Interview: 2016 Visionary Award Recipient Priscilla Block

On April 25, The St. Louis Visionary Awards will celebrate the passion, determination, and imagination of six local women who daily dive into the trenches to improve our city’s arts culture by stimulating artistic ability via education, philanthropy activism and public engagement.

The honorees selected were chosen by a committee of prominent professionals who include co-chairs Sara Burke and Kim Eberlein, as well as Adrienne Davis, Alison Ferring, Renee Franklin, Melissa Howe, Cynthia Prost, Marilyn Sheperd and Donna Wilkinson.

Priscilla Block. Photo courtesy of St. Louis Visionary Awards.

Priscilla Block. Photo courtesy of St. Louis Visionary Awards.

From her time as a potter and printmaker to her tenure of more than a decade and a half as the executive director of St. Louis ArtWorks, this year’s Outstanding Arts Professional, Priscilla Block, has worked ceaselessly to improve St. Louis as a culturally rich community. Mercurial in her passion, professionalism and love of the arts, her entrepreneurial swagger has ensconced a sense of long-term stability in the organization.

In addition to this year’s Visionary Award, Priscilla was awarded a lifetime achievement award from UMSL for her dedication to the arts in 2014.

St. Louis ArtWorks, the organization that she throws every fiber of her being into, was founded in 1995 originally in partnership with Grand Center, the City of St. Louis and the Regional Arts Commission. Since taking over the reins in 2001, Block has expanded the nonprofit by more than 200 percent. The key to Block’s success is her skills with using the arts as catalyst for career growth, community building and personal development.

Her stewardship and community engagement has enabled ArtWorks to expand its operations with a permanent home at the former Hudson Automotive dealership at 5959 Delmar Boulevard. This expansive home  features over 18,000 feet of studios, media stations, an events space and room for an outdoor garden.

Block commented on her award, her tenure at ArtWorks and how the arts have affected her life.

As we approach the Visionary Awards can you tell us how the arts have impacted your life?

I knew I wanted to be an artist since kindergarten. I always was very involved with it and became a practicing professional artist out of high school; I apprenticed with a potter for many years and went on to sell my work. I did that for 20 years and then I went on to college, and ended up switching to printmaking by the time I finished up my Master’s degree at Washington University. I’ve been doing printmaking ever since then.

My job gives me the ability to think creatively and act creatively. There’s a point where I had to tell myself as my professional, personal, career took a backseat to my career here at ArtWorks that what I was doing at ArtWorks was an art. Once I accepted that, I didn’t have that sort of battle within myself about not having shows.

Describe your creative process as an artist and as the head of your organization?

Well both of them actually start the same way: mundane jobs of cleaning up. There’s nothing like walking around with a broom or dusting to totally free your mind to thinking. It’s getting everything cleaned up and ready and then blast, I sit down and go.

When I think about my creative process for the organization it has to do—and the same with my personal art actually—with what is impacting me in the world. I think that is important for others to understand through the lens of art.

In terms of mashing together the missions, we want our kids not to become professional artists necessarily but we want them to be aware of opportunities out there and while they’re making their art, they get information about different business through our client relationships.

How can St. Louisans better champion the arts?

By visiting and attending things that are brought to the public as arts-related events. If you only look at the newspaper or the media around locally, chances are you are going to miss an awful lot of what is going on in the visual arts.

To support the arts in St. Louis, you need to go see them. You need to consider buying something locally made rather than chain-made and you’ll enjoy it more.

What made you want to become more deeply involved in our arts community?

There was a defining moment when I felt that’s what I could be. It was when I was in kindergarten and my teacher told me that my little cut-out brown bear was the best bear. I came from a very large family and that was the first time I felt singled out for doing something special. It stuck with me for the rest of my life. It was my center of self-confidence.

When I was a professional artist as a potter for all those years, I decided to try teaching because I had been getting a little too isolated in my own studio. But I’d never been to college and I did not have a degree, so I knew that instead of fighting it, I had to join it and I get my degree.

Going to college, I fell in love with just about everything. I had a triple major as an undergraduate in painting, photography and graphic design. I merged all of those into printmaking when I got to Washington University. Then I pretty much stepped away from ceramics. That was intentional when I went to college because I was interested in making very large ceramic pieces and it was wearing out my joints. I knew it wasn’t going to be the kind of art form I would take into my next age in life.

What can other artists and creative professionals in the region do to foster stimulation in the arts?

I think the more you embrace it as part of your life, the more everyone else around you sees it, knows it, feels it, and it’s kind of that growing-out kind of ripple.

How does this award reflect the work you did in 2015?

I certainly think it is reflective of the vision I’ve had for St. Louis ArtWorks’ growth and its future. In each month, the focus is sharper, the details more clear. Each month, I can get a tighter perspective of what I want but I had to start with the lens wide open. The next step after this is preparing for the steps towards the 10 years when I am sure I wont be here anymore and the board will have turned over. So getting everything ready for transition and finding the best ways to utilize this building and this location.

I call it the miracle on the Hudson. This is the miracle of Delmar. It’s like ‘Wow, we landed safely!’ We’re on this ride and it’s left the station already. So hold on and see it at the end.

For more information about Block and St. Louis ArtWorks, visit: stlartworks.org

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