Like everything else in life, art is a competition. Forget everything you've heard about the creative process being an intensly personal endeavor that is presented to its audience through the artifice of a socially relevant aesthetic. Forget what you've heard about a work's commercial or critical success being arbitrary to the aesthetic success acheived when an artist finds external meaning for his or her own personal quandries — that's loser talk, and here at Smile Politely, we're not standing for it. Hence, our arbitrary and completely subjective recognition of C-U's art scene as divided by a bunch of random categories we created mere hours before our deadline. Enjoy.
Best Napkin Available: Bacaro
Sure you may think that this belongs in the BEST food category, or not in here at all, but have you seen these? Seriously. These are the finest napkins I’ve ever run across, aside from the homemade ones my fiancée makes. The paper here is soft, thick, and plush. They have a simple, elegant design with a logo that reminds you that you’re going to have to forget about buying half of your groceries for the week because you’ll be spending that money there. They are a work of art. I just went to Bacaro for the first time a couple of weeks ago and when I saw these babies I was impressed. My parents have joked for years how I’m a public bathroom enthusiast, always aware of the cleanest, most well-kept, lavish lavatories around. But these napkins take things to another level. The first time I used one I actually stuck it in my pocket to reuse later because I felt bad about throwing it away. But then I remembered that this is America and I am an American. So in the trash it went. After all, I'd just get to enjoy the whole refreshing experience the next time. Why settle for something subpar?
Best Sculpture at Meadowbrook: Cecilia Allen's Prairie Buoy
Growing up in Champaign, I remember trying to do the calculus between the swampy-sea-cum-prairieland that my elementary school teacher told me Illinois once was, and the current day mono-cropped reality of our little downstate settlement. In this sense, Meadowbrook is an adorned time capsule, an attempt to show us our town, or our region for that matter, in a capacity we'll never fully understand. Prairie Buoy challenges us to understand it. Not just an allusion to the low sea that once covered our state, leaving in its wake the mineral deposits that make our soil so rich, Prairie Buoy also comments on how immense the prairie once was: so large it might swallow you up. Like Wallace Stevens' "Anecdote of the Jar," Prairie Buoy gives meaning to the space it occupies, just as that space gives it meaning beyond the sum of its parts.
Note: You should also check out Southern Passage, which Allen did with her partner, Roger Blakely.
Best Local Instagram Account: Lisa Bralts-Kelly
Lisa Bralts-Kelly (LBK) does a lot of cool things well in town. She has a radio show on WILL called “In My Backyard,” she runs Urbana’s Market at the Square, and she has remarkable social media content. Check out her terrific blog. I’m new to Instagram — which I admittedly thought was kinda dumb when I heard about it and then quickly changed my mind when I tried it out — but I heard LBK’s was one to definitely follow. The content on LBK’s Instagram includes the mysterious, the artful, the silly, the fun, the colorful, and the natural. I don’t feel like I am just passing/wasting time when I look at her photos. There is an actual story there to be told and that makes me feel less guilty about spending my time online when I could be doing something old-school and scholarly, like reading a book. Don’t believe me? Have a look for yourself. (JS)
Best Place to Have an Art Show: Cafe Kopi
Cafe Kopi is a cultural hub for C-U. When the rest of Downtown Champaign was sputtering, Cafe Kopi sat in its spot on Walnut Street, attracting the creative class of people who are responsible for making the area so attractive in which to do business. One of the reasons Kopi has done so well over the years is the way it uses its space: it's not just a coffee shop — like Downtown Champaign itself, it's an ever-changing space featuring the best, most interesting artists in the area. If you're interested in having a show there, contact Paul at cafekopi [at] gmail.com. Hell, he won't even take a percentage of what you sell — that's just how committed to the arts they are over there.
