The High Country Conference Center was the location of the 11th Annual Viola Awards Gala, which was presented by NAU, Babbitt Brothers and Flagstaff Arts Council. Representatives in the community that have a prominent role in art and science were honored for their efforts and contributions to the community on Saturday, March 3.
The Viola Awards is an award ceremony that rewards artists, writers and scientists of Flagstaff in the categories of Individual Community Impact, Excellence in Storytelling, Excellence in Music, Excellence in Arts Education, Excellence in Science Education, Excellence in Visual Arts, Emerging Artist, Organizational Community Impact and Excellence in the Performing Arts.
Viola Award winners were: Bonnie Dumdei for Individual Community Impact, Jesse Sensibar for Excellence in Storytelling, David Strackany for Excellence in Music, Kathy Marron for Excellence in Arts Education, Rich Krueger for Excellence in Science Education, Julie Comnick for Excellence in Visual Art, Carli Giese for Emerging Artist, Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra: Link Up for Community Impact and NAU Lyric Theater: “The Magic Flute” for Excellence in the Performing Arts.
Award finalists wore purple ribbons on their chest to show that they were in the running. The process to become a finalist is fairly in depth. According to the Flagstaff Arts Council website, anyone can be nominated for up to 12 awards. After the request is submitted, a group of past Viola winners and experts in that category meet up to discuss who is the final few in the category. The group looks into what the nominee has done in the past year and the panel will make their decision as to who the finalists for the awards will be.
Over 500 people were in attendance for the Viola Awards. Among them were previous Viola winners, NAU faculty members, members of the artistic community and members of the Flagstaff City Hall.
The evening started with guests filing into the building with introduction music played by a DJ to start the night off. The guests were offered refreshments as the smell of white wine filled the room. Out in the halls, there was a silent auction to help fundraise for the Flagstaff Arts Council, which is the main group presenting the Viola Awards.
The inside of the awards ceremony was a dim room with many tables provided for the donors and attendees. There were big purple balloons that were tied down to the tables in honor of Viola Babbitt, who was an established artist in the city of Flagstaff that was an advocate of the arts and who the awards are named after. Throughout the night, folk music artist David Strackany perfomed the intermission music.
Jessie Sensibar is a tow truck driver, small business owner, writer and the recipient of the Excellence in Storytelling award from his work titled “Blood in the Asphalt: Prayers from the Highway.” The book is about his life as a truck driver and how his life on the road have impacted him and others he is close to. Sensibar said he would go out and take pictures of little memorials on the side of the road to bring awareness to some of the tragedies that happen while driving.
“I have been messing around with this for four or five years, but there is some work in this book that dates back 30 years,” Sensibar said.
Sensibar said he was honored and humbled to win a second Viola Award. He previously won an award for his organizational talents on a collaboration with James Jay “Narrow Chimney Reading Series.” He won the Viola Award for Excellence in Storytelling in 2015.
Julie Comnick is a visual artist and a faculty member for NAU School of Art. She was the recipient of Excellence in Visual Arts award for her work titled “Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra.” Her displayed work was about what art could potentially look like in a future with no musicians. A pile of violins burning to the ground depicted a sense of burial or cremation for classical tradition.
“To me, it was thinking through [the message] and thinking about what this says about where we are in culture and wanting to preserve a tradition in balance with new technology that came together in a justification for pursuing this project,” Comnick said.
Comnick said being a professor provides her with a wonderful balance to continue her passion for art. She structures her schedule so it allows her to have dedicated studio time while still allowing plenty of time for her to teach her art students at NAU.
At the Viola Awards, every award is seen as equally important as the next. Topics varied — some winners shedding light to the topic of water usage in Arizona, some about a community whose houses had to be taken away, or educators that try to teach the future about art and science.
Flagstaff Arts Council marketing director Sarah Smallwood said there is no hesitation for people to come and support what is going on in the artistic community.
“We seem to hit max capacity year after year,” Smallwood said. “I think it shows the depth of how much people care about this cause and in keeping art and sciences in Flagstaff and just continue to help the people making creative things thrive.”
The Viola Awards showed that the art community in Flagstaff is thriving and is constantly growing. Smallwood said that is it not a tough gesture to get people out to support the arts and science because it’s like a family and the ties in the community are deep and rich.
“I really do believe that an event like this bolsters the art community and that is exactly what we need for a town like Flagstaff,” Smallwood said. “What makes part of our community so unique is the artists. The people who are working hard to be creative and bring new things and new energy.”