To mark the 10th year of the Seattle Mayor's Arts Awards, 10 awards are presented on August 31, 2012.

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 8/15/2017
  • Essay 20428
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On August 31, 2012, Li Hengda (b. 1963), Buster Simpson (b. 1942), Olivier Wevers, Freehold Theatre Lab/Studio, KEXP 90.3 FM, Lucia Neare's Theatrical Wonders, Seattle Arts & Lectures, Three Dollar Bill Cinema, TilibSedeb (Singing Feet), and The Vera Project receive the 2012 Seattle Mayor's Arts Awards. The awards are presented at the opening ceremonies of Bumbershoot, the city's arts and music festival, in an outdoor event at Seattle Center. Li is a choreographer and artistic director of the Asian American Performing Arts Theatre. Simpson is a sculptor and installation artist. Wevers is a choreographer and artistic director of Whim W'Him. Freehold Theatre Lab/Studio is a theater and performance collective. KEXP is a listener-supported radio station. Lucia Neare's Theatrical Wonders is a creator of public theatrical spectacles. Seattle Arts & Lectures is a literary program presenter. Three Dollar Bill Cinema is a leading LGBTQ film and media organization. TilibSedeb (Singing Feet) is a Duwamish Tribe language and culture group. The Vera Project is an all-ages music venue.

Ten Awards for the 10th Year

Mayor Mike McGinn (b. 1959) had announced the winners on June 5, saying that the "recipients reflect the diversity of arts and culture in our city and together demonstrate a commitment to access for all to enjoy and participate in the arts" (Childers). The number of award recipients selected in 2012 was unusually high. Ten were chosen as a way of marking the 10th year of the Seattle Mayor's Arts Awards, which were first given out in 2003. The winners were chosen from a then-record 550 nominations. (That number would be topped in each of the next two years, although only six awards would be bestowed each year.)

In their first 10 years, the Seattle Mayor's Arts Awards had become a fixture of the city's arts scene. The 2012 awards festivities, held Friday afternoon, August 31, on the North Fountain Lawn at Seattle Center, were attended by some 500 people.

Li Hengda

Li Hengda, a choreographer and the founder of the American Asian Performing Arts Theatre and of the Hengda Dance Academy, began his dance career in his native China, where he was awarded one of seven "State First Class Artists" awards in 1987. While visiting the U.S. in 1990, he was invited to join the Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB), where he was one the main soloists until 1996.

In 1993 Li founded the Hengda Dance Academy, where he taught students both Eastern and Western dance traditions -- and created a mixture of both. That same year, he also founded the American Asian Performing Arts Theatre (originally named the Asian Performing Arts Theatre), dedicated to promoting Chinese arts and culture in the U.S. As its artistic director, he has choreographed and directed more than 20 dance works, including a number of large-scale professional performances such as the Sichuan Earthquake Relief Performance in 2008.

Upon winning the Mayor's Arts Award, Li said, "I know a lot of famous artists in Seattle, but I know only one Chinese artist who has received an award of this kind. I thank the Mayor very much" (Baumgarten, "... Li Hengda").

Buster Simpson

Buster Simpson has been active in the Seattle art scene since he moved to the city to live in an abandoned Pioneer Square warehouse in 1973. In the ensuing decades, he has -- quite literally -- made his mark on the Seattle area. His Growing Vine Street design transformed an area of the Belltown neighborhood into an artistic street park. His Bio Boulevard and Water Molecule sculpture transformed the entrance to the Brightwater Wastewater Facility in Woodinville into a 600-foot work of art. Visitors to Sea-Tac International Airport have seen his luminous Carbon Veil sculpture looming high over the rental-car facility.

Simpson specializes in large public art projects, which are scattered all over the city -- and all over the world. One of his first acts as an artist was to propose transforming some rubble along the waterfront north of downtown into the park being planned for the area (which would later become Myrtle Edwards Park). This proposal was not accepted, but years later, in 2013, Simpson was commissioned to create public art for the city's massive waterfront development plan.

