Smile Politely

BEST Arts 2021

2021 has a been a bit of a rollercoaster for the arts. Full of ups and downs, starts and stops, and much holding of our collective breath as stages and galleries began opening to the public. Spaces and places began doing the hard work of amplifying emerging and more diverse voices and foregrounding narratives that had often been pushed to the sidelines. But like all good rides, it was exhilarating. The continuing cloud of pandemic and partisan politics has left us with a hunger for connection and for art that delights and emboldens us, while also helping us process our community’s traumas and, perhaps, provide catharsis. These twelve contributions to Chambana’s arts community have achieved that and more. We celebrate them here for their ability to rise up, rise above, and carry us with them into a better 2022.

Debra Domal, Arts Editor

BEST way to reintroduce oneself to the arts: Programming at KCPA

Two Black dancers from PHILADANCO! In mid-leap.

Photo from the KCPA Facebook page.

Krannert Center for the Performing Arts is an amazing resource for the greater C-U community. There are, of course, the incredible performances and festivals that happen in the beautiful theaters; the quality KCPA and the U of I attract is truly top-tier. My favorite part, though, is in the minutes before and after a performance, when you’re high on the excitement of seeing or having just seen something awesome, and you run into someone you know, but maybe haven’t seen for a while. You chat about the performance, and check in with each other’s lives. It’s a really wonderful small town moment, connecting with another person and with a piece of culture. I know I’m not alone in feeling so grateful for the return of live, in person programs and performances. (JH)

BEST return to live literary event: Festival of Writers

Left to right, photos of poet Jericho Brown, author and cultural critic Roxane Gay, and poet Tracy K. Smith.

Photo from the Humanities Research Institute website. 

While book nerds can say they remained fed by COVID-safe Zoom readings and discussion panels, nothing compares to the feast that was the in-person Festival of Writers. Featuring the likes of Jericho Brown, Roxane Gay, and Tracy K. Smith, this meeting of great minds was the perfect capstone to the pandemic-stricken Year of Creative Writers initiative. Just knowing these three were literally here in C-U sparked an interest in their work among both academics and community members. And best of all, it breathed life back into the art of in-person discussion and Q&A sessions. (DD)

BEST impact per square foot: To Survive on This Shore at McKinley Foundation’s Artist’s Alley

One corner of the To Survive on This Shore exhibit featuring several photos with interview text on the walls.

Photo by Debra Domal.

At approximately 350 square feet with 44 feet of wall/hanging space, the McKinley Foundation’s Artist’s Alley is deceptively small. But in the hands of Jess T. Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre, the co-creators of the To Survive on This Shore project, it was the perfect place to engage both academia and community in an important conversation about transgender and gender nonconforming older adults. When it comes to art, size doesn’t matter when it comes to making an impact. (DD)

BEST town/gown collaboration: The Parable Path CU, a series of academic, performing arts, and community engagement events inspired by Octavia E. Butler’s The Parable of the Sower

Segment of The Parable Path. Image from Stacey Robinson's Instagram.

Image by Stacey Robinson.

This year-long project, inspired by Octavia E. Butler’s dystopian novel, launched in fall 2021 with a series of readings and discussions throughout the community and will end in spring 2022 with a related art exhibit and an opera created by Toshi Reagon. Butler’s portrayal of a world plagued by climate change, economic instability, chaos and corruption, was the perfect work to visit or revisit both during the Trump years and continuing COVID times. Damian Duffy, Illinois alum and I School lecturer collaborated with Illinois Art + Design alum John Jennings on a graphic novel adaption. While BLACKMAU’s Future Spaces in Community Places at the University YMCA, which is open until December 17th, drew inspiration from Butler as well. The idea of readers and artists across the town/gown divide engaging with this important work seemed like both a form of group catharsis and an opportunity to sow the seeds of activism. Bittersweet, bracing, and empowering, The Parable Path CU is the way forward. (DD)

BEST disruptor of the C-U town/gown divide: Stacey Robinson

In the Sunshine mural by BLACKMAU - Kamau Grantham and Stacey Robinson depicting several young Black boys and girls playing in the sun.

Putting aside his academic cred and incredible illustration style for the moment, one of my favorite things about Stacey Robinson is his continued commitment to breaking through the C-U town/gown divide. As someone who arrived as the latter only to remain as the former, hearing Robinson say this to me at the STARGAZERS  2021 Boneyard Arts Festival show was an event highlight for me. To paraphrase, if you people can’t get to the art, you bring the art to them. The fact that he chose the Urbana Free Library for his Boneyard location, where the work was installed with clips and wire to keep them easy to install and easy to move to a new location is just one of the ways Robinson walks his talk. From his BLACKMAU (Robinson’s collab with Kamau Grantham) 2020 Mural on Glass, In the Sunshine, at the Cunningham Township building in Downtown Urbana to the recent Future Spaces in Community Places exhibit at the University YMCA’s Murphy Gallery, Stacey Robinson is helping us move towards a world where the power of art knows no bounds. (DD)

BEST advocate and mentor for young poets: Ashanti Files 

Close-up photo of Ashanti Files

There is hardly enough space here to describe the impact City of Urbana Poet Laureate Ashanti Files has had on the lives of C-U poets and poetry lovers. But when I think about Files’ legacy, I think about how she has impacted the lives of young poets, and young women poets of color in particular. Files’ continued mentorship of The Writers of Oya has resulted in the publication of their first collection of poems, and many powerful, vibrant readings (live and virtual). But more importantly, it has given these young women permission to feel rage at injustice and to offer a way to express it honestly, boldly, and beautifully through poetry. Her recent community-based poetry workshops for teens have only helped to spread the word further and wider throughout C-U. (DD)

BEST new arts business or service: Prism Studios

Members of Prism Studios staff at 2021 Pride booth, finished art is on display and small tables of people painting are off to the right.

