esser Design. Then it’s time for passion projects, like his recently completed “At Home with the Super Neumanns,” an Instagrammed glimpse at the everyday life of a super family he made from vintage G.I. Joe parts.

Beth Cato
YA Author
Buckeye-based author Beth Cato’s path to publishing steampunk YA novels The Clockwork Dagger and The Clockwork Crown was marked by hard work. She got her start writing short stories “that paid little or nothing.” But, Cato says, “as my skills increased, I submitted to more ambitious periodicals.” That determination paid off, and her third book, Breath of Earth, came out in August.

Jessie Balli
Rarer than Jessie Balli’s native Arizonan status is her ability to share deeply personal anecdotes with people she’s never met. Her openness onstage struck storytellers Rachel Egboro and Dan Hull, and now the three co-host Yarnball, a weekly storytelling open mic night at Lawn Gnome Publishing that’s part of Hull and Egboro’s project, The Storyline. “They had never seen someone so new to storytelling share such raw emotion,” she says, “and I’ve never looked back.”

Ron May
Actor, Director
Stray Cat Theatre

As the founding artistic director of Tempe’s Stray Cat Theatre, an actor, and a director, Ron May is a fixture and innovator in the Valley’s alternative stage scene, presenting oddball works that larger companies don’t take on (last season featured Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird and Heathers: The Musical) and crafting collaborations with such major players as Scorpius Dance Theatre and Arizona Theatre Company, where he also works as patron relationship manager.

Leonor Aispuro
Fashion Designer
Known for her airy creations that hug the body while giving the silhouette breathing room, Leonor Aispuro learned to sew as a kid, studied sustainable fashion in New York, and then returned to Phoenix, where she grew up. “Getting to work on what I love and what I’m passionate about has always been a dream of mine,” Aispuro says, “and I am lucky to be able to combine my ideas with that and make them come to life.”

Sarah Waite
Nail Artist
Chalkboard Nails

Sarah Waite’s one of the Valley’s most popular painters. But her canvas is a little unconventional.
Waite is the mastermind behind the blog Chalkboard Nails, where she posts her jaw-dropping artwork that just so happens to appear on fingernails. Which makes for quite the challenge. “The nail artist’s biggest job is to figure out how to translate these ideas into a tiny, yet legible design,” she says.

Christina “Xappa” Franco
Jewelry Designer

The darkly magical pop culture of Christina “Xappa” Franco’s childhood hasn’t left the Mesa-based artist, who, under the banner Xappaland, crafts dangling geometric earrings with quartz centerpieces, wiry naturalist crowns, and playful necklaces with charms depicting eerie enameled skulls or vampire dentures in brass. “Being creative is what I’m best at,” Franco says. “I figured if other people are able to do it, why wouldn’t I?”

Christian Adame
Assistant Education Director
Phoenix Art Museum

Christian Adame sums up his mission at Phoenix Art Museum with one question: “How do we make artistic content relevant and inclusive to a broad spectrum of people?” He works with curators to look at exhibitions the way a visitor might. “I edit a lot of text, and help build programs and events around ideas central to these exhibitions,” he says. Ultimately, his work comes down to bringing people together — and to art.

Tara Sharpe

Tara Sharpe’s creative life is all about balance. The founder and director of Artelshow currently splits her time between making her own art and building opportunities for other artists. Her mission with Artel is to bring the arts to unexpected places. But her recent artworks have focused on perceptions of beauty and myth. “I’m a color lover,” she says, “and consider black a necessity for clothing but death to my own artwork.”

Patricia Sannit
For sculptor Patricia Sannit, days begin with a hike in the mountain preserve near her Phoenix home and end with keeping tabs on the business side of art. In between, she works with reclaimed clay to create works influenced by archaeology and human history. Once her family departs for work and school, she says, “I change into work clothes, open the door to my studio, and begin. I start with clay.”

