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Duluth's artists pick their favorites from 2016

A musical about murderers — both failed and successful, a personal photo project that only exists on social media and the release of Bob Dylan covers by local musicians are among the list of the top events from 2016 — as solicited from local artists, entertainers and organizers. 

The News Tribune annually asks creatives to talk about the best of the best people and events — preferably something they were not involved with creating. Renegade Theater Company’s “Assassins” got multiple mentions, but much of the list includes things that had a big impact with little fanfare.

“I loved Renegade (Theater Company)’s ‘Assassins’ because in addition to being a great blend of entertainment and learning about history (Andy Bennett can SING! Mary Fox is a master of physical comedy! Oh, THAT’s who Squeaky Fromme is), it was a risky production. I mean, a musical about shootings? But that’s what a place like Renegade should do — push us a bit.

Lucie Amundsen“Also, I’m a huge fan of ‘Take It With You.’ How great that this radio show can get hundreds of people to come to their ongoing, silly tale about this bar, punctuated with great music. (I was a guest in 2015, but not since.) It’s as Duluth-y a story as Vikre (Distillery) or Bent Paddle or Duluth Coffee Co. Those businesses are here because of Duluth, and the same is true for TIWY (as you know, Blake (Thomas) and Mary (Fox) moved here because they thought this kinda oddball production could fly here — and … it has.

“Also, I have an art crush on Adam Swanson. The penguins, the bicycles, the windmills — love the goofiness of it all set to local backdrops.”

LUCIE AMUNDSEN published her first book, “Locally Laid: How We Built a Plucky, Industry-Changing Egg Farm — from Scratch” in March. It won the 2016 Midwest Choice Award in Nonfiction. Renegade Theater Company’s “Assassins” — a musical about killers in history — opened in September at Teatro Zuccone. “Take It With You” is a live podcast that records monthly at The Underground. Adam Swanson is a local visual artist.

Bret Amundson“In April and May of 2016, the students of the College of St. Scholastica Art Department, lead by professors Sarah Brokke Erickson and Paul LaJeunesse, created a collaborative mural with Laura MacArthur Elementary School focusing on MLK Jr.’s quote, “A peacemaker is someone who has sought to teach, to transform, to make friends, to heal, to defeat injustice, or to choose love instead of hate.” CSS and Laura MacArthur students worked collaboratively to create a(n) 8-by-12-foot mural that is now permanently installed at Laura MacArthur. The work was funded by an Arrowhead Regional Arts Council grant.

“The mural was painted in the fourth-floor hallway of the Tower Building at CSS, close to my office. It was so much fun walking by each day, watching students work on the mural and seeing the wonderful transformation. Other students and faculty would stop, ask questions and engage with the mural and the artists.”

BRET AMUNDSON, director of choral activities and director of general education at the College of St. Scholastica and director of Twin Ports Choral Project, won the Minnesota Ballet’s Celebrity Dance Challenge in February. The mural project was led by students Bailey Barber, Courtney Marek, Alyssa Johnson and the staff at Laura MacArthur. The Basement Tapes show, also in May, featured Minnesota musicians.

Laura Sellner of Superior Siren for Duluth Does Dylan“I would have to say it was a tie with the Duluth Does Dylan CD release party ‘Bringing It All Back Home to Duluth Does Dylan’ and the Armory Arts and Music Centers’ Basement Tapes Concert. Both events showcased the incredible wealth of talent we have here in the Northland. It was (an) inspiration to hear the unique interpretations of Bob Dylan’s music by so many fabulous artists.”

ZANE BAIL is co-chair of Duluth Dylan Fest. Local musicians were featured on “Bringing It All Back Home to Duluth Does Dylan,” a covers album that was released on Dylan’s 75th birthday.

Walt “Dizzo” Raschick (left)“My favorite artistic moment of 2016 was the introduction/re-emergence of Ingeborg von Agassiz/Emma Rustan into the Duluth art world. Seemingly out of nowhere, an artist going by ‘Ingeborg von Agassiz’ started booking shows around Duluth and wowed audiences with fully formed songs and a unique stage appearance.

