Hooked on Phoenix

Awards recognize key contributors to arts community

It takes a remarkable person to stand out in the Lawrence arts community, so rich with creative individuals. But each year, the Lawrence Arts Commission chooses a handful of people whose achievements and contributions in the arts surpass the rest of the flock.

Five individuals and two pairs will receive the seven 2002 awards. The winners will be honored at an invitation-only ceremony at 2 p.m. today at the Lawrence Visitor Information Center.

Each recipient will be presented with a handmade ceramic pot crafted by Lawrence artist Jan Gaumnitz.

Here are this year’s winners:

Muriel Cohan and Patrick Suzeau – Phoenix Award for Performing Arts

In a dance studio adjoining their Kansas University office, Muriel Cohan and Patrick Suzeau strike a pose of perfect counterbalance, each clasping the other’s wrist and leaning backward.

The demonstration seems an appropriate symbol of the harmonious career the two have shared.

World-reknowned for their choreography and performance, Cohan and Suzeau complement one another, even in conversation. The Kansas University dance instructors, who co-founded the Cohan/Suzeau Dance Company, recently explained the differences between a classical form, like ballet, and modern dance, their typical mode of expression.

“Ballet’s about verticality. It’s about looking as if you can deny gravity,” Suzeau said. “Modern dance acknowledges the air but also the ground. Spatially, it’s like a blank canvas.”

Baseline skill and obedience are foundations of modern dance, Cohan added, but beyond that “you do make aesthetic choices about the direction you want to go.”

Muriel Cohan and Patrick Suzeau, winners of the Phoenix Award for Performing Arts, teach young dancers at Kansas University and continue to perform and tour with the Cohan/Suzeau Dance Company, which they founded together.

Cohan and Suzeau have been moving together since 1971, when they met while performing with New York choreographers Mary Anthony, Anna Sokolow and Pearl Lang. They soon formed their own company and began touring nationally and internationally to critical acclaim.

Self-described nomads, they moved from campus to campus, serving as artists-in-residence for weeks, months or years at a time. They settled at KU as the professional dance company in residence in September 1989 but continue to perform and teach elsewhere.

They are currently on the touring programs of the Kansas Arts Commission and Mid-America Arts Alliance’s Heartland Arts Fund.

Priscilla Howe – Phoenix Award for Literary Arts

Once upon a time, Priscilla Howe conjured a sugary tale of children who struck a peanut butter spring. She shared the story with some youngsters, who received it with utter delight.

Howe was 13. Little did she know that her way with words would lead her to happily ever after.

Now, she makes her living as a professional storyteller.

Maria Martin, winner of the Phoenix Award for Arts Education, has organized the Lawrence Indian Arts Show for 14 years.

Lawrence schools, libraries, nursing homes and living rooms are the venues where she spins many of her tales, though she has played to audiences in more unlikely places, like prisons.

She’s a fixture at the annual fiddling and picking championships in South Park, and so many children know her by name that they request stories when she makes appearances.

The longer Howe talks about telling stories, the more evident it becomes that storytelling is truly an art form. It’s not as simple as picking up a book and reading to a room full of people. Each appearance is a performance.

She commits stories to memory. She knows about 150 now. She excerpts them from books, retells folktales and even writes her own pieces.

Howe started attending storytelling festivals and workshops in the late ’80s while working as a children’s librarian in Connecticut. She moved to Lawrence in 1993 and began telling stories full time.

“There’s one big rule in storytelling, just one, and it’s love the stories you tell,” Howe said.

More than that, Howe has to be a master of improvisation.

“A large part of my work is sort of energy management,” she said. “I’m looking at the audience, and I’m tailoring the story to the audience. Storytelling is very much an interactive art. It depends on audience energy.”

Laurie Culling, winner of the Phoenix Award for Visual Arts, creates her own artwork but also helps recognize other artists.

Howe has performed across the United States and Europe and has released two recordings.

She was pleasantly surprised to learn her life’s work had earned her a Phoenix Award.

“It’s certainly not just an honor for me,” she said. “It’s an honor for the art form, and that’s really great.”

Laurie Culling – Phoenix Award for Visual Arts

Dave and Gunda Hiebert, winners of a Phoenix Award for Arts Volunteer, invite KU music students to perform recitals in their home.

