The Mobile Arts Council popped the cork on its newly rebranded Arty Awards under a starry Dec. 4 sky as chilly and effervescent as holiday champagne. The attendees and honorees were a splash of both old and new with one whose vintage was finally at peak.

The courtyard layout of the Gulf Coast Exploreum marked a return to al fresco, one of several changes since the previous years’ ceremonies were at the Larkins Center and Room 1927 of the Saenger Theatre facility. Earlier incarnations were also held closer to Labor Day.

The dropping mercury didn’t dissuade the finely dressed crowd of roughly 120. Flowing alcohol, a live band, camaraderie and intermittently placed gas heaters helped.

A committee tapped nominees months ago. MAC members at large voted on the respective fields.

Winner identities were held in secret prior to the ceremony and as nominees were listed, their images were projected onto one of the building walls above the stage. The final announcements were in envelopes at the podium.

The awards themselves were exquisite glass pieces created by artist and University of South Alabama art professor Rene Culler. She is the third glass artist to render the awards, joining Joe Hobbs and Rachel Wright.

Event chair Devin Ford began by stating her faith in recent changes at Mobile Arts Council’s helm. It was also noted many of the categories were decided by one or two votes.

Mobile artist Ardith Goodwin was honored as Visual Artist of the Year. A school teacher whose work has been exhibited in several Mobile Bay-area galleries over the years, Goodwin is also a founder of the gallery Art(ology) in downtown Mobile.

The other nominees in the category were Sarah Otts and Brad Robertson.

Singer, musician and actor Stacey Driskell accepted the award for Performing Artist of the Year. An educator for Mobile Opera, this native Mobilian’s work has been on every stage of every size in town, with Mobile Opera, Mobile Symphony Orchestra and varied choruses. Cries of “Mary Poppins!” rang from the crowd as she ascended the stage, in reference to her lauded role at Chickasaw Civic Theatre in early summer.

Other nominees were actor, musician and singer Gene Murrell and singer/musician Ryan Balthrop.

Hearty applause met Russell Adams as he accepted Bienville Books’ award for Business of the Year. The independent shop on Bienville Square has been a focal point for local literati and bibliophiles since it opened in 2002. While the publishing business has gone through rough spots and reformations in recent decades, Adams’ tenacity has become a point of local pride.

Other nominees were engineering firm Hargrove and Associates and restaurateur David Rasp’s eateries Heroes and The Royal Scam.

Fairhope artist and educator Nancy Raia earned the Educator of the Year award, an honor she also won in 2008. Raia has touched decades’ worth of lives, even traveling across the state to employ art as therapy for those affected by disaster.

The other nominees were Azalea City Center for the Arts founder Chris Paragone and University of South Alabama voice and music teacher Thomas Rowell.

Carol Hunter of the Downtown Mobile Alliance accepted the award for Organization of the Year. The Alliance helps facilitate numerous downtown activities such as LoDa Artwalk and shows in public spaces like SouthSounds Music and Arts Festival.

The other nominees were Mobile Fashion Week and Mobile Museum of Art.

Ten Sixty Five won for Artistic Innovation, with Elliot Maisel, CEO of Gulf Distributing, accepting the award. The brand-new event was birthed when annual pop music festival BayFest folded two weeks before its October date. A longtime major sponsor of the now-defunct happening, Gulf Distributing banded with 92ZEW, Soul Kitchen Music Hall, Red Square Agency, Wind Creek Casino and the Jake Peavy Foundation to stage a replacement set of concerts.

Other nominees were furniture/antique dealer and interior designers Atchison Home and the Alabama Contemporary Art Center, which currently is exhibiting work from internationally renowned artists who have pieces in esteemed collections like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Mover and Shaker Award was accepted by Henry and Kate Seawell. Kate is an area artist and educator who won the Artist of the Year award in 2008. Her husband, Henry, is chairman of the board and principal engineer of Thompson Engineering, where he served as CEO until 2009.
The other nominees were Marie Dyson and Donna Camp.

The loudest ovation of the night came when the Lifetime Achievement Award was handed to Charlie Smoke. Having recently departed his position as MAC associate director after relocating to Pensacola, Smoke has been a vital member of the Mobile Arts scene since he began teaching classes at Spring Hill College some 35 years ago.

“A lot of his work here has been invisible,” MAC Board President Bunky Ralph told the crowd. She confessed to being one of his pupils in a 1979 Intro to Drama class before tracing his move to program director at WHIL when it was a fine-arts conduit and promoter. She mentioned his service to entities like the opera and symphony, to local theater companies, and then his move to full-time employment with MAC in 2002.

Most of all, it’s been Smoke’s accessibility, genuine nature and concern for the community that have stood out. His motives were never cloudy, his ethics never questioned.

The event was sponsored by Gulf Distributing, the Jake Peavy Foundation, Thompson Engineering, the Downtown Mobile Alliance, Jeff Lawrence, the estate of Joe C. Lawrence, Devin Ford Photography, Rush Wines, The Blind Mule, Port City Rentals, the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau, Three Georges Southern Chocolates and Port City Mini Golf.

Absent from the awards was an annual honor for volunteers and another for patrons. Were those combined into movers and shakers? While the Seawells qualify as both patrons and volunteers as evidenced by their visible efforts, that’s not always the case. Our cultural scene depends on others who play less obvious roles or who don’t have the funds for patronage.

However, as with all awards, everything is fluid. There will be other years, other corks yet to be popped and other glasses yet to be filled.