Introducing the 2019 Class of the Austin Arts Hall of Fame
The stories behind the art transformers of this year's Hall of Fame inductees
What keeps Austin's cultural scene among the liveliest in the nation is that it's never static. The work created in the performing and visual arts is always changing, ever evolving. That's because so many artists here don't follow established trends and traditions. They forge their own, and from that comes transformations, art that changes ways of working, ideas, and the community. The Austin Arts Hall of Fame was established to honor artists, educators, patrons, and culture advocates whose innovations and steadfast commitments have altered the ways we express ourselves, regard our heritage, and respond to art. Each of this year's four inductees has been a leader in making change in Austin. The Austin Critics Table, a loose affiliation of arts writers that recognizes outstanding creative work here every year, will honor them on Monday, June 3, at 7pm in a ceremony at Cap City Comedy Club, 8120 Research. Here are introductions to these game changers.
Toni Bravo might have ended up anywhere on Earth. Born with a blend of French, Italian, Spanish, and Mexican-Indian bloodlines, she began dancing in Mexico City, later studied in London and Germany, and over the course of her professional career performed and taught in Israel, Costa Rica, and Spain. But something in her responded to Austin, and she's made it her base since the Eighties. She's obtained a master's degree in theatre history and criticism from the University of Texas, worked with Dance Repertory Theatre, taught at the Ballet Austin Academy, developed BA's Dance in the Classroom program, collaborated with numerous theatre groups from Austin Shakespeare to Vortex Repertory Company, and founded her own companies: Kinesis Dance Theatre Projects, Diverse Space Dance Theatre, and Diverse Space Youth Dance Theatre. Austin responded to Bravo, too, voting her Best Choreographer in the "Best of Austin" Readers Poll three years in a row.
But Bravo never forgot about the rest of the world. Through her ongoing connections with European companies, Bravo annually takes young Austin dancers to perform at the Irish Youth Dance Festival, and at LISTROS and APT in Berlin. And her choreographic fusion of international traditions and movement vocabularies has expanded our understanding of dance – in one Chronicle review, Robi Polgar wrote that watching Bravo was like "seeing a compact compendium of the world played out with grace and power."
Dr. Billy F. Harden
To Billy Harden, it didn't matter if he was in a classroom, in a church, or on a stage. In every space, he saw an opportunity to open minds. And he always took advantage of it, so that when he died in 2018, he left a remarkable legacy of helping others learn in education, religion, and the arts. From age 17 to his death, he was integral to the music at Metropolitan AME Church, first as assistant pianist/organist and then for many years as director of music. He made a career in education, spending 17 years with afterschool program Extend-A-Care and 20 with Austin Independent School District as a teacher, curriculum specialist, and assistant principal, with additional stints as head of school at Goodwill Industries Charter School and a principal in the Pflugerville school district.
Theatre, however, provided Harden's most visible forum. Active in the scene for 34 years, Harden worked with 15 companies, putting his stamp on work as diverse as Fats Waller and August Wilson. Among his stage homes were Zachary Scott Theatre Center, Capitol City Playhouse, Austin Playhouse, and Austin Theatre Project and Pro Arts Collective, both run by his old friend Boyd Vance. Inspired by Vance's commitment to create opportunities for African American artists, Harden, Jacqui Cross, Janis Stinson, and Carla Nickerson founded Spectrum Theatre Company with the same goal, and Harden served as executive director. His influence on students, audiences, and especially black artists earned him the Austin Creative Alliance Honors in 2015.
It isn't that Girard Kinney doesn't want Austin to change – having lived here all his life, he knows that it will. He just wants it to change for the better. And as both a citizen and an architect, he's devoted himself to that goal. In the Eighties, as the airport became an issue for surrounding neighborhoods, he helped organize the campaign to move it, spent a decade on the city's Airport Advisory Commission, then chaired a task force to establish goals for redeveloping the Mueller site. When traffic endangered pedestrians and cyclists crossing Lady Bird Lake, he designed the cantilevered walks on the Drake Bridge (and did it pro bono!) and the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge. When growth threatened mobility Downtown, he co-produced the Great Streets Master Plan. His advocacy for responsible urban planning and design has extended to numerous bodies public and private: Scenic Austin and Scenic Texas, Austin AIA committees, the Congress for the New Urbanism, Austin Pedestrian Advisory Council, Cherrywood Neighborhood Association, Friends of Austin Neighborhoods, et al. – all while running his own firm. In Kinney & Associates' portfolio are several significant cultural spaces: Zach Theatre's Whisenhunt Stage, the Zilker Hillside Theater, and the Boyd Vance Theatre at the Carver Museum and Library. Kinney told one reporter, "My problem is that I have never been able to draw any lines between my private and public life." What may be a problem for him has been a boon for our city.
Can anyone do as much with four right angles and straight sides as Margo Sawyer? In the hands of this gifted Central Texas artist, humble squares and rectangles join in intricate, interlocking geometric grids, often with vivid colors that pop like fireworks, or in diligently spaced arrangements that redefine the architectural meaning of a wall or floor. Cubes rise purposefully from flat surfaces, squares act as frames for objects of other shapes, or light passes through rectangles in curtains of glass, and the four-sided shapes are charged with a visual electricity. Over the three decades that Sawyer has been creating this work locally, she's garnered attention from museums, galleries, foundations, and collectors nationally and internationally. She's exhibited all over the U.S. and been an artist in residence in Great Britain (where she grew up), India (where she studied on a Fulbright Scholarship), Italy, Japan, and Spain, with one recent commission for the U.S. Embassy in Kosovo. Other commissions include Synchronicity of Color - Red & Blue for Houston's Discovery Green, Contemplation Garden for Whole Foods' local HQ, and Index for Contemplation at the Austin Convention Center. In 2015, she was named Artist of the Year by the Austin Critics Table as well as the Texas State Artist 3D, and last year she received a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship. But the charge Sawyer generates isn't restricted to her art. As a professor at UT, she's been providing energy, encouragement, and generosity to students and colleagues for 30 years.