Many of his sculptures and installations reflect a "commitment to conveying the city's environmental and human history through artwork that recycle[s] and re-use[s] materials others might see as rubble to clear away" (Oldham). His work has also been displayed in museums around the world, including the Smithsonian Institution. He called the Mayor's Arts Award an acknowledgement of his work as an "imagineer" (Baumgarten, "... Buster Simpson").

Olivier Wevers

Olivier Wevers, a native of Belgium, became a leading dancer for Pacific Northwest Ballet in 1997. He danced many lead roles and was one of the company's principal dancers. After leaving PNB in 2011, he devoted his energy to his own dance company, Whim W'Him, which he launched in 2008. It was his work with Whim W'Him that earned him a Mayor's Arts Award.

Through this company and his own choreography work, Wevers "helps bring awareness to Seattle as a world-class center of dance" ("Mayor's Arts Awards: 2012 Recipients"). He has created works for the Czech Republic's Ballet of the National Theater Brno and Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet, for which he was once a principal dancer.

Whim W'Him is a contemporary-dance company that holds an annual season at the Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center, along with occasional other venues. Under Wevers's direction, the company's dancers blurred the lines between ballet and contemporary dance and brought a fresh new energy to the Seattle dance scene. At the time of the award, Wevers said it was a "comforting and moving embrace of my efforts" and that Seattle "has shaken and shaped my life, and set me on an ongoing path of self-discovery" (Baumgarten, "... Olivier Wevers").

Freehold Theatre Lab/Studio

Freehold Theatre Lab/Studio was founded in 1991 by a collective of theater artists as a center for the practice of experimental theater. As the name indicates, it has two main components: the Theatre Lab, which provides "a forum for experimentation by professionals," and the Studio, for Freehold's students, offering "a safe place where anyone and everyone can take risks" and "move theater forward" ("About Us").

For students, Freehold provides a full range of classes and workshops across a wide range of theater disciplines and styles, all of which help "develop an artist's greatest gift -- a sense of truth" ("About Us"). More than 100 students are enrolled at any given time in a variety of classes.

Freehold also has an outreach program, Engaged Theatre, in which professionals take theater to places such as prisons, hospitals, homeless shelters, and military bases, performing classic works for audiences who are often new to theater. At the time of the award, artistic director Robin Lynn Smith said, "We are honored to have this recognition ... because we're not your typical, conventional theater institution" (Baumgarten, "... Freehold Theatre").

KEXP 90.3 FM

KEXP 90.3 FM is a well-loved listener-supported radio station, licensed to the University of Washington, that has been an important part of Seattle's music scene since 1972. In the beginning, it was KCMU-FM, a 10-watt station whose signal, at 90.5 FM, extended only through the University District. KCMU began relying on community fundraising in 1981, and boosted its wattage the following year and again in 1986, when it also switched frequencies to 90.3 FM and moved its transmitter to Capitol Hill. The station changed call letters to KEXP in 2001 and again expanded its signal area. By 2012, it had long become a nationally known outlet for a huge array of styles that listeners won't always find on commercial stations.

From the start, the noncommercial station has provided an outlet for local, experimental, and not-always-commercial musicians to broadcast their music and build an audience. Its "45 curating DJs" present emerging artists along with more established bands (Baumgarten, "... KEXP"). It also hosts a wide variety of community events, including music festivals.

One of KEXP's principal roles is to sift through the enormous amount of music produced in the Northwest and review it for possible play. The station reviewed 15,000 new records in 2011. At the time of the award, the station's executive director, Tom Mara, said:

"I can tell you from our vantage point that Seattle music has never been more voluminous, has never been more diverse, never been more enriching and never been more inspiring ... KEXP has never been as inspired by Seattle's music as we are now" (Baumgarten, "... KEXP").

Lucia Neare's Theatrical Wonders

Lucia Neare has devoted her life to "nurturing a sense of community in public space" by producing large-scale outdoor theatrical spectacles ("About: Lucia Neare"). For instance, one of her "wonders" was titled "Ooo La La! A May Day Spectacular," in which 200 costumed performers celebrated May Day in 2008 on the Harbor Steps in downtown Seattle. There were dancers in elaborate pink costumes, performers dressed like large layer cakes, dancing French chefs, and a Dixieland band.

