The ceremony for the Arts Council of Greater New Haven’s 41st annual arts awards returned to being an in-person event on Friday, as people gathered at the John Lyman Center for the Performing Arts at Southern Connecticut State University to honor several of New Haven’s artist educators: Miguel Gaspar Benitez, James and Tia Russell Brockington, Allen “Dooley-O” Jackson, Linda Lindroth, Patrick Smith, and Bill Brown and Sally Hill.
The evening began with a performance by Movimiento Cultural Afro-Continental, performing the bomba, a traditional Puerto Rican dance and drumming style with its roots in resistance to slavery. Founder Kevin R. Diaz explained that the drumming style is based on two essential elements: one drummer holds down a steady pattern while another drummer improvises off that pattern. It combines with the dancing in the sense that the improvising drummer and the dancer are in communication with one another; they have a conversation in the patterns the drummer plays and the movements the dancer makes.
The group invited anyone from the audience who so desired to join them on stage, and many took them up on it. The audience members took turns being in the center of the rhythm, while everyone else in the audience cheered them on.
Diaz beamed. “That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “Being in a community and dancing together.”
The performance set the tone for the evening, as the ceremony — hosted by Marcella Monk Flake — celebrated the awardees not only for their own art, but for the contributions they had made, as teachers, to the New Haven community. Flake thanked them for giving their students the “opportunity to express their internal songs,” whether that meant a drum solo or graffiti art. As a singer herself, part of the Monk family of singers, she counted herself among that number; when she was a child, she said she wanted to sound like Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Shirley Caeser. “I say thank you,” she said.
Patrick Smith was playing with professional orchestras in the Pacific Northwest by the time he was a teenager. By the time he enrolled for graduate studies in the Yale School of Music he was touring internationally with acts like Paul Cetera, Aretha Franklin, and the Rolling Stones and playing with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He turned to teaching when he got tired of touring, and since the late 1980s, has taught at at the Connecticut Music and Arts Center For the Handicapped, Western Connecticut State University (WestConn), Neighborhood Music School, the North Haven Public School District. He started at Co-Op in 1998, where he and music educator Harriett Alfred grew the music program from five band students to a 60-piece wind ensemble, two 25-piece jazz bands, a 100-voice choir, and a 45-piece orchestra.
Smith began his two minutes at the podium with a meditation bowl, which he struck once. “The sound is healing,” he said. “The arts are healing.” He proceeded to talk about the importance of the arts in fostering deeper life skills, for students and teachers alike. For himself, he said that everyone he works with is his teacher as well. “They have taught me to listen before I talk, and to think before I speak,” he said. He made to call to maintain and strengthen the arts in schools and the community. “Let’s keep healing,” he said.
Miguel Gaspar Benitez thought of himself as “a ceramic artist by degree, but a teacher by trade,” as the ceremony’s program notes related. Benitez started off as an opera singe as a child and switched to visual arts in middle school. He attending Educational Center for the Arts (ECA) and Hamden High School, then Southern Connecticut State University. He worked his way up from counselor to art director of Neighborhood Music School’s Audubon Arts summer program. He graduated from college in 2013 and is now an arts instructor. He has worked in New Haven’s public schools, NMS, the Portland Museum of Art and Institute of Contemporary Art in Portland, Me., and other places (he received an MA in teaching last year from Maine College of Art). Benitez kept his own speech short, thanking many who had helped him along the way. Like Smith, he talked about the reciprocal nature of being a teacher. “As much as education helps others, it helps yourself, too,” he said.
Linda Lindroth is an internationally renowned photographer and mixed-media artist who has been exhibiting since 1972. She has pieces in the collections of the MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Bibliothèque National in Paris and the Princeton University Art Museum, has received numerous awards and prizes, and has been an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University since 1998 teaching courses in visual culture in the departments of Art, Media Studies, Interactive Digital Design, Women’s Studies and the University Seminar Program.
“Because this is the closest I’m ever going to get to an Oscar speech,” she said, she unfurled a long scroll of paper, to audience laughter. She went on to describe the life of a working artist, especially one with family. “The patience of the children of artists is vast,” she said, whether it was being dragged to museum after museum or simply splitting time with the craft. She finished by addressing politicians. “Buy art,” she said. “Put it on the walls of your house. Put it on the walls of your offices. Have it on the wall behind you when you’re on TV.” Most of all, she said, let artists “deduct the market value of their art,” but simply the cost of art supplies. That drew cheers from the crowd.
