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Depot Foundation Awards expand in organization's 25th year

The Depot Foundation is celebrating its 25th year, and in honor of that event, it has expanded the list of annual awards it gives out for arts and culture in the Northland.

The Depot Foundation is celebrating its 25th year, and in honor of that event, it has expanded the list of annual awards it gives out for arts and culture in the Northland.

For five years, said Carla Charlton, the foundation's executive director, awards have been given in arts and culture initiative, arts and culture community enrichment and arts and culture lifetime achievement. This year, awards for artists themselves and for culture or historic preservation have been added, each carrying a $1,000 stipend.

The awards have a place in the mission of the organization, Charlton said. "The Depot Foundation sees it as an opportunity to say 'thank you,'" she said.

The awards will be presented at a private Circle of Friends dinner Thursday.

This year's winners include some notable names.

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The new awards

The artist award recognizes both artistic excellence and contributions to fellow artists in the area and is open to artists in all disciplines. The inaugural award has been given to Carla Stetson.

"We're recognizing her work in the area of public art and also the commitment she's made to other artists in the region," Charlton said, citing Stetson's work as a teacher.

Stetson has been an advocate for public art and has added three major works to the Duluth community she calls home: the 1999 Peace Sculpture in Lake Place Park ("The Arriving"), which she created with German artist Almut Heer; "Language of Stone" at the Great Lakes Aquarium; and most notably the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, which honors the memory of three innocent victims of a Duluth lynching in 1920.

"Well, I was kind of overjoyed," Stetson said of her reaction to the award. "It was pretty exciting. The call came out of the blue -- no one had called me before."

She says she got started in public art when she first moved to Duluth and applied for a public art project in Canal Park. She didn't get the commission, but it got her thinking about what was possible in the realm of using art to make a community a better place, something she sees at work in several parts of Duluth. She even curated events at the Depot on that subject.

"That was a really fun way to think about public art: If you could do anything, what would you do?" she said.

The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial was by far the biggest and most high-profile of the pieces she has done for Duluth. "The challenge was to build something that would have a positive impact from something tragic," she said. Her bronze statues, combined with Anthony Peyton Porter's engraved words, seem to have done just that. She said the neighborhood has supported it, and the project has echoed even beyond the immediate Duluth area.

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Stetson said public art feels much different from most artwork in the sense that it even more truly belongs to a community, and not the artist, when it's completed. "It's exactly the same feeling you have when your high-school aged child goes off to college," she said.

She hopes the award will draw attention to the power of public art for good and expressed gratitude for the honor, given that she can think of so many artists who are deserving of it.

"It was such a surprise, and I just think it's really wonderful that they decided to honor an artist in this way."

The cultural/historic preservation award recognizes those whose careers have made a "substantial impact" on preservation efforts, and the inaugural award was given to Carolyn Sundquist.

"Carolyn has long been an advocate for preserving historic structure in our region," Charlton explained.

Sundquist, a fifth-generation Duluthian, has worked on the National Trust for Historic Preservation board and helped Duluth acquire a Preservation Development Initiative grant from the National Trust. She has also served on other boards, and been involved with the Depot, Duluth's historic street materials, Glensheen and the Armory project, according to Charlton, who adds that Sundquist practices preservation in her own life, as well, preserving her grandmother's house.

The older awards

The lifetime achievement award was given to 95-year-old Francie McGiffert, an artist herself and also a strong, lifelong supporter of the region's art and culture. Charlton cited her "wonderful sense of humor" as well.

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McGiffert has been a supporter of the Tweed Museum, the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, the Depot Foundation and the St. Louis County Historical Society among other arts and cultural organizations.

She's also connected to the Depot in another way -- her father-in-law, John Rutherford McGiffert, desgined the Lake Superior Railroad Museum's Log Loader, which was donated to the museum by the family.

The two remaining awards encompass three winners, all related to a major project undertaken by the DSSO last year in a children's program.

The community enrichment award was given to beloved Duluth watercolor artist Cheng Kee Chee for his many accomplishments, for presenting Duluth to the world and particularly for his work with children. Charlton said the DSSO project, which involved setting the enormously successful book Chee illustrated, "Old Turtle," to ballet and orchestra, is a great example. Chee went out to all the schools which had connections to the show and talked about the book and about watercolor art.

The show itself was immensely well received.

"I'm not sure who was more excited about it, the kids or Mr. Chee," Charlton said.

Finally, the initiative award was given to Markand Thakar and Andrew Berryhill, music director and executive director of the DSSO respectively, for their work in pulling together the "Old Turtle" project.

"They're working on future musicians, future audience, future artists," Charlton said, by exposing students to ballet and classical music.

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Berryhill expressed gratitude for the award but immediately began spreading the credit around to Chee, staff and dancers from the Minnesota Ballet, teachers and "just dozens and dozens of people" who made the show a hit. He likened his role to directing traffic.

"We took a story that had a resonance with people that they could see on the page, and I think the composer, Peter Brophy, and Allen Fields at the ballet were very sympathetic to that story," he said.

The project entailed risk, he said, transfering ideas from one powerful medium to others. "If you do it badly, you've taken a good idea and made it bad," he said.

At worst, he said, you offend someone for harming a good piece of art. At best, you complement something that was already good.

But the response proved the organization succeeded.

"Kids are really sharp," he said. "They know what's good, and they let you know what's good."

He's had a dozen orchestra managers interested in producing it since it appeared on the Duluth stage to standing ovations last year.

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