These events draw people of all ages to the city's parks, beaches, and streets. Neare enlists the help of volunteer artists across a wide spectrum -- costumers, dancers, actors, singers, designers, and puppeteers -- to bring these dreamlike productions to life. All the performances are free. Neare explained, "It's important to me that the work is free ... so that people can engage with it outside of their role as a consumer, so they can engage with it with a different frame of mind" (Baumgarten, "... Theatrical Wonders").

Neare said that Seattle has given her a place to give life to her dreams: "I feel honored to live in a city that accepts and embraces dreams ... To receive the award is so validating. It is deeply moving" (Baumgarten, "... Theatrical Wonders").

Seattle Arts & Lectures

The Mayor's Arts Award arrived at a fitting time for Seattle Arts & Lectures. It was the organization's 25th year of presenting authors and poets to Seattle audiences. The group's Literary Arts Series brings local, national, and global writers to Benaroya Hall's Taper Auditorium. Its Poetry Series does the same at other venues. Over the decades, it has "presented transformative programs with acclaimed writers that foster diverse ideas, the imagination, and a love of reading and writing" ("Mayor's Arts Awards: 2012 Recipients").

Seattle Arts & Lectures grew out of a new movement on the West Coast to give the East Coast publishing industry "a place to deliver authors and ideas" (Baumgarten, "... Seattle Arts & Lectures"). As of 2012, it had evolved into a local literary powerhouse, with a budget of $1.3 million and a full-time staff of eight. It has brought to Seattle big names such as Louise Erdrich, John Updike, Calvin Trillin, and Isabel Allende, among many others.

It also developed an educational arm, with its Writers in the Schools program that sends professional writers to local classrooms to develop skills in reading and writing. Linda Bowers, the executive director of Seattle Arts & Lectures, said the award arrived "with perfect timing for us," as the organization celebrated its landmark anniversary (Baumgarten, "... Seattle Arts & Lectures").

Three Dollar Bill Cinema

Three Dollar Bill Cinema is Seattle's premiere LGBTQ film and media organization. Its flagship event is the annual TWIST: Seattle Queer Film Festival, the largest festival of its kind in the Northwest, which was known as the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival at the time of the award. The organization provides access to films "by, for and about LGBT people and their families, and is a forum for LGBT filmmakers to share and discuss their work" ("Mayor's Arts Awards: 2012 Recipients").

Three Dollar Bill Cinema got its start in 1996, when it produced the first Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival on a single screen for a single week. As of 2012, the event had grown to a 10-day festival with 150 films shown at five venues throughout Seattle. The organization also added several other events including Translations: The Seattle Transgender Film Festival, and Outdoor Cinema, a series of free, campy, outdoor film screenings at Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill.

This was the first Mayor's Arts Award given to an organization "solely dedicated to supporting the art created by and for the city's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens" (Baumgarten, "... Three Dollar Bill Cinema"). Executive director Jason Plourde said the award was an honor, and indicative of an ongoing trend in Seattle: "I think it has a lot to say about Seattle and the inclusiveness of this city that queer people are just part of the fabric of the arts and our community in general" (Baumgarten, "... Three Dollar Bill Cinema").

TilibSedeb (Singing Feet)

TilibSedeb is the Duwamish Tribe's cultural heritage group for young people. The youth group, whose name means "Singing Feet" in the Tribe's Lushootseed language, instills the language, the music, the dancing, the oratory, and the storytelling traditions that have been handed down through generations. The group was "founded on the belief that learning traditional values and taking pride in accomplishments can help youth avoid drug and alcohol addiction and become contributing members of their community and society" ("Mayor's Arts Awards: 2012 Recipients").

TilibSedeb was launched by Duwamish Tribe Chair Cecile Hansen and other leaders in 2001to keep these age-old traditions alive. The group performs at events throughout the year and also pitches at other community events, including the cleanup of the Duwamish River. The group also teaches leadership, and in 2012 students themselves began taking over the reins of the group. They began teaching what they had learned.