Brian Klein
Born and raised in Phoenix, Brian Klein knew when he first took up photography that it would be a lifelong creative pursuit. He primarily works in black-and-white photography, capturing with a mix of digital and traditional processes abstract designs in architecture and landscapes. He loves the “nostalgic, timeless” qualities of black and white. “When I shoot, I see in black and white; it’s a different understanding of light and subject.”

Dennita Sewell
Curator of Fashion Design
Phoenix Art Museum

“I pursued a creative career because I didn’t want to be a farmer or work at Walmart,” says Dennita Sewell, who grew up about 100 miles from Kansas City, Missouri. She studied costume design at Yale and then worked at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2000, she joined Phoenix Art Museum. Since then, she has brought gorgeous touring exhibitions to the Valley and has curated memorable shows, spotlighting the career of Gianfranco Ferré and made-in-America clothing.

Garth Johnson
ASU Art Museum’s Ceramics Research Center

Garth Johnson’s path to becoming curator of the ASU Art Museum Ceramics Research Center wasn’t a perfectly paved straight line. He studied art-making, was an assistant professor in California, and worked as a curator in Pennsylvania. Regardless, he’s arrived, and now curates exhibitions, coordinates the archives, and manages what he describes as “the best collection of postwar contemporary ceramics in the country.”

Charissa Lucille
Literary Artist
Fem Static

It was Charissa Lucille’s search for a creative community while in college that brought her to the handmade world of zines. She says creating her first DIY publication “helped me realize the power in created places where my work could be published and sold along with hundreds of other artists.” She continues crafting her own zine, a fourth-wave feminist pamphlet called Fem Static, while running Wasted Ink Zine Distro and organizing PHX Zine Fest.

Ryan Downey
Phoenix Chorale

For Ryan Downey, devoting himself to music was something that happened naturally. “I started singing at an early age in the Phoenix Boys Choir, and I knew that I wanted music to be what I pursued,” he says. Now, he works at the Grammy-winning Phoenix Chorale and teaches voice and diction courses at Phoenix College. “In the evenings,” he says, “you can usually find me at a rehearsal with either the Phoenix Chorale, Trinity Cathedral Choir, Arizona Opera, or Tucson’s True Concord Voices and Orchestra.”

Samantha Thompson
Standard Wax

Samantha Thompson’s greatest accomplishment thus far? “Quitting my day job and dedicating myself to Standard Wax,” the candle company co-founder says. Now, she spends her days managing production of the company’s coveted candles, which fill ceramic vessels crafted by her business partner, Andrew King, and come in such scents as sage-pomegranate and forest floor. “It’s my dream job.”

Cherie Buck-Hutchison
Cherie Buck-Hutchison grew up in a religious household, where a college education, holidays, and association with anyone outside her family’s church were forbidden. Such rigid boundaries, however, only made her want to stretch them. It’s something that blurs into her art practice, which resists categorization. “My work is very interdisciplinary,” she says, noting that she works in ceramics, installation, video, poetry, performance, and “photos taken by my parents that I manipulate.”

Freddie Paull
Filmmaker and Photographer
Electric Legend Pictures

At this very moment, chances are good that Freddie Paull is doing one of three things: filming, planning to film, or hunting for something to film. The founder of video art collective Electric Legend Pictures mainly deals in music videos and photography, using his free evenings to catch concerts in Phoenix. “Seeing random shows is what led to me learning about and eventually working with two of my favorite bands, Bogan Via and Harrison Fjord,” Paull says.

Jennifer Campbell
Art Gallery Coordinator
Mesa Community College

Jennifer Campbell spends her weekdays organizing and daydreaming about the future of the Mesa Community College art gallery. “Supporting yourself solely on art can be a difficult feat in the art world, and jobs in the creative fields often have a sea of applicants,” the U.K.-born artist says. “Being a younger person, I feel like a wonderful opportunity has landed in my lap, and I look forward to putting my whole being into it.”

