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Award for Artistic Excellence Recipients
Every year the Skokie Fine Arts Commission awards the Award for Artistic Excellence to a Skokie resident who has contributed to the visual, performing, musical or literary arts. Award judging criteria include:
- Visibility in the Skokie community
- Scope of artistic talents
- Breadth of impact - number of people reached
- Recognition and awards the artist has in Skokie and the entire region received
- Demonstration of artistic excellence
All Artistic Excellence Award recipients received a plaque and enjoyed a reception that was hosted by the Fine Arts Commission in their honor. Additionally, their names were added to a perpetual plaque that is permanently on display at the North Shore Center for Performing Arts in Skokie.
The 2022 Artistic Excellence Award for an individual was presented to Jennifer Page, orchestra teacher at Niles North High School since 2013. In addition to almost doubling the size of the program at Niles North, Page established string programs at East Prairie, Golf and McCracken Middle Schools to join Old Orchard Junior High as being Niles North feeder schools with orchestra programs. Page also created the popular extracurricular Viking Strings, an alternative string performing ensemble. Her guiding philosophy that playing music in an orchestra creates connection and community in a way that is profound to a young person and is reflected in numerous community events at which her students have performed. In addition, Page schedules performance and cultural tours, and welcomes diverse musicians into her classrooms to collaborate with her students. In her own words, one of Page’s goals is to help students “create and appreciate the beauty in this world.” Her efforts have had a profound impact