Supporters of the arts in Montgomery County gathered the evening of Monday, Oct. 29 in the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center, Takoma/Silver Spring Campus, for a variety of entertainment as well as the presentation of the 2018 County Executive’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities. Established in 2002, the awards honor community leaders whose work in the cultural sector has made an impact in the county.
“I am honored to be able to pay tribute to these fabulous artists and organizations,” said County Executive Ike Leggett, who presented the awards with his wife Catherine Leggett. “By their work, they lift us up and educate and inspire us. They make us laugh and make us cry. They make a good Montgomery County even better.”
Suzan Jenkins, CEO of the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, concurred. “It is an honor to celebrate these nine award recipients who remind us of the deep impact the arts and humanities have on our community,” she said. “The arts and humanities bring grace, hope, understanding and perspective to our world.”
All the winners expressed appreciation for the honors bestowed upon them to the county executive and the arts council as well as for the support they have received from their organizations, communities and families.
Eleanor Epstein, winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award, founded Zemer Chai, The Jewish Chorale of the Nation’s Capital, in 1976, a choir dedicated to sharing the rich musical heritage of the Jewish people. She accepted her award with solemn words referencing the horrific murders of Jewish worshippers that had occurred just two days earlier. “As we add Pittsburgh to Charleston, Charlottesville, New York City, Boston and too many other places in our country and around the world, your fundamentally American mission to celebrate and appreciate the diversity of Montgomery County is a beacon in what feels like an increasingly dark world,” she said.
Epstein also noted that the partnership between her and her singers, she said, “enables Zemer Chai to build bridges of understanding, helping our audiences to understand that, at the deepest level, our Jewish story, just like each culture’s story — is everyone’s story, and that, yes, it is possible to live in harmony with your neighbor.”
“In light of this moment in our history, in respect to all who have died needlessly and in defiance to the forces of senseless hatred,” Epstein invited the audience to “please sing with me now and let this be our vigil.”
The Lifetime Impact Award went to Dr. Winston Anderson, Professor Emeritus of Biology at Howard University, who is founder and curator of the in the Sandy Spring Slave Museum and African Art Gallery’s African and African American Art Collection as well as president of the Historic Odd Fellows Preservation Committee. “It is incumbent on my generation to do things that benefit succeeding generations,” said Dr. Anderson. “Both the Sandy Spring Slave Museum and African Art Gallery and the Historic Oddfellows Lodge are considered Heritage Museums. Both highlight the heritage of African American families for whom Montgomery County is their home. They display the rich and significant contributions that African Americans have made in the building of America, and they help bridge the information gap and inform all ethnic groups about the advantages of cross-cultural communication and diversity, as expressed through history, the arts and the humanities.”
A special Artistic Excellence Award was created this year to celebrate the musical accomplishments of electric cellist William Wytold Lebing, a former Strathmore Artist in Residence who has performed his original compositions with the National Symphony Orchestra as well regularly at Walter Reed Medical Center; he also co-leads workshops to help heal veterans and their family members, describing that as “a path that reminds me every day that arts can change lives, calm minds and reinvigorate our souls.” “With this award,” he added, “I realize the support of every member of this community makes it possible for me to continue teaching, creating and sharing my music for many years to come.”
Community Award winner Kashi-Tara Barrett is an actor, vocalist, playwright and producer; she is also the artistic director, writer, choreographer and founder of The Finest Performance Foundation Inc., which started in 1989 as part of a City of Rockville after-school program with then-high school student Kashi-Tara as choreographer. “Often times the work we do in the community goes unappreciated, uncelebrated and unsung. But me standing here receiving this award proves that our work is appreciated and does not go unnoticed,” she said. Asked why she “puts so much effort into the community when I have my own life vying for my energy? I do it because I absolutely love the arts! I love the arts community, ‘the village.’ I love when the audience comes together and supports the artists’ vision, their creative expression, their gifts.”
Debbie Ellinghaus, Olney Theatre Center’s Managing Director since August 2014, received the Emerging Arts Leader Award. At Olney, she partners with Artistic Director Jason Loewith to lead the staff and execute the theater’s mission and vision and serves as liaison to its board of directors. “We are in our 81st season at Olney, and we stand on the shoulders of visionaries who dreamed that a theater could make a community better,” she said. “More than 100,000 people come through our doors each year to share unique experiences and learn new perspectives about the human condition. Theater feels more important now than ever.”
Education Award winner Linda Sato Adams recently retired after 30 years with Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS). Her many roles have included art teacher, department chair, resource teacher and staff development teacher, and finally, Supervisor of Fine Arts, in charge of MCPS’ dance, music, theater and visual art programs.
“Preparing our youth for the 21st century is such an important task, and I have been so encouraged every time I have walked into an arts education program and seen it in action in our schools,” she observed. “The dedication of our teachers and administrators, the passion of our students, the commitment from our parents and the collaboration amongst our arts organizations…you keep all of our hopes and dreams alive in the arts.”
The Business Award went to Curt Shackelford, owner of StandUpComedyToGo.com, who has been running “Laugh Riot” live standup comedy shows on Saturday nights in Bethesda for 15 years. After affirming that his shows at Positano Italian Restaurant are “the most fun you can have in Bethesda on Saturday nights,” he said, “I’m honestly surprised that live standup comedy won this award — live standup comedy has always been the black sheep of the arts — never taken seriously as an art form, so I am thrilled to see it is getting some attention as a bona fide art form.”
Erwin Timmers, selected for the Outstanding Artist Award, founded and co-directs the Washington Glass School, where he teaches glass, lighting, sculpture and metal work. Recurring themes in the “green artist’s” work include recycling, waste and how they relate to society. “I find it very rewarding in itself to work in art, with students, with communities, or by myself, and it has become an avenue for me to speak out for our environment and what we as a society can do to preserve it,” Timmers said. “I hope to continue to inspire people of all ages to use their hands to express themselves and not just their thumbs.”
The Volunteer Award went to Mark Willen, who serves as statewide coordinator of Maryland Writers’ Association Teen Clubs, which are co-sponsored by local branches of the Montgomery County Public Library system. “The real stars,” he said in accepting his award, “are a dozen other volunteers who lead our 12 clubs, serving more than 100 teen writers throughout Maryland, with seven of those in Montgomery County. And each year, we publish their work in an annual anthology, edited by volunteers and paid for by the members of the Maryland Writers’ Association.”