As Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans addressed the crowd at the 11th annual Viola Awards on Saturday night at Northern Arizona University’s High Country Conference Center, she spoke about the power artists and educators hold. Evans said art and education shapes us as people and as a community.
“You are what make us human,” she said. “If not for art, we would not be who we are.”
That theme of community through art and education persisted throughout the night, with many Viola winners using their speeches to talk about the arts community in Flagstaff and how it has affected them personally.
Opening the evening with a performance as part of a one-off group was The Fellowship of Finalists, a musical theater group comprised of several Viola nominees including Sean Golightly, a finalist in the Emerging Artist and Excellence in Performing Arts categories; Owen Davis, a finalist in the Community Impact (Individual) category; Alec Tippett of local reggae group Tha ‘Yoties, one of the finalists in the Excellence in Music category; and Dineh Redstar Tohe, guitarist for Ice Sword, another finalist for Excellence in Music.
In a performance called “Murder in D Minor,” which took a shot at awards ceremonies and high-stakes competitions, The Fellowship of Finalists composed an original metal song to accompany a scene featuring Vicki Thompson, who reprised her gender-reversed role as Titus Andronicus. (“Titus Andronicus” was also a nominee this year for the Excellence in Performing Arts category.) In the scene, a gang of finalists and friends suddenly turn on each other when a silver chalice appears. After having killed off the others, Thompson retrieves the chalice, alone in her victory.
“The collective shall always be far mightier than the one,” Golightly said as the Fellowship closed out the number.
Todd Sullivan, director of NAU’s School of Music, hosted the night, which had a slightly different tone than previous Viola Awards ceremonies. Noticeably absent from this year’s gala was the Best Dressed award, given to attendees with outlandish or funny attire. Though the annual bloopers video to close out the ceremony and a speech by author and illustrator SD Nelson provided an air of comedy, much of the night seemed mild-mannered and formal.
Nelson used his Legacy Award speech as a call to action to remove the “sad” and “embarrassing” buffalo statue from Buffalo Park and to rename the park something more reflective of Flagstaff’s legacy as the first International Dark Sky City.
“Flagstaff is growing up, and it is time for our public art to reflect that fact,” Nelson said. “Public art reflects the spirit of the community. Public art tells our children and other people who we are. Public art represents us.”
He went on to compare the proposed removal of the buffalo statue to the removal of the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, to which the crowd laughed and groaned.
The seven-minute speech was met with mixed responses, but Jim Babbitt, who presented the award to Nelson, cleared the air, saying, “If they take away the buffalo, maybe a statue of my dog would be good.”
A second Legacy Award was accepted by Patrick Groves on behalf of his father Mac Groves, an educator and director who died Jan. 9, 2018. Groves’ speech was an emotional and touching tribute to his father who served as a theater instructor at NAU, also helping build its theater department, and artistic director of the Grand Canyon Shakespeare Festival for three of its four years in Flagstaff.
“If he were here, he would be filled with joy and would tell all of you to be passionate in everything you do and fearless in the search for joy. Thank you again to all his friends and colleagues, students and family,” Groves said. “And thank you for honoring my dad and everything he did for the arts.”
Jesse Sensibar, whose book “Blood in the Asphalt: Prayers from the Highway” won for Excellence in Storytelling, took time during his speech to commemorate those who have passed away, on and off the road. He and James Jay took home their first Viola Award in 2015 for their Narrow Chimney Reading Series at Uptown Pubhouse.
“This is the second time I’ve been up here this decade, and I’m genuinely (expletive) honored,” he said. “This award, it’s pretty special to me, and this book is pretty special to me. It’s for everyone in this room who’s ever lost anybody out on the road.”
His book, comprised of photos, short stories and non-fiction essays, details his time as a tow truck driver. Having to pick up wrecked vehicles from sometimes fatal accidents, Sensibar would see makeshift shrines and memorials pop up afterward at the sites. His nimble and nuanced book paints a portrait of a life next to death.
