6 St. Louis Women Making Waves In The Arts

The six women honored by the 2018 St. Louis Visionary Awards have pushed the city’s arts community forward in distinct, tangible ways—ways such as: establishing the Shakespeare Festival in Forest Park; forging the city’s first space for classical Indian dance; creating space for conversations about race, identity and art; and much more.

We asked each of these inspiring women about their arts experience, inspirations and visions for the future. Keep reading for their answers.

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Yvonne Osei, Emerging Artist

Tell me about your introduction to art and the arts community in St. Louis.
In my culture, as a native of the Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana, art is embodied by people: art is worn, carried around and lived in. My involvement with the art scene in St. Louis dates back to 2009, when I immigrated to St. Louis. I knocked on doors in search of volunteer opportunities in arts administration. I first served as a Gallery Assistant at Three Sinks Gallery, where I was exposed to local artists and art events in the St. Louis area.

What is something you are proud to have created?
In 2016, I created a collection of garments titled “From Utopia, With Love.” These garments are constructed from textile designs using photographic renditions of the skins and body features of diverse individuals I have photographed. I am proud of this work and seek to expand on it because of its potential to celebrate differences and call attention to the superficiality of racial categorizations.

What are you working on at the moment, or what do you currently find inspiring?
I find clothing inspiring because of its potency for artistic expression. Clothing is a universally relatable necessity which exemplifies the synergistic relationship between art and life in my culture. In my most recent creative works, I explore clothing as cultural, social and political symbols as well as literal and conceptual coverings of ‘nudity.’ I am also drawn to the way clothing moves fluidly between public and private spaces.

What is your advice for young people looking to establish a career in the arts?
One of the best pieces of advice I have received is from a professor and mentor who said to me, “Do not let anyone limit your limitlessness.” Try not to internalize constructive criticism to the detriment of your vision.

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Antionette Carroll, Community Impact Artist

Tell me about your introduction to art and the arts community in St. Louis.
My grandparents, who raised me, always integrated art into our home. Still, no one ever told me that a career in the arts is possible. I ultimately decided to pursue design after studying biology. My introduction to the arts community in St. Louis came from the Katherine Dunham Fellowship at the Regional Arts Commission, which opened my eyes to the existence of careers like arts administration.

What is something you are proud to have created?
My biggest accomplishment was the establishment of the Creative Reaction Lab in response to the unrest in Ferguson. We educate and engage Black and Latino youth, to address issues around racism. I am proud to have implemented a new form of creative problem-solving: equity-centered community design, which can be applied to address social justice issues. We are trying to build a network of community leaders and equity designers.

What are you working on at the moment, or what do you currently find inspiring?
Currently, I’m working on the curation of the third annual Design + Diversity conference. The conference examines how we design diversity, both through the visual lens and through the lens of human connection. This year, we are developing a fellowship program to give interested designers the opportunity to not only attend the conference, but also to receive resources to support their success in the industry.

What is your advice for young people looking to establish a career in the arts?
We are at work more than we are at home, so try not to bring unhappiness home with you. Find your happiness in whatever medium that brings you joy.

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Allison Felter, Outstanding Arts Professional

Tell me about your introduction to art and the arts community in St. Louis.
I first encountered the arts in grade school, when my mother insisted I sign up to play a band instrument. I was introduced to the St. Louis arts community fresh out of college, working for the legendary Joan Fann at the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. She took an enthusiastic but wildly unfocused twenty-two-year-old and initiated my training as an arts administrator.

What is something you are proud to have created? 
I have had the privilege of building the Artists-in-Training Program at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis into one that is nationally recognized, providing college-level voice training and life skills to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Numerous graduates have achieved distinguished careers in diverse disciplines, from opera to politics. Beyond the career opportunities, the program invests in the community by offering young people the chance to make lifelong friends.

What are you working on at the moment, or what do you currently find inspiring?
My partnerships, both ongoing and new, make my job interesting. I pair our resources at Opera Theater of Saint Louis with those of partner organizations to create new programming for students and adults. We recently partnered with the Sheldon Concert Hall, St. Louis Public Schools and St. Louis Archdiocesan Schools to offer a professional development day for teachers, including vocal, aural and physical body training.

