Mobile Arts Council had one goal with the 2018 Arty Awards: to raise the bar on both experience and expectation. Consider it met.

The Jan. 18 shindig was the council’s second time around since revamping the previously tagged Greater Mobile Art Awards. The aim was to inject more panache with a change in name and format.

Nominees in nine of the 11 categories were announced in late November and winners unveiled in an “Oscars-style” event. Winners of the Patron and Lifetime Achievement Award were released weeks before the big night.

They traded last year’s setting of Alabama Contemporary Art Center for The Steeple. It seemed a great fit, a little less cavernous and cozier.

They swapped last year’s classic rock ensemble for a jazz trio, a highly welcomed move. Conversation was easier, the ambience more sophisticated.

Roughly 150 souls braved the subfreezing temperatures and influenza outbreak to bolster MAC Director Shellie Teague’s opening remark, that “art matters because it speaks to our shared experiences.”

As the nominees in each category were read, their faces loomed on projection screens above the stage, along with examples of their work. The deserving recipients were as follows:

• Educator: Stephen French of Davidson High School

• Art Soldier: Joe and Donna McClung Camp

• Business: Kazoola

• Cultural Innovation: Writer/blogger Lynn Henderson Oldshue

• Design: Mardi Gras costume designer Patricia Richardson

• Literary Artist: Frye Gaillard

• Organization: Alabama Contemporary Art Center

• Performing Artist: Operatic soprano Lynn Campbell

• Visual Artist: Tattoo artist Sean Herman

As far as examples of their work, Richardson showed up everyone with a pair of elaborate Mardi Gras trains mounted and splayed out onstage.

Each winner paused for photos with Teague, MAC Board President Jeff Marcus and MAC Board Vice President Devin Ford. The exception was Gaillard, who sent University of South Alabama colleague Paige Vitulli to do the honors on his behalf.

The physical awards, with a nod to Mobile’s Creole heritage, were crafted by local sculptor April Livingston.
In a change-up, they invited special performances from local talent at intervals in the ceremonies. The first was a musical theater number from Joe Jefferson Players’ Whitney Upton and Jessica Head, accompanied by keyboardist Stacy Driskell.

The second was Mobile Opera tenor Tommy Rowell, accompanied by pianist Robert Holm. His selection? Well, Rigoletto’s “La donna é mobile,” of course. When it has the town’s name in the title, is there any doubt?
MAC’s Lucy Gafford and Angela Montgomery handed out a special award of gratitude to MAC Board Treasurer Debbie Stevens.

Marcus took the lead in presenting the final awards of the evening. He nodded to his three years as board president, to the need for a robust cultural scene to generate vitality and its ultimate payoff in tourist dollars.

Though it was odd seeing him in a sportcoat, it wasn’t unusual that John Thompson received the award for Patron. Since purchasing Callaghan’s Irish Social Club about 15 years ago, Thompson has made it a priority to feature popular music acts from around the region, often highlighting up-and-comers on their way to national stardom.

The result is a business that has made several national lists for its unique vibe. Thompson has since expanded by purchasing Eastern Shore landmark Manci’s Antique Club with plans for replicating the same success.

Unlike the other award winners, the Patron and Lifetime Achievement are allowed remarks once onstage. Characteristically, Thompson declined the opportunity.

That certainly wasn’t the case for Lifetime Achievement winner Charles Smith. The acclaimed potter is known for his outspoken manner and free-flowing thoughts.

“My grandkids said ‘Don’t say anything crazy,’” Smith joked from the lectern, to widespread laughter.

Smith said the most valuable thing artists can possess is “independence, stubbornness and a don’t-give-a-damn attitude” to keep them true to their muse. He said Mobile’s creative community needs to better learn how to “brag about your good artists.”

“We have a number of local icons that don’t get the financial support they need,” Smith said. “Your artists should be your representatives, not your politicians.

“If I go someplace else, I know I can muster with the best anywhere and if you don’t like it then I don’t give a damn,” he concluded to raucous applause.

In a night filled with pride of place, Smith ended with the perfect punctuation.