From a selection of four finalists, Julie Comnick won the award for Excellence in Visual Arts for her exhibit “Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra, 450* F,” part of an ongoing series that uses decommissioned violins as a commentary on the importance of music education in public schools. The artist played violin for 10 years before attending a college that didn’t offer a music program. She picked up the instrument again in preparation for this project, which consisted of a dozen large oil paintings depicting the final moments of a pile of violins as it burned down.
Although music education has been shown to help students excel in other fields by improving memory, math skills and coordination, fewer schools are setting aside funding for the arts in recent years and thus fewer students have the option of learning an instrument.
“What are we at risk of losing?” Comnick said in a January 2018 interview with the Daily Sun. “On one hand it could be learning how to play an instrument, but it’s also about passion and values.”
Another individual who spoke on their strong belief in the power of art to enhance knowledge was the winner in the Excellence in Arts Education category, Thomas Elementary School teacher Kathy Marron. In her acceptance speech, she thanked the Flagstaff Unified School District for its continued support of the arts and its decision to not make cuts from that part of the budget, a statement that was met with cheers and applause from the audience.
She was nominated for the award based on several art projects she organized during the first half of the 2018-19 school year.
“It’s really a privilege to work with children, and to try and create a safe space for them to explore their creativity and perhaps find what might be a lifelong passion,” Marron said. “To be an influencer of children is really a deep responsibility. I really do enjoy working with the children, and I would like to accept this award on their behalf and on behalf of all the other art teachers who put in such passion and caring into what they do.”
Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra’s Link Up program was named the winner in the Community Impact (Organization) category. Now in its sixth year in Flagstaff, Link Up is a music education program offered by Carnegie Hall for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders and used by more than 300 orchestras worldwide to expose these young students to live symphonic music.
A silent auction offered art, food, class packages and other items from local businesses and, during a break in the award presentations, Dapper Dre hosted a live auction for a large painting by Sky Black. Matt Beaty won the surreal work with his bid of $2,350. Proceeds from the auction items go to support FAC programs that help build on the strong community represented each year at the Viola Awards.
Aurora Smith of Flagstaff High School was named the 2019 Youth of the Year at the Museum of Northern Arizona on Wednesday.
The senior was awarded a $5,000 scholarship in the form of a giant check presented by Mayor Coral Evans. First and second runners-up Nicole Tsedah and Xyrus Castillo also received checks for $1,000 scholarships, while all four nominees, including Flagstaff High School sophomore Erin Gene, received a laptop and tech accessories.
The Youth of the Year’s inception can be traced back to 1947 as part of Boys and Girls Clubs of America’s effort to recognize exemplary young people in leadership, service, academic excellence and dedication to a healthy lifestyle. Smith and Tsedah were finalists in last year's competition.
Boys and Girls Club of Flagstaff chair Brandon Kavanagh said the awards are meant to build club members’ confidence and have them tell their stories.
“We want [club youth] to become leaders and inspire others to step forward and become involved in their community and their personal growth,” Kavanagh said. "As a club, we get to show others in the community how our program supports youth of all backgrounds in fulfilling their potential, starting from the basic idea of providing them a safe place to be themselves and growing through the various programs that Boys and Girls Club of America provides as well as local programs that we have initiated."
Aurora, originally from Wide Ruins, Ariz., hopes to use her $5,000 scholarship for an associate’s degree in culinary arts.
“She loves teaching other kids at the club how to cook and she is planning to host a cooking event where she will donate the proceeds to anti-bullying programs,” Kavanagh said of the Youth of the Year winner.
All nominees gave speeches Wednesday night, which were judged by Vice Mayor Adam Shimoni, United Way's Steve Peru and resource officer George Schorman.
In Aurora’s speech, she noted that as a third-grade student, she was bullied to the point where she once had to walk home barefoot after a classmate took her shoes and jacket.
“She wants to use her passion for cooking to find ways to support other students that may face bullying,” Kavanagh said. “We are very proud of her journey and her desire to use her personal experiences and passions to help others.”
