I used to long for Cicely. For decades, she was my ideal.
Cicely was the fictional Alaskan hamlet where the critically lauded TV show “Northern Exposure” was set. Boasting less than 800 souls, it was quirky and culturally rich. Cicely bristled with a love of the arts and the life of the mind. The burg was a brass ring, a cosmopolis beyond the metropolis, big dreams without the big town.
But you don’t have to go north to find it. It’s all around us.
Cicely’s presence interlaced the Mobile Arts Council’s (MAC) 16th annual Arty Awards on Feb. 6 at The Steeple downtown. Repeatedly, “community” and “friends” spilled from those at the microphone, emphasizing the town within a town made by Mobile’s creative souls.
Cicely was alive as the tribe of patrons and creatives mingled and noshed. When eight willowy ballerinas in indigo floated onstage at the ceremony’s start, they mesmerized the 120-plus attendees.
“This is all about celebrating the rich arts we have in Mobile,” MAC Director Lucy Gafford told the assembly. Personable emcees Stacey Driskell and Tommy Rowell proved adept, unsheathing witty improv as needed.
Arts Educator Award recipient Eric Browne accepted his award — a glass-encased abstract work by Ardith Goodwin — with a quip about scratching his intended interpretive dance after witnessing Mobile Ballet’s graceful number. The drama teacher thanked his students.
“Arts allow us to find common ground,” Browne said.
Arts Soldier Award winner RSVP of Mobile County climbed onstage next. Their legion of volunteers, who supply irreplaceable labor for a host of arts entities, were foremost in credit.
Patron Award winner Lynn Oldshue echoed the same, crediting the creative community as the reason why she was there.
Cicely’s spirit took wing when soprano Tjaden O’Dowd Cox’s transcendent rendition of Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” elicited tremendous ovation. It fit the emotions that followed.
When Cultural Innovation Award winner Courtney “CoCo” Matthews twirled to the microphone, she admittedly ad-libbed. Her near-breathless excitement was buoyant.
“I love that 15 and 20 years ago, artists who were doing down and dirty, nitty-gritty art stuff are now running the art show,” Matthews lilted.
Theatrical mainstay Daniel Mainwaring humbly accepted his Danielle Juzan Performing Artist Award. He described the award’s namesake who died in 2016 as “a dear friend.” He relayed a recent moment sitting in the library’s Bernheim Hall and flashing back to Juzan’s wonderful turn in the one-woman play “The Belle of Amherst,” her final performance.
“What makes this so cool is I’m here with so many of my friends,” Mainwaring said.
Literary Artist Award winner Angela Trigg was preceded by a recitation of the lofty national and international awards she earned over the last five years. Scarcely mentioned was her expansion of Mobile’s literary legacy and future by opening The Haunted Book Shop near Bienville Square.
“It means so much to me that my city has honored me,” Trigg admitted.
Power Lines Poetry performed a spoken-word piece, “Black Out.” A pair of speakers sang and recited lines riddled with allusions to slavery — “dragged from the Clotilda I watched my babies dragged off that auction block” — and the city’s civil rights leaders. Their rhythmic variations, sing-song to staccato and back, brought the crowd to a roar.
Visual Artist Award winner Mary Elizabeth Kimbrough nodded to a crowd awash in family, friends and support.
“It’s rewarding to be an artist, but it’s hard. Still, follow your bliss,” Kimbrough said.
Rebecca Heath performed a number from Joe Jefferson Players’ upcoming “Sister Act.”
Musical Artist Award winner Robert Holm thanked Barbara Spafford for her persistent stream of nominations.
Eastern Shore Art Center’s (ESAC) acceptance of the Organization Award was vital. Though too many residents encircling the bay try to use the body of water as a signifier of cultural and sociological separation, ESAC’s inclusion shows we’re really part of one whole.
Lifetime Achievement Award winner Bill Barrick was incredulous. The director of Bellingrath Gardens and Home asked Gafford if there had been a mistake. He settled by quoting Claude Monet: “I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.”
In closing, MAC Board President Lauren Rowser told the crowd she is constantly struck in discovery of “how many people truly love our city.”
Though Gafford said MAC sold more tickets than previous renditions, museum openings and other simultaneous happenings kept attention diverted. Were every citizen of Mobile’s subsurface Cicely determined to attend, the venue would need to be four times as big.
We might not have aurora flickering overhead, but it’s obvious Cicely lives in the luminous souls who breathe life into Mobile arts.
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