“I personally love her music and find it difficult to describe what genre she represents. I usually describe my favorite tracks of hers as ‘nursery rhymes for the emotionally disturbed.’ The creation of her songs live on stage using loop pedals and her visually unique stage appearance only adds to her mysterious charm. But not only has Rustan been creating music, she ended 2016 with a very successful art show at Red Herring nearly selling all of her darkly whimsical paintings. I can’t wait to see what she does in 2017.”

WALT “DIZZO” RASCHICK finished his final year as director of Homegrown Music Festival. Ingeborg von Agassiz is self-described as an electronic-singer-songwriter-artist.

Allen Cragin“One of my favorite events of this year was the All Souls Night at the Depot. Seeing my children celebrate life while experiencing puppets, fire spinning, live music and belly dancing made a great evening filled with variety and local talent.”

ALLEN CRAGIN and his bandmates from Reflectivore released their self-titled debut in 2016 — an album that was three years in the making for Cragin and Ryan Rusch. All Souls Night is an annual event at the Depot that includes tributes to the dead, music, a parade and a ceremonial burning of bad ideas.

Sasha Howell“I thought ‘Assassins’ was so well done! The show was cast perfectly, and the imagery and music were very captivating! Everyone did an amazing job, but my absolute favorite was Mary Fox. She absolutely killed her part as Sara Jane Moore — pun intended.

“I always love Renegade and everything they do, so it was natural for me to pick a Renegade show, but there was something special about this production for me. I think the most compelling thing about this show is the juxtaposition of a lively musical set to the backdrop of attempted murderers. Also, as a costume designer, I thought the costumes were pretty rad, too.”

SASHA HOWELL was the costume designer behind Renegade Theater Company’s high-fashion production of “Marie Antoinette,” which opened in July at Teatro Zuccone. A News Tribune reviewer said of “Assassins”: “When Renegade gathers some of the area’s best singers and actors, gives them some dangerous material to play with, and then steps out of their way, theatrical fireworks can happen as they did on opening night.” 

Mary Fox“Last spring, Don Ness gave a TED Talk at the Teatro about politics and vulnerability, and his brother, Jamie Ness, played a few songs … The entire evening floored me. I think about it all the time (probably a little more these days). The insight Don gave us that night was incredibly valuable. He spoke about lowering the barriers in politics, admitting when you are wrong, stepping aside when it’s time. … I was lucky to have been there. I look a little closer at our leaders after that talk.”

MARY FOX portrayed Sara Jane Moore in Renegade Theater Company’s production of “Assassins.” Ness presented in mid-May as part of the TED at Teatro series. 

Tom Isbell“The concert at Sacred Heart Music Center given by Sara Thomsen, Ann Reed and Claudia Schmidt. It was the first time the three have appeared together, and the experience of watching three such remarkable singer-songwriters interact with each other was joyful, playful, heartfelt … and utterly moving. On a hot summer night, they gave us all a bit of hope.”

TOM ISBELL turned a community journalism project into a theatrical production. The University of Minnesota Duluth’s “One River” opened in September. The Thomsen-Reed-Schmidt concert was in July at Sacred Heart Music Center.

Jody Kujawa“My favorite thing in the arts this last year was Andy Miller’s continuing series of photos showing the decay of various buildings titled ‘Sorry, We’re Closed.’ Unfortunately, they have not had a formal showing, which I desperately hope gets remedied, so they are only viewable on his Facebook page or his Instagram account. I personally got an Instagram account just so I could view them in a more effective setting. There are over 300 photos of buildings in Minnesota, some familiar, some not.

“In each photo, even though you may not know its history, you can swear that you see every life that ever lived a moment in that space. Andy’s work, across the board, is phenomenal, whether he is shooting bands, the local nightlife or documenting theater, but the life that he brings to a dead building is miraculous. This guy has soul. I think Andy Miller is easily one of Duluth’s finest artists, and if you don’t know his work, I wish you would check it out. His Instagram account is Entropy462.”

JODY KUJAWA appeared in multiple productions in 2016 including Renegade Theater Company’s “The Whale,” the Duluth Playhouse’s “Rock of Ages,” Wise Fool Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and the Duluth Playhouse’s children’s theater series production “James and the Giant Peach.” Andy Miller is a local photographer. 