Runners-up Nicole Tsedah and Xyrus Castillo are both students at Holbrook High School. They live at the on-campus dormitories, which, like the The Kinlani Bordertown Dormitory in Flagstaff, are provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to students whose families are from the Navajo reservation.
The Boys and Girls Club of Flagstaff has an extension at the Holbrook dormitories, in which a representative from the club travels to participate in activities with the students.
“We did a variety of science experiments, which was very interesting to me because I intend to go into a science field,” Xyrus said of the extension program.
Xyrus, who hopes to be a diagnostic medical sonographer, and Nicole, who wants to go into the architecture field, plan to use their scholarship money to help pay for general studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. before continuing on in their fields.
Nicole and Xyrus chose speech topics that reflected tough issues that were personal to them: teen substance abuse and human trafficking.
“There was an incident at the dorms where two students overdosed on LSD,” Xyrus said of why he chose to bring light to teen substance abuse.
Human trafficking hit Nicole close to home after a family member of hers was taken. While it is a taboo topic, she said, it is important to address because “it is a frequent situation that happens on the reservations.”
Aurora will represent Flagstaff in the state competition March 26 in Phoenix, where she will compete against the winners from 15 other Boys and Girls Clubs in Arizona.
Jowell Gutierrez, 36, was sentenced Friday to 13 years in prison for firing a high-powered rifle at two Williams Police Department officers from his apartment building, endangering the lives of the officers and anyone who could have been in the area, Judge Mark Moran said.
One juror came to the sentencing hearing and spoke in Gutierrez’s defense. Juror James Dykes said he did not attend the hearing to take back his vote to convict Gutierrez, but instead hoped that Moran would be lenient on the 36-year-old.
Before the judge, he quoted one of the jurors from the day the jury delivered its verdict on the case.
“‘We did the right thing, but Jowell is not a cop killer and he does not deserve to be in jail for the rest of his life,’” Dykes said.
On Nov. 28, 2017, dispatch was informed of a suicidal subject, according to court documents. Later, Gutierrez’s mother called and alleged to the Williams Police Department that if police showed up, he would start shooting. When police arrived at the location, Gutierrez fired approximately 18 rounds out of his apartment without striking any officers before surrendering.
Gutierrez’s suicidal disposition was cited by his lawyers throughout the trial as his reason for provoking the police into shooting him. In late December the jury voted to convict Gutierrez of two counts of aggravated assault against a police officer and criminal damage.
The jury was hung on the two counts of attempted murder, showing that they did not feel there was enough evidence to prove Gutierrez wanted to kill the officers. At the hearing, Dykes thanked the police for their service and said he would never forget hearing Detective Robert Anderson testify about how he feared he was never going to see his son again.
Detective Jerry Wilson, the second officer at the scene, called Gutierrez a menace at the hearing for shooting at him and Anderson.
Ranita Sorensen, Gutierrez’s sister, opposed the way her brother was portrayed.
“Jowell’s not a menace. He’s an acting member of society. He’s in our community,” Sorensen said. “He’s worked three jobs and has five children who love him very much and have a mother and a brother for him always.”
When the judge spoke to Gutierrez, Moran acknowledged that the circumstances before the shooting were not in Gutierrez’s favor. He cited the 36-year-old’s inability to receive counseling and detox because he lacked health insurance.
The post-sentencing report showed that Gutierrez hopes to attend Narcotics Anonymous to treat an addiction to opiates, which he has taken since he was in his early 20s. The report shows that at the time of the shooting, he had alcohol and marijuana in his system and was showing signs of opiate withdrawal.
“It seems when you’re sober and not strung out, you’re a good man and attempt to provide for your family,” Moran said.
Moran also called the crime heinous for the power of the semi-automatic rifle used in the shooting.
“The danger you presented that day in the community of Williams was so great and outrageous," he said. "You threatened not just these two officers, but it could have been anyone in that neighborhood. It definitely calls for an aggravated sentence.”
Moran said that despite the verdict in the case, he hoped that Gutierrez would grow from his time in prison.
"I hope during your sentenced you find a way ... to go inside yourself to rise above and not let this act define the rest of your life," Moran said.