On a brisk early spring day, we editors were roaring around Homer Lake on the Smile Politely executive extra-long canoe. As often happens on such outings, the conversation turned to excellence. "How can we recognize those individuals and institutions in our communities which have distinguished themselves as outstanding in their respective fields?" asked one editor to the group.
"Surely there must be some way for us to demonstrate our appreciation for their efforts?" chimed in another. "Champaign-Urbana is a community truly deserving of such plaudits."
"What if we were to dedicate a week to the superlative examples in a multitude of categories, including several which could be described as whimsical in nature, much like every other alt-weekly has done since the dawn of time?" ventured a third.
"We could never be thought to have engaged in such a derivative practice," scolded a fourth. "This calls for something original and ground-breaking, much like late last year when we created lists of our favorite things from the past decade."
"Right you are," agreed a fifth. "We must blaze a trail and hope that our readers recognize our unique vision."
"I've got it!" exclaimed a sixth editor. "We'll call it BEST 2010, and we'll identify the, um, best examples of several categories in Arts, Sports, Food & Drink, Music, and Culture. It'll be like nothing anyone has ever done before!"
As it was proclaimed, so it must be. Without further ado, we present to you: BEST 2010. Today: The Arts.
Best place to read and write graffiti: The Silos on St. Mary's Road
Hidden in the south end of campus, away from any piece of urban life, the grain silos on St. Mary's Road have provided graffiti artists with a unique canvas on which to create for the past decade. Always changing, and somehow never erased, this urban mural is a work in progress, filled with different characters, odd quotes and simple messages of hope, anger, outrage, and joy. If you are looking for them, they are on the south side of the road across from Assembly Hall.
Best Bookstore: Jane Addams
Of all the bookstores in town, there is just something about Jane Addams that seems to feel perfect. Open since 1984, and recently purchased by Susan and Don Elmore (formally the editor of The Paper), this downtown building houses not just one, but three floors, of books. The building is, essentially, packed to the gills with over 75,000 volumes. In a downtown where there simply isn't all that much to do, Jane Addams is the perfect place to waste a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, browsing, reading, looking, and reading some more. We're a richer community for it, and one that's just a touch wiser for the wear as well.
Best Outdoor Public Sculpture: "Minimal Response" — Meadowbrook Park
At the entry on Windsor Road, in front of the largest and most dramatic children's play structure in downstate Illinois, two massive anthropomorphic hammers stand facing each other, unsure of what might come next. Is it a fight? Are they laughing? Is it something even more dramatic? It's hard to say for sure, but we know that, no matter what the emotion in them, it stirs up playful ones in us. Created by Ed Benavente in 1999, we're delighted to know that it's ours to call our own.
Best non-U of I art gallery: indi go gallery
God bless James Barham and Casey Loving. These two are officially saving the arts gallery scene in C-U, and they're doing it the right way: grassroots, independent, locally-focused, emphasis on FUN. In past year, indi go has gone from no name space on University to the epicenter of all things art openings in town. The reason is simple: they are actively seeking artists and engaging them to put on shows. They send out press releases, and they mix it up by inviting local musicians to perform along with the openings. There's always a glass of wine to be had, or a cheese to taste too — not to mention, conversations to be had; everyone there is constantly mixing it up, and doing their best to make sure that the vibe stays friendly and unpretentious.
Best Domestic Architecture: 2001 N. Highcross Rd.
Situated on the east end of Urbana, across from The Apple Dumplin' restaurant, this private residence belongs to Mike and Linda Worner, the owners of Clark Bar in downtown Champaign. Originally a barn built in the 1940s, the family moved in 29 years ago and decided to restore and recreate as opposed to raze and rebuild. It's truly an amazing place, one that is both warm and well-lit. Those are two adjectives not always present together when defining homes. Fortunately for us, they were more than happy to allow us to walk around and take photos.
Best local filmmaker: Matt Harshbarger
In the past year, Matt Harshbarger has completely changed the scope of how we view local bands because of his visionary directorial angles. Videos for Megan Johns, Headlights, and Elsinore have all been buzzing since they were uploaded to YouTube, and for good reason: these aren't just any old cut-n-paste bullshit home video cut on a PC. Matt — oh fuck it, just Harsh, as everyone else calls him — Harsh carefully blends his shots together to make each video unique, well-timed, and succinct. With the successes of 2009 and early 2010 underway, we can only expect more tremendous things from him.
Best mural: Champaign Community Mural Project — Lee Boyer and Derrick L. Holley
This entry is mainly an indictment of the community's lack of decent mural art. If pressed, we think the one on Green and Neil, orchestrated by Lee Boyer and Derrick Laquinn Holley as a tribute to the late local artist Allen Stringfellow, is the one that we admire most. You can see a video on its creation here. In it, you'll see that even Holley agrees: there is very little to look at in the ways of mural art in Champaign-Urbana. Here's hoping that the artist community in town can find ways to turn some buildings into canvas in the coming years. We know very few people that would rather look at a brick building than a huge massive piece of locally-inspired and created artwork.
Best comedy troupe: Fishing With Dynamite
Jon Hansen knows good comedy and isn't afraid to slug it out in order to present it to the community. Fishing With Dynamite was born out of Hansen's desire to see his comedic vision fully realized after having started out with another campus based sketch comedy group. Now, his troupe performs as many as six original shows per year at Canopy Club, their unofficial home stage in town. Each semester, tryouts are had, and new faces appear. Old standbys remain, and Hansen has leveraged his job at Illini Media Company as good reason for him to stick around. If you haven't yet seen them perform, you'll have one more chance until the summer, on May 1. Most times, they have early shows before a later live music concert at Canopy, but this time, the night is theirs completely. We're excited to see what they make of it.
Best artist on the rise: Jillian Nickell
If, by now, you haven't yet seen or heard about the artwork of Jillian Nickell, you either A) haven't been paying attention to the articles on Smile Politely or B) don't much care for artwork in general. So, it stands a chance that, because you are here, reading this article right now, you know about her. In a word: brilliant. Instead of rehashing the same old thing, we'll just link you to Justine Fein-Bursoni's interview with her a few weeks back, and link up her Etsy page as well. You should buy her artwork. It's affordable and beautiful and it's local.
Best Blog: Champaign Taste
We suppose this one might best go in the Food / Drink Best coming up later this week, but the way Lisa Morgan crafts her highly influential and wildly popular blog, we like to think of it as art as well. And you know, in the end, she actually writes articles that are well informed, managed, and edited. So that, in and of itself, is artwork to us too. But onto the blog, where to begin? Anyone in C-U that's been online long enough in the past couple years has likely come across Champaign Taste. Just google the name of most any restaurant in town and you'll see that her articles are almost always right near the top of the search engine. But more than the blog's popularity and influence is its depth. Each of her reviews are carefully crafted, weighing all of the positives and negatives in order to precisely determine whether or not a restaurant is worth your time. And when she doesn't like something, she'll say so. And not in a mean way; she leaves vitriol out almost completely and instead, offers theories and reasons as to why something might not be as good as it could be. She encourages her audience to try the food themselves, and never ever makes light of the fact that a restaurant isn't to her taste. It's a well-constructed way of being critical. But when she likes something, man does she like it — and lets you know. Just check into her thoughts and feelings about Black Dog Smoke and Ale House. We couldn't agree more.
All photos by Justine Bursoni (except Jillian Nickell)
Want more BEST? Check out Tuesday's Sports edition here.