James and Tia Russell Brockington founded the Tia Russell Dance Studio in 2013 and now run it from two locations in Woodbridge, teaching ballet, pointe, jazz, West African, hip hop, tap, modern, lyrical, and acrobatics to children and adults. James focuses on the business side of the studio; Tia — who has taught kids in New Haven to dance for over 22 years — handles the creative side. Their studio has produced over 20 stage productions and did its first film, This Is America?, in June. The couple also runs the nonprofit Brockington Arts Institute, “to advance the knowledge, training, and artistic ability of Connecticut’s low-income artists,” according to program notes.
James Brockington first hyped up the crowd with his own enthusiasm. “This is important that we’re here in person,” he said. He went through a long list of thanks and then lauded those arts spots that had figured out how to hang onto their space during the shutdown. “In the pandemic it was a little shaky for everyone,” he said. “I understand your struggle, and I would like to honor you with this award. He talked about the importance of faith in helping them persevere, shouting out members of his church in the audience, who shouted back. When it came to be Tia’s turn at the microphone, she smiled and said “he said it all,” before offering her own list of thanks.
Allen “Dooley-O” Jackson has a decades-long career as a rapper, DJ, producer, and multimedia visual artist. He has also become a mentor to countless others, connecting through performances and through his West River Arts studio. His 1990s public-asses TV show Graffiti TV featured interviews with graffiti artists, songwriters, and rappers. He has collected decades of recordings that track New Haven’s contributions to music, of which he’s an indelible part.
“I might cry — is that all right?” Jackson said. “I cry during movies. I cry when I eat Pepe’s Pizza.” He then offered a personal story about how art sustained him, but also sometimes shut him out. “I was a C and D guy” at Wilbur Cross High School, because he was always drawing in class. He didn’t know the school offered arts classes until a teacher told him; in those classes, he excelled.
“You should do something with this,” he recalled an art teacher telling him. “What?” he recalled asking. He didn’t know what path to take. He talked about following a fellow Cross student downtown to ECA, but then looking in the window and feeling a sense that he didn’t belong there; “this ain’t for me,” he recalled thinking. The moral of the story, he said, was about fostering connections and a greater sense of inclusiveness. “I want all the arts communities here to open your doors and find your children,” he said.
Bill Brown and Sally Hill received this year’s C. Newton Schenck III Award for Lifetime Achievement in and Contribution to the Arts for leading the Eli Whitney Museum & Workshop from 1988 to this year, when they announced their retirement, handing the reins to new executive director Ryan Paxton. As the program notes related, “the two turned the former factory, dam and historic site into a hub of activity for the greater New Haven community, from an apprenticeship program for young people to opportunities for artists and makers of all ages.”
Hill and Brown both made clear that running the Eli Whitney Museum had been truly a team effort, starting with their messages to the Eli Whitney community. “If it’s profound, it’s Bill. If it’s profane, it’s me,” she joked. She described their dynamic as one of synergy; Brown’s strength lay in starting projects; hers lay in finishing them. (“I always wanted to do stand-up comedy and I figure this is my last chance,” she said.) She referred to a Chicago Tribune column by Mary Schmich often misattributed to Kurt Vonnegut as a commencement address: “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
Brown described how they met at Creative Arts Workshop working on a project together; “I’ve been following her direction ever since,” he said. He said he was honored to be sharing the stage with fellow educators who were stretching the boundaries of what education could be, saying that he and Brown developed the Eli Whitney Museum as a “30-year test of this thesis that there is a special kind of education that happens in a workshop that doesn’t happen anywhere else,” and that developing it is “what made us, and not the other way around.”
As for their legacy, he cited the experiences of two former students. One learned to use a drill at the Eli Whitney Museum and later employed those skills for brain surgery. Another, more touchingly, was a student who found the ability to work with his hands at the Eli Whitney Museum and became an extremely skilled technician, carrying those skills around the region and as far away as Afghanistan. He died, prematurely, of a heart condition, and in the outpouring of grief, Brown noticed a recurring comment that “he made things work.” Brown liked to think that perhaps the best effect of his and Hill’s work was that “one person found the place that he was supposed to be.”