Emily Larson  "Often in this job I am asked to participate in some way, and while that’s a huge honor for me, it does change how I can enjoy or be moved by the art itself. There were a lot of great moments in the arts of me this year, but this one really stood out: M’ Bemba Bangoura of Guinea visited Duluth Public Schools as a guest artist during February as part of Black History Month. He is a master drummer, choreographer, dancer, teacher and ambassador of Guinea drum and dance. I watched his performance at Lowell School in a combined audience with Myers Wilkins. Hundreds of squirming kids seated on the floor, dozens of adults trying to keep everything calm and organized. And then the music started. The joy M’Bemba brought to his music, the engagement he brought out in others, the way kids and adults both let go of Minnesota Reserved and gave into dancing. It was a gift to just sit on the perimeter and enjoy it."

EMILY LARSON served her first year as mayor of Duluth in 2016. M'Bemba Bangoura visited Lowell Elementary in February. 

Melissa LaTour“My favorite local event of 2016 was Transistor Magazine’s 12 Year Anniversary of Art, Music and Swearing held at Prove Gallery. Walking into the gallery and seeing 12 years of all things local was like walking into a giant bear hug of nostalgic warm fuzzies.

“It was fun walking around the gallery and reading the walls. Everything was wallpapered in Transistor, including the can!

“It was neat seeing comic strips from the late DJ Drewcifer, RIP, as well as other friends who are no longer with us.

“Adam Guggemos is so attentive to all things entertainment, and it shows through the blood, sweat and tears that he pours into this local mag.”

MELISSA LATOUR was named director of Homegrown Music Festival. The Transistor is a free entertainment magazine — with a go-to weekly calendar — is distributed in Duluth and Superior. The 12 Year Anniversary of Art, Music and Swearing was in May. 

Ellie Schoenfeld“So many great things happened in 2016, so it’s very hard to choose. That being said, I really really loved the release party for the All Black Zine issue 2 that was held at the Prove Gallery back in May. It was a vibrant and powerful event featuring poetry readings, visual art and music. The zine itself was coordinated and designed by Jordon Moses and Kholo Matsafu and is a triumph. It’s a full-color, beautifully designed work on the theme of resilience, and it lives on my bookcase instead of the magazine rack. I look forward to issue 3!”

ELLIE SCHOENFELD was named Duluth’s poet laureate and gave her inaugural reading earlier this month. Three issues of All Black Zine were released in the past year. 

Blake Thomas“One of my favorite shows of this year was ‘It Runs in the Family’ at the Duluth Playhouse. ‘Zany’ comedies of this sort are so very hard to get right because it all comes down to timing. Robert Lee’s direction and casting decisions were spot-on. Luke Moravec as the lead was perfect. Stacy Sudoh, Cheryl Skafte, Mike Pederson and the rest of a great cast brought it with a truly laugh-out-loud, well-rehearsed, make-you-feel-happy night of theater. The Playhouse sets and lighting are always gorgeous, and I enjoyed every minute.”

BLAKE THOMAS is the co-creator of “Take It With You,” a super-popular podcast that records live monthly at The Underground. “It Runs in the Family,” by Ray Cooney, opened in September at the Duluth Playhouse. 

Gaelynn Lea The Electric Witch (Photo by Kip Praslowicz)

“I suppose Homegrown might be cliche, but this year was the first time I was introduced to The Electric Witch, and it really blew me away. Mary Bue was one of the first live performers I ever saw in Duluth (more than) a decade ago, and it was so cool to see her explore a different side of music and let her wild side shine! I loved the costumes and the lights and the music, which was quite a departure from the folk-bluegrass genres that are so often represented in Duluth. I will long remember that awesome set!”

GAELYNN LEA won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest in March and has begun touring internationally. The Electric Witch is Zac Bentz, Mary Bue, Eric Anderson and Steph Bentz. It’s a synth-noir band with distorted vocals, and Bue, the singer, wears silvery futuristic shimmers for performances. The Electric Witch’s Homegrown set was at Pizza Luce.