Painter Laurie Culling sees Lawrence as a treasure chest packed with talented artists. The problem is that relatively few of them have the luxury of creating art full time.

“So many artists are unable to live off of their art work,” she said. “Many have stopped making art or do very little because they have to get jobs that are more secure.”

So Culling has made it part of her own artistic mission to promote the work of her colleagues. Throughout her years in Lawrence, that has meant different things.

She helped start the downtown Phoenix Gallery, which originally worked like a cooperative where artists could interact with the public.

Culling was a founding member of the F.A.N. Club, which she describes as a women artists support group. She has been a behind-the-scenes supporter of the Lawrence Own Your Own Art exhibit and sale.

Sidney Roedel, winner of a Phoenix Award for Arts Volunteer, helped save the Lawrence Chamber Orchestra.

For a time in the ’80s and again now, Culling coordinates art exhibits at the Lawrence Public Library.

“The library is a wonderful way to be in touch with the local arts community,” she said. “We don’t have that many places in Lawrence. There are so many artists, it seems to me we should have 10 galleries.

“I would love to see a lot more promotion and support of the artists because we are part of what makes Lawrence a special place.”

Culling has a degree in painting and drawing from KU. She works primarily with acrylic on canvas. She also makes handmade paper collages and dabbles in other media, like stained glass, jewelry, clothing and costumes.

One of her favorite quotes, which she painted on a tile she contributed to the tile mosaic at the new Lawrence Arts Center, is “Art is my gift to others, creating is my gift to myself.”

“For me,” she said, “when I’m absorbed in the art-making process, it’s bliss.”

Maria Martin – Phoenix Award for Arts Education

A work of art can transcend the physical space it occupies and actually pull people together.

That’s what Maria Martin has discovered during 14 years of organizing the Lawrence Indian Arts Show.

Priscilla Howe, winner of the Phoenix Award for Literary Arts, entertains audiences as a professional storyteller.

“The show gives people in this area an opportunity to appreciate, of course, the artwork but also the history of the American Indian peoples that create the work,” she said. “All of this then provides a setting for this interaction of peoples of different cultures. It’s just a wonderful way to learn about and understand each other’s viewpoints.”

Through her work with the show and its artisans, Martin came to realize that Lawrence needed a space to showcase American Indian art year-round. She opened Southwest and More, 727 Mass., in 1998, about a week before that year’s Indian Arts Show.

“It’s just been wonderful for me to have this gallery and specialty shop and still continue to surround myself with art,” she said.

Martin’s perspective always has included art. She grew up surrounded by the work of her father and uncle.

“It’s just so much a part of me that it would be hard for me to envision my world without art,” she said.

Her other passion, however, is the community. By working in the arts, Martin said she had learned what people really love about Lawrence: downtown.

In the spring, Martin took over as co-director of Downtown Lawrence, Inc. She and her partner, Melodie Christal, have been busy promoting downtown Lawrence as the “Heart of the City.”

Among the features that make the center of town so rich is the First Friday Gallery Walks, which Martin and a group of local gallery owners initiated several years ago.

“We have drawn just tremendous crowds of people to this event,” she said. “It carries over in them coming back then later to experience all of downtown.”

Dave and Gunda Hiebert – Phoenix Award for Arts Volunteer

It was a musical variation of “Field of Dreams.”

Jan Biles, winner of a Special Recognition Phoenix Award, covered the arts for nearly 7 1/2 years as the Journal-World arts editor.

When Dave and Gunda Hiebert moved into a home west of Kansas University’s campus 6 1/2 years ago, they decided to turn their living room into a venue where KU piano students could perform for an audience before playing in recitals and competitions. That was before the couple owned their gleaming black Steinway grand.

“We wondered, ‘If we buy it, will they come?'” Gunda Hiebert said.

The cultural returns from their investment in the concert piano have more than paid for the instrument. Hundreds of nimble fingers have masterfully depressed its keys for thousands of captive audience members. Other KU musicians vocalists, flutists, chamber music groups have sought out the intimate performance space.

The couple is preparing to hold its 200th recital.