Best Local Film Festival Other than Ebertfest : The New Art Film Festival
I have to tip my hat to festival organizer Jason Pankoke here for putting this thing together using local resources. Pankoke also produces the “pulp novel” zine C-U Confidential, the accompanying blog, C-U Blogfidential, and a monthly late night movie show at SoDo Theatre called the Time Traveling Cinema (TTC) that he co-launched with the Psychic Joker magic group. Pankoke wasn’t alone of course in putting this festival together and he gives credit to a handful of people that helped make it grow. There was a great set of film bumpers, created by Luke Boyce of Shatterglass Studios, which introduced each set of films shown. Boyce was also responsible for managing the data files for the movies and enabled them to be projected straight from a server, instead of swapping out DVDs. According to Pankoke, the other people “invaluable” to the NAFF are: Sanford Hess of the Art Theater; Lisa Cerezo of Psychic Joker and the TTC, who did a phenomenal job with promotion and putting together the handbills and the PDF "digibooks" for distribution; Midnight Oil Advertising, a student design group affiliated with the University of Illinois chapter of the American Advertising Federation, who also designed the festival posters for the NAFF the past two years; and Zak Boerger and Josh Harris of the U of I Library Media Preservation unit who facilitated the Joseph Tykociner presentation at the beginning of this year's event. I was impressed with the content that the NAFF was able to conjure up and present. Seeing this all come together was an eye-opening experience and a testament to the filmmaking talent that C-U community possesses.
Best Art Gallery: Indi Go
Sure, you've got that one U of I gallery (that unceremoniously kicked the cat-filled book haven that was Old Main Books out of its spot) just around the corner. And sure, it's all fancy and has nice hardwood floors and a bunch of fashion-forward art students hanging around all the time, but truth be told, no place in Champaign or Urbana showing contemporary art knows itself like Indi Go. Located next to what was the Old Vic gallery (and is now Furniture Lounge), Indi Go used to be Studio 9, the U of I's original gallery before they pulled up stakes in downtown Champaign back when you could still get studio space above The Esquire Lounge in the '70s. Reprised by local businessman, James Barham, several years ago, the gallery enriches our community by hosting an eclectic variety of local and visiting artists and musicians — Indi Go's current show (Those Who Teach, Can) is a prime example of just this.
Best Organization Promoting the Arts: N/A
An argument can and should be made for The Urbana Arts Council here, but honestly, C-U is in serious need of some streamlining and some, ahem, creativity when it comes to engaging the community. Sure, C-U has a number of venues and events that it uses to feature its artists, but nothing has emerged as a truly transformative art experience in town. The Boneyard Arts Festival and Artists Against Aids try. They've both been around forever and in their time, have each grown progressively (and impressively, I might add), but when you consider the vibrancy and diversity of our arts community, the vast resources of the university, and level of public interest in this type of thing, I can't help but think that there are some incredible opportunities that have not yet been taken advantage of. To be clear, I don't hang this on any of the individual arts organizations out there hustling to make C-U's art scene as awesome as it is; moreover, it seems like a lot of those individual efforts could be capitalized on by way of some collaboration — and as always, it'd be nice to see the university truly get involved (read: ante up) in making either of the aforementioned events into something that demands the attention of those not otherwise inclined to participate in the arts community.
Best Old Train Station That's Been Converted Into a Theater: The Station Theater
It's sort of amazing that The Station Theater has been around for as long as it has. For 40 years, the Celebration Company cultivated a unique cultural experience at The Station, bringing in diverse shows and supporting them with phenomenal community actors and directors. Quite frankly, in my mind at least, community theater always risks becoming the punch line for a sitcom-style cheap shot. The folks over at The Station avoid this criticism entirely by being practitioners of their craft, by taking themselves and their work seriously in all the right ways.
Best Graffiti: Green Darth Vader
Okay, so this isn’t very good artistically speaking, but let’s analyze it because, after all, that’s what we’re supposed to do with art. Caleb said so. We’re going to assume that this is Darth Vader because otherwise I have nothing to say. It’s interesting that Vader is not done in the traditional and ubiquitous black paint you'd expect here. There’s irony as Vader is instead shown to be green, which is in fact a contradiction to his true nature. Vader is not a “green” sort of dude — I’m not talking about the way that Yoda and Kermit are green, but rather “green” in an environmentally conscious sort of way. I mean, we’re talking about a guy who orders the destruction of planets. And I don’t see any solar panels on his fleet of Deathwings or energy efficient means of keeping his lungs working. So this particular artist has created a hip new Vader for the future, one that eco-friendly bicyclists and reusable bag-toting hipsters can be proud of. This is the Vader of Urbana (sorry Champaign, you’re lagging a little behind).
Best Reading Series Promoted by Smile Politely: Smile Politely's very own Stories & Beer
Fuck it. Why not?