What is your advice for young people looking to establish a career in the arts?
If you are interested in arts administration, sample as many departments as you can—whether you’re an intern, volunteer or paid employee—to find out where your true gifts lie.

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Asha Premachandra, Outstanding Teaching Artist

Tell me about your introduction to art and the arts community in St. Louis.
When I came to St. Louis, I realized there were no classical Indian dance companies here, so my family and I started our own. We named it “Dances of India,” because many thought our school taught Native American dance. My husband, who was always fond of both Eastern and Western dance, took the lead in organizing the school.

What is something you are proud to have created? 
We are very proud to have created new pieces for our annual dance shows for the past 40 years. I also feel very lucky to work alongside my friends and family. My friend and student Theckla Mehta is the artistic co-director, and my daughter, Nartana Premachandra, serves as the president and writes our original productions.

What are you working on at the moment, or what do you currently find inspiring?
We are continually pushing ourselves to bring new ideas to our dance choreography so that we can inspire the audience. We try to reach out to the audience emotionally to help them truly feel the story or the dance’s rhythm.

What is your advice for young people looking to establish a career in the arts?
Don’t underestimate the benefits that the performing arts can have on your mind and body. Dance in general is very relaxing to the mind and body. Dance is healthy!

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Cheeraz Gormon, Outstanding Working Artist

Tell me about your introduction to art and the arts community in St. Louis.
The house I grew up in had paintings covering the walls and music playing on any given day of the week. I navigated the St. Louis arts community during college as a young photographer and spoken-word poet in 1998, and, since then, my journey has been filled with so much exploration and growth.

What is something you are proud to have created? 
I am proud to have released my first collection of poetry and writing in 2015. I’m grateful to have founded the nonprofit Sonic Arts United, and to have watched it take shape as the co-director over the years. I’m thankful to have helped to establish the St. Louis Brick City Poetry Festival. Last, but surely not least, it was humbling to work with Shirley Bradley-LeFlore to bring back her writers workshop, Poets Alley.

What are you working on at the moment, or what do you currently find inspiring?
As Storytelling Fellow at InPower Institute based in St. Louis, I’m excited to launch a podcast series dedicated to giving voice to Black neighborhoods and communities that have suffered displacement and erasure. In my own poetry, I’m collaborating with visual artist and animator Sarah Paulsen. I am beginning the process of turning some of my poems into short films, which is exciting and intimidating.

What is your advice for young people looking to establish a career in the arts?
Resist the urge to narrow what is meant to be wide. The world has enough systems designed to suppress what is most beautiful, vibrant and liberating. Always choose your freedom.

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Lana Pepper, Major Contributor to the Arts

Tell me about your introduction to art and the arts community in St. Louis.
I was twenty-three years old before I went to the theater. My very first play was “Othello,” and although I knew nothing about Shakespeare, I was mesmerized. I eventually studied theater while raising my children and later became the assistant to the artistic director at The Rep. After receiving my MFA, I began to organize fundraisers and events for local arts organizations.

What is something you are proud to have created? 
I am proud of my role in bringing the Shakespeare Festival to St. Louis. I was first brought on as a volunteer because of my background in Shakespeare and my organizational experience, and eventually I became the managing director. We also immediately implemented educational programs in St. Louis schools. Inspired by the Chicago Shakespeare Festival, we trained teachers to get students up out of their chairs, speaking and acting out the lines.

What are you working on at the moment, or what do you currently find inspiring?
I serve on the board at the Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation, and we are currently working to offer more young people opportunities for performance. I hope that someday, in the future, so many talented artists will be coming from our city that someone will say, “What is in the water in St. Louis? Where is this talent coming from?”

What is your advice for young people looking to establish a career in the arts?
Ask for help. And when you get help, you must give credit to those people. And finally: drive a station wagon, because you’re going to be schlepping.

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