“This is the house that changed our lives,” Gunda Hiebert said. “It’s brought us so many KU student friends and faculty friends and friends in the community.”

The Hieberts have become something of a second family for many of the students, more than half of which come from other countries. It’s not uncommon for students to house-sit for the Hieberts when they travel or to be guests at Thanksgiving dinner.

And the academic opportunity is a unique one for the young musicians.

“A lot of them have never been through their whole program without interruption in a concert setting,” Gunda Hiebert said.

The barriers that exist between audience and performer in larger venues melt away in the Hieberts’ living room.

“It is an intimate setting that makes the music so personal,” Dave Hiebert said.

The couple also is involved in the arts community in other ways. Gunda Hiebert has served on the boards of the Seem-To-Be-Players, Lawrence Chamber Orchestra, Lied Center and Friends of the Spencer Museum of Art. Dave Hiebert is on the Friends of the Lied Center and Spencer Museum of Art advisory boards. He’s also a docent at the Spencer.

But the arts experience they get in their own home is by far their favorite.

“We’ve heard some of the most beautiful music in the world in this living room,” Gunda Hiebert said.

Sidney Roedel – Phoenix Award for Arts Volunteer

Some people have said that Sidney Roedel saved the Lawrence Chamber Orchestra. In her modest way, Roedel claims to have done nothing nearly so heroic.

Roedel, a music lover, joined the orchestra’s board in 1996 and became president a few years later.

“It wasn’t what I was planning on, but our president resigned, so it was either step in or run away with my tail between my legs,” she said. “It was a very, very hard year. But we’ve had lots of hard years, as with many small arts groups.”

The main problem has been garnering funds that are sufficient to support the orchestra at a decent level, Roedel said.

“Orchestra members are not well-paid,” she continued. “They don’t play for the money. They play because they love to play.”

Roedel and other board members dedicated many hours trying to raise money and make the organization run smoothly.

She recently stepped down from her post on the board.

But she retains a spot as a tenor in the Lawrence Civic Choir, which she has belonged to since 1979.

“When I joined, the choir was performing a very, very difficult Mozart work and I couldn’t read music and I have no idea why I hung in,” she said. “And now I don’t read music very well, but it’s the sort of thing to which you go tired to practice and come away energized and feeling as though, ‘By golly, this is a wonderful world after all, isn’t it.'”

She was president of the choir’s board from 1980 to 1982 and has traveled with the group on its several excursions abroad.

“I really do love to be with people who are enjoying what they’re doing,” Roedel said. “And I love to see people get where they need to go, and that happens in both of these organizations.”

Jan Biles – Special Recognition Award


It’s a word many in the arts community have used to describe former Journal-World arts editor Jan Biles.

But being passionate about the arts in Lawrence was never a chore for Biles.

“I felt like I had the best job in the world because it didn’t seem like work to me at all,” said Biles, who last month left the Journal-World after 7 1/2 years. “It was something I truly enjoyed. It was never a burden.”

Biles came to the Journal-World from the Hutchinson News to work as a copy editor. Four months later, she became arts editor and found out just how enthusiastic the Lawrence arts community can be.

“I think people were really eager to have their events covered and so I think they really went out of their way to make me feel comfortable and to provide me with information when I needed it,” she said. “The people in the community made my job so easy, really.”

Biles grew up on a farm in southeast Kansas, where her mother made sure that she got dance and piano lessons.

“For that to happen in the ’60s in our community was something out of the ordinary,” Biles said. “She was the one actually who sort of saw something in me. She made sure that I was hooked up in some way with creative things.”

Biles took classes in sculpture, lithography, stained glass, fine art photography and drawing at Pittsburg State University and, as an adult, took ballet and tap dancing.

Once she landed in Lawrence, though, Biles was too much the observer to continue any kind of visual or performing arts. Writing became her craft of choice.

She consistently won state and national awards for her writing and editing. She taught reporting at Baker University in Baldwin, wrote on a freelance basis for several publications and volunteered as a judge for journalism contests.

Betsy Clark, chairwoman of the Lawrence Arts Commission’s Phoenix Awards Committee, described Biles as “our champion of the arts.”

“This award,” she said, “is a general thank you, you did a great job.”

Biles now works as weekend editor at the Topeka Capital-Journal.