Dwayne Hartford
Artistic Director

When Dwayne Hartford came to Phoenix back in 1989, he had no plans to stay. But an ad in the newspaper for a paying acting job caught his eye. “I auditioned and got the job,” he says. “The theater company was Childsplay.” Needless to say, his plans changed dramatically, because he’s been with the Tempe theater group ever since. This year, Hartford took on the role of artistic director at the company, succeeding its retiring founder, David Saar.

Shaliyah Ben
Education Program and Outreach Manager
Heard Museum

It’s not that Shaliyah Ben ended up working at the Heard Museum — she always has. She was a toddler cover girl for a Heard brochure, then became a student guide, and during college worked in the curatorial department. Ben is still hard at work there, running the museum’s grade-school learning experience. “If you have a fourth grader or any other student in K through 12th grade, there is a chance I’ve taught them!”

Kym Ventola
Say Kym Ventola’s name to a bride-to-be, and the response likely will include swooning. The Phoenix-based international photographer’s reputation for taking beautiful wedding pictures precedes her, and has taken her all around the globe. Her style has been described as “beautifully dark.” But she sees it differently. “A pretty, posed portrait is not as important to my couples; they want art, they want moments captured.”

Matthew Watkins
Artistic Director
Orange Theatre

For about six years, Matthew Watkins has run Orange Theatre, an experimental performing arts company. But the Valley native’s artistic career stretches back to directing a kindergarten play, performing with the Phoenix Boys Choir, and then drumming in a hardcore band. “The scene taught me how to find passion and intensity in my work, and how to appreciate roughness in art,” he says. “If I hadn’t been around that scene, I don’t think I would be running a company right now.”

Tom Budzak
Though Tom Budzak feeds on podcasts and audiobooks while creating his functional ceramic pieces, it was a book he picked up as an undergrad at Arizona State University that helped propel him into the career of a professional artist. He still counts William V. Dunning’s Advice to Young Artists in a Postmodern Era as his favorite. “It really made me feel like I could be an artist,” he says, “and it gave me confidence in myself as an artist.”

Rachel Egboro
The Storyline

As half the team behind Phoenix’s Storyline Collective, Rachel Egboro tells personal tales and encourages others to do the same. But she didn’t come to the stage by choice. Her plans to attend a storytelling slam were thwarted when an acquaintance put her name on the list of performers without her permission. Although it was stressful, she says, “At the end of the show, Dan Hull and I were the only storytellers left standing. I was hooked!”

Rosemary Close
Managing Director
iTheatre Collaborative

Ask Rosemary Close what her greatest accomplishment is, and the answer comes easy. She started iTheatre Collaborative, a nonprofit theater company, in 2002, and with co-founder Christopher Haines has built it into a troupe known for presenting high-quality shows and garnering acclaim for taking risks. And 14 years later, they took up residency at Herberger Theater Center. Still, she says, this is only the beginning.

Ally Haynes-Hamblen
Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts

You could say that Late Nite Catechism changed Ally Haynes-Hamblen’s life. She toured with the production, and that led her to Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, where the show’s a perennial favorite. Eventually, the Center recruited her, and now she heads up the venue. The not-so surprising part? The venue’s 2016-17 schedule includes three iterations of the nun show.

Alex Ozers
From the Reliquary

It was while studying painting at Arizona State University that Alex Ozers took a metal sculpture class that changed the course of his career. “With painting, it felt like I had a responsibility to really say something, like philosophical or whatever,” Ozers says. “Jewelry is really more concentrated on aesthetics than narrative, and I enjoy that.” He’s now the creative force behind jewelry company From the Reliquary, making wearable art from copper and amethyst that melds minimal and statement-making styles.