The Mayor's Arts Award was an important form of recognition for the group. Cindy Williams, the Tribe's youth coordinator, said:

"It is a human right and gift to be acknowledged and respected for being who you are ... We raise our hands to the City of Seattle for honoring and remembering that, in this small way, through our youth. We find that very significant!" (Baumgarten, "... TilibSedeb").

The Vera Project

The Vera Project is an all-ages music venue and a key part of Seattle's local music scene. But it goes beyond being a music club. It teaches young people between the ages of 14 and 24 skills in audio engineering, recording, visual arts, and leadership. It "gives youth the skills necessary to pursue their creative and professional passions [and] engages thousands in the arts and helps develop the future of the music industry" ("Mayor's Arts Awards: 2012 Recipients").

The organization was founded in 2001 by a group of volunteers who based it on a similar club in the Netherlands. The name Vera is an acronym for the Latin phrase Veri Et Recti Amici, meaning "true and sincere friends." The project began in a space in downtown Seattle and moved to its own custom-designed club and office space near Key Arena at Seattle Center in 2007. Since then more than 100,000 people have walked through its doors.

According to its website, "Vera successfully carved out a space for youth-driven music and art in Seattle, and has become part of a larger national movement defining a culture of all-ages, participatory music and arts" ("History"). At the time of the award, executive director Beth Warshaw-Duncan said of the project, "It is a successful all-ages space that is run really professionally, but also collectively, which is a fine line to walk" (Baumgarten, "... The Vera Project").


"Mayor's Arts Awards: 2012 Recipients," Seattle Office of Arts and Culture website accessed August 5, 2017 (; Calandra Childers, "Mayor Announces 2012 Mayor's Arts Awards Recipients," June 5, 2012, Seattle Office of Arts and Culture Art Beat Blog accessed August 4, 2017 (; Linda Deng, "Li Hengda: Taking Art to a Higher Level," China Daily USA, April 24, 2015 (; Mark Baumgarten, "Mayor's Arts Awards: Li Hengda," August 24, 2012, City Arts website accessed August 9, 2017 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Buster Simpson's commission to create public art for Seattle's massive waterfront redevelopment is announced on January 9, 2013," (by Kit Oldham) and "Alan Chong Lau, MOHAI and Leonard Garfield, Stephen Stubbs, Path with Art, the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe, and TeenTix receive Seattle Mayor's Arts Awards on August 29, 2014" (by Phil Dougherty), (accessed August 15, 2017); Mark Baumgarten, "Mayor's Arts Awards: Buster Simpson," August 30, 2012, City Arts website accessed August 9, 2017 (; Mark Baumgarten, "Mayor's Arts Awards: Olivier Wevers," August 29, 2012, City Arts website accessed August 9, 2017 (; "About Us," Freehold Theater Lab/Studio website accessed August 9, 2017 (; Mark Baumgarten, "Mayor's Arts Awards: Freehold Theatre," August 28, 2012, City Arts website accessed August 9, 2017 (; Mark Baumgarten, "Mayor's Arts Awards: KEXP," August 22, 2012, City Arts website accessed August 9, 2017 (; "KEXP History," KEXP website accessed August 15, 2017 (; "About: Lucia Neare," Lucia Neare's Theatrical Wonders website accessed August 9, 2017 (; Mark Baumgarten, "Mayor's Arts Awards: Theatrical Wonders," August 27, 2012, City Arts website accessed August 9, 2017 (; Mark Baumgarten, "Mayor's Arts Awards: Seattle Arts & Lectures," August 30, 2012, City Arts website accessed August 10, 2017 (; Mark Baumgarten, "Mayor's Arts Awards: Three Dollar Bill Cinema," August 23, 2012, City Arts website accessed August 10, 2017 (; "General Info," Three Dollar Bill Cinema website accessed August 15, 2017 (; Mark Baumgarten, "Mayor's Arts Awards: TilibSedeb," August 21, 2012, City Arts website accessed August 10, 2017 (; Mark Baumgarten, "Mayor's Arts Awards: The Vera Project," August 20, 2012, City Arts website accessed August 10, 2017 (; "History," Vera Project website accessed August 10, 2017 (

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