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BRAVO! BRAVO! BRAVISSIMO! Sandy Spieler receives the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award

By The McKnight Foundation

June 20, 2014

The McKnight Foundation has named Minnesota visual artist, performer, designer, director, and teacher Sandy Spieler as the 2014 McKnight Distinguished Artist, in recognition of artistic excellence spanning four decades. Now in its 17th year, the annual honor includes a $50,000 cash award and recognizes individual Minnesota artists who have made significant contributions to the quality of the state”'s cultural life.

“Sandy Spieler understands the power of art in context,” said Kate Wolford, president of The McKnight Foundation. “Even as her sculptures and performances transcend place, lifting us to realms of fantasy and imagination, she never loses touch with the earth below. An artist of true distinction, Sandy”'s pieces are an enhanced reflection of the reality around her, and around all of us ”” our joys and challenges as members and caretakers of our communities and the greater world.”

Spieler is well known for her leadership of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater (HOBT), a Minneapolis company she has directed since 1976. Originally named the Powderhorn Puppet Theater for its neighborhood home in Minneapolis, the theater was renamed in 1979. In 1988 the company relocated to the old Avalon Theater, a building that started in the 1930s as a family-oriented movie house but later became an X-rated theater. (At the time, HOBT noted the transition on its new marquee with “Bye Bye Porn, Hello Puppets.”) Embracing its rich, culturally diverse surroundings in south Minneapolis, HOBT continues to draw on local and regional perspectives to inform its work. The theater performs locally, but also travels nationally and internationally, playing to audiences that include schools, community groups, and churches.

Spieler”'s interests in puppetry as an art form date back to her early studies with Vermont”'s Bread and Puppet Theater. Last year she told Minnesota Public Radio that was when she first recognized the discipline”'s power as “a way of telling stories and images that was visual, that was movement, that was musical, and that brought people together.”

Within and beyond the walls of HOBT, Spieler”'s extensive artistic résumé includes everything from puppet shows performed in a suitcase to community collaborations, performance installations, public art commissions, and streetscape designs ”” all driven to engage and lift up the broader community. Minneapolis”' annual May Day Celebration includes a parade and ceremony “midwifed” by Spieler, as well as a related festival, and draws an estimated 50,000 people down Bloomington Avenue and into Powderhorn Park. A glorious testament to organized chaos, the parade is an exercise in leading without dictating one singular, prescribed artistic approach or aesthetic. In addition to the procession, the May Day Parade provides workshops and other opportunities for community volunteers of varying skill levels to roll up their sleeves and create elaborate puppets and costumes.

Spieler also teaches regularly at traveling workshops in Bemidji, Ely, Winona, Fargo-Moorhead, and other cities statewide about how to do puppet theater. Central to her work for over 30 years, a focus on water is at the heart of many workshops. Her “Invigorate the Common Well” educational program built awareness about water use and quality, including exploration of who owns and controls access to healthy water and whether our use of water is a right or a privilege. Three decades ago, Spieler first explored the theme of water resources in her art, culminating in “The Circle of Water Circus” which involved 25 adults, 5 children, and 2 dogs traveling all the way down the Mississippi River from Brainerd to New Orleans.

During a 2003 sabbatical in England with an intentional focus on water resources, Spieler became acquainted with the term “the commons,” meaning “belonging equally to all.” In a 2007 Minnesota Department of Health newsletter, Spieler said the term “entered into me… If water is essential to all of life, then access to healthy water is essential for all life, a ”˜commons”' for all to share.” In a rededication to the importance of public water systems, and a rejection of the privatization of water, Spieler emphasizes drinking fountains over plastic water bottles and has helped to initiate fountain renewal projects throughout Minneapolis.

Thematically, Spieler”'s work tends toward such issues that weave together both humanity and the environment. Spieler has said that her work is ultimately about the interconnection of all things, and about recognizing human potential for change. “I think it”'s about looking at each person as responsible, as culpable, but also having great power.” (MinnPost, May 2013)

In addition to her work in Minnesota, Spieler has directed “epic performances” in South Korea, Los Angeles, and the Dominican Republic, and led residencies throughout the region. Spieler has an MA of Cultural Performance from Bristol University, England, studied Balinese masked dance at New York University, and is part of the International ECOARTS network. She has been honored previously through Bush Foundation”'s Leadership and Artist Fellowships, the Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowships, the Jerome Foundation, and the McKnight Artist Fellowships. Spieler has received two UNIMA-USA Citations of Excellence in the Art of Puppetry Award, and fields requests for commissioned work from organizations and arts patrons worldwide.

ABOUT THE MCKNIGHT DISTINGUISHED ARTIST AWARD. The McKnight Distinguished Artist Award recognizes individuals who help lay the foundation for Minnesota”'s rich cultural life. Despite opportunities to work elsewhere, they chose to stay ”” and by staying, they have made a difference. Previous recipients are composer Dominick Argento (1998), ceramic artist Warren MacKenzie (1999), writer Robert Bly (2000), choral conductor Dale Warland (2001), publisher Emilie Buchwald (2002), painter Mike Lynch (2003), orchestra conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (2004), sculptor Judy Onofrio (2005), theater artist Lou Bellamy (2006), sculptor Kinji Akagawa (2007), writer Bill Holm (2008), theater artist Bain Boehlke (2009), sculptor Siah Armajani (2010), dance artist Ranee Ramaswamy (2011), poet John Caddy (2012), and theater artist Wendy Lehr (2013). McKnight will honor Spieler at a private reception later this year.

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