Fawn DeViney
Fawn DeViney knew that whatever she ended up doing in life, her work had to be fulfilling. “I wasn’t going to settle on a job that I hated,” the 29-year-old says. She hasn’t. Inspired by Flemish and Dutch Baroque paintings dating back to the 1600s, she captures moments with her camera — white and gray waves gurgling over rock formations or a low sun backlighting a woman, the clear sky as her backdrop — in a style she describes as “simple and neutral.”

Laura Dragon
{9} The Gallery

“I opened {9} on a wing and a prayer,” Laura Dragon says of her Grand Avenue gallery. “It has been the greatest experience of my life, next to raising my son.” And there’s always work to be done, whether it’s curating, accounting, or keeping the space tidy. But the gallerist is at a point where she can be picky about her pursuits. That includes opening her newer co-op studio, Grand Arthaus. “I kind of picture it as my Factory,” she says.

Stephanie Neiheisel
Makeup Artist
Think you could pull off navy blue lipstick? Spend a few minutes scrolling through Stephanie Neiheisel’s Instagram, and the makeup artist just might have you convinced. Another thing she can pull off? Multitasking. She works with natural makeup emporium Citrine Natural Beauty Bar as a content creator and social media manager, and has launched both a wedding market called the Marry Mart and the Phoenix Makeup Collective.

Michael Lanier
Plant Shop Owner
The Bosque

Michael Lanier has built his own little world, one where he can arrive a little late, bring along his dog, and spend hours in conversation with his customers. It’s his downtown Phoenix plant shop, the Bosque. “I love helping people use plants to find some peace and sincerity and help them realize that everything in life is just a little imperfect,” he says, “but those faults and imperfections are what makes life so incredible.”

Jessica Rajko
Dancer and Choreographer
Jessica Rajko has questions. And through her art, she ventures to answer them. Rajko’s natural state of curiosity results in a sort of work that shakes off distinct definitions. “My work explores the liminal space between movement, bodies, technology, and human-computer interaction design,” she says. “Some of my work looks like dance, and some of it looks like interactive installations. All of my art is visceral, tangible, and multisensory.”

Velma Kee Craig
Navajo Weaver and Poet
Weaving stories is in Velma Kee Craig’s blood. She grew up with two grandmothers who wove, but Craig didn’t start weaving until her multimedia storytelling career brought her back to the traditional artform. This melding of tradition and contemporary ideas gives Craig’s work a distinct feel. And she’s garnered attention for it. In fact, the first weaving she ever sold was bought by the Heard Museum.

Oliver Hibert
Don’t let the Day-Glo fool you. Oliver Hibert’s swirling neon surrealism is born of nocturnal habits. “I don’t day, I only night,” he says of his creative process. “Cereal, cigarettes, e-mails, art, my wife, my cats, and howling at the moon.” His super-saturated paintings have found acclaim at both galleries and museums. “I don’t like to give my art an end-all, be-all label, but my work can be mostly psychedelic, surreal, strange, and sexy,” he says.

Joya Scott
Associate Artistic Director
Orange Theatre

Joya Scott is one of those people who wears a lot of hats. She divides her days between teaching at Arizona State University and Scottsdale Community College, as well as serving as the resident dramaturg and associate artistic director for the Phoenix-based experimental indie company Orange Theatre. “There was nothing else I could find to do that was as fulfilling,” Scott says of her slash-ridden career in the arts. “It was less of a choice and more of a compulsion!”

Raji Ganesan
Performance Artist
Try putting Raji Ganesan in a box. It’s a dare you’re guaranteed to fail. The creative resists categorization at every turn. Her body is her instrument, whether the medium is contemporary dance, theater, poetry, or stand-up comedy. Storytelling is a key component to her performances, something she describes as a “radical method of writing our own histories, alongside an audience.” As such, she blends “the worlds of feminism, diaspora, humor, bordered identities, and improvisation” to create narrative works.