Photo from the Prism Studios Facebook page.

How do you not love a queer, judgement-free, artmaking-for-everyone business that managed a successful launch mid-pandemic? Prism Studios centers safety (COVID and creative) by offering you and your pod an art party that meets you where you are, helps you reach your goals, and then cleans up for you when you’re done. The creativity and joy they brought to their recent events are surely a sign of great things to come. Next time your pod people are up for something more fulfilling than a Netflix binge, give Prism Studios a call. (DD)

BEST new opportunity for fiction writers: Free fiction writing workshop series and short story contest sponsored by the Champaign Public Library

Photo of first place winner of the 2021 short story contest James F. Smith.

Photo from the Champaign Public Library website.

C-U has long been needing a non-academic option for those looking to hone their creative writing skills and this free, multi-week, topic-based series was definitely a step in the right direction. From dialogue dos and don’ts to giving your story the ending it deserves, this CPL series delivered a lot of good advice from a variety of local writers and instructors. Whether gearing up for the series’ capstone contest (which had some significant prizes), or preparing participants to submit their work to literary journals, the series as a whole balanced technique with lessons learned. When a published writer is willing to share their mistakes (so you don’t have to make them), you know you’re receiving a rare gift. While the sessions did work via Zoom, this writer dreams of post-COVID world where community writers can learn together safely and in person. Fingers crossed for 2022. (DD)

BEST artivist: Meanwhile….Letterpress

Postcard with the word “VOTE†coming through a final letterpress process

Photo from Meanwhile….Letterpress’ Instagram.

Meanwhile… Letterpress is “a trans and queer owned and operated letterpress collaborative resisting erasure through print culture.” If you’ve checked out their Instagram, you know that they’ve mastered the art of civic duty with everything from limited edition “VOTE” postcards to “Fraught Couture” mask postcards. Meanwhile….Letterpress literally dedicates their art to the change they want to see in the world. For Pride 2021, a number of glorious queer-and-trans themed prints supported the lifesaving work of the C-U’s UP Center. In addition to contributing to the growing letterpress culture in C-U, Meanwhile…Letterpress inspires us to take what we do well and do something good with it. (DD)

BEST local artist retrospective: Juxtapositioned: The art and words of Durango Mendoza

Close-up of top portion of one of Durango Mendoza’s mixed media assemblages featuring a photo of Mendoza behind wooden slats.

Photo by Debra Domal.

As I noted in my original review, I did get the chance to meet Durango Mendoza, nor had I encountered his work, during the years he lived in Urbana before passing away in October 2020. But after experiencing this multi-venue installation of his work I felt almost as if I had. His art was only part of his legacy. And for someone as committed to his community as Mendoza clearly was, the fact that work was integrated into a variety of public spaces seemed correct. Mendoza’s widow Jean, who received the Urbana Arts & Culture Program grant that made this retrospective possible, did a fine job of matching work with venue, just as she integrated text and video with the assemblages that spoke to his belief that we are all both assembled and assemblers, and that possibility happens when change is embraced and when choice becomes purpose and value. (DD)

BEST art meets science meets community collaboration: The Urbana-Champaign Crochet Coral Reef Satellite

A case filled with crocheted shapes resembling those from a coral reef.

Photo by Debra Domal.

The Crochet Coral Reef initiative was born from the minds of wonder twins Margaret (science writer and artist) and Christine (poet and artist) Wertheim of the aptly named Institute for Figuring in the early 2000s. Seeking a way to draw attention to the threat that the growing climate crisis posed for the Great Barrier Reef, which was not far from their home in Queensland, Australia. Using a tangible material like yarn to understand abstract ideas like hyperbolic geometry (a surface of negative curvature where parallel lines diverge) made the decision to create the reef via crochet (which can easily mimic crenellated surfaces) a good one.

Fast forward to 2020, when after launching satellite reefs around the world, the news of an Urbana-Champaign satellite was announced in 2020. Altered but not defeated, the U-C Crochet Coral Reef Satellite project, launched by Illinois Art + Design faculty members Jennifer Bergmark and Guen Montgomery and opening participation to anyone in the community. And thus marked the beginning of many a community member’s pandemic obsession with crocheting in the round and in turns. And as we turned each row, we felt both the power of community art projects and the increasing relevance of the Crochet Coral Reef’s message. After creating several small reef installations throughout C-U, the final U-C Crochet Coral Reef Satellite was unveiled in the fall of 2021 at the University of Illinois Siebel Center for Design. (DD)

BEST 3D maker-made WFM desk buddy: Jace Crab from Made in Urbana

Photo from Made In Urbana website.

Whether in his big plushy form, or his adorable 3D printed pen holder size, Jace Crab was there for us when we needed him most. WFH may have had its ups, but months upon months of Zoom meetings took their toll. His sweet crabbiness made us feel seen in our crabbiest of moments. Most of all, he reminded us that despite Zoom, the digital world could still give us a reason to smile. Thank you, Made in Urbana. (DD)

Debra Domal and Jessica Hammie contributed to this article.

Related Articles