Ashlee Molina
Creative Entrepreneur
Phoenix Flea

Art meets organizing when Ashlee Molina’s involved. She’s the founder of Phoenix Flea, which assembles Valley creatives and collectors in spring and fall to vend their goods at Heritage Square. She thinks of them as community events, ways to connect local innovators making unique things. “I love the process of coming up with an idea and then figuring out a way to turn it into something tangible and relevant to other people,” she says.

Myrlin Hepworth
Poet and Performer
Phonetic Spit

Myrlin Hepworth knew he would do three things with his life: create, perform, and teach. For him, it’s “the art of teaching, the art of watching others live” that fuels his creative output and has been most influential on his life. That work includes writing, performing around the country, competing (he’s been on three National Poetry Slam teams), and teaching both literary and hip-hop arts to high schoolers through Phonetic Spit, which he co-founded with Tomas Stanton in 2011.

Amy Ettinger
Founder and Executive Director
Scottsdale International Film Festival

Amy Ettinger wants you to watch more movies. More specifically, the Scottsdale International Film Festival founder wants you to experience cinema with other people. “In a time when most people seem to consume images and information in a weird sort of group isolation, I provide the opportunity to have a collective encounter with the moving image on the big screen,” she says. “Art can be challenging, so I bring the community together to experience films which will rarely be seen in the Valley.”

Sheila Grinell
Sheila Grinell has had not one, but two successful creative careers. She’s the founding CEO of Arizona Science Center. She has since retired, but that’s where the elusive second act comes in. At 70, Grinell published her first novel, Appetite. It comes after decades of loving literature sparked by a Willa Cather short story she read as a teenager. “Up until then, I didn’t know literature could set one’s core vibrating.”

Forrest Solis
Visual Artist
Creative Push

Forrest Solis looks deeply into her own experiences and those of others as a foundation for her work. Solis focuses on adult-child relationships and gender normativity. Which is why she founded Creative Push, a multimedia art and oral history project that gathers and presents birth experiences through both visual arts and storytelling. “We record women’s birth stories, connect those stories with artists who make original works of art in response,” she says.

Mary Meyer
Mary Meyer lives in the foothills of the Superstition Mountains, where she practices her art full-time and finds herself surrounded by serenity and inspiration. Through sight and touch, she absorbs and then works to reflect her environment through sculpting with materials including clay, wood, metal, and found objects, and using intuitive methods like carving and hand-building to assemble her works.

Robert Hoekman Jr.
Writer and Podcaster

Robert Hoekman Jr. co-founded and co-hosts Spillers, a quarterly short-fiction storytelling event at Crescent Ballroom with a podcast counterpart called the Spillers After Show. He calls it a rock-star version of your typical literary gathering. “It’s a thousand details, a thousand decisions, but on the night … I get to watch a couple hundred people show up and get totally immersed, and we get to walk away knowing we did something with meaning.”

Joan Waters
Joan Waters was drawn to the artistic process of observation, production, and interaction. “It’s pulling things from the subconscious, making them tangible in the world, then inviting others to come take a look,” Waters says. She works in various media, but ultimately sees her work as drawing and painting. “I enjoy the physicality of what I do — the body and hands learn what to do, so I’m able to be loose with the industrial materials and processes.”

Gabriela Muñoz
Artist Programs Manager
Arizona Commission on the Arts

Forget life imitating art. Gabriela Muñoz’s life is art. As an artist and the artist programs manager at Arizona Commission on the Arts, her work is “in service of my fellow artists.” She’s arrived where she’s at thanks to a combination of elements. “I’m lucky to have been ready and prepared to take advantage of opportunities for development when they appeared in my life,” she says.

As noms de guerre go, ColorOrgy’s wears like candy-apple red on a pin-up’s lips. The Mesa native, formerly known as Scott Wolf, is known for disorienting paintings that take cartoonish midcentury images and twist them into sexualized horror shows. “I create images that blend perversion with pop culture, creating a twisted take on Americana with the help of violence and sex,” he says.

Read on for the rest of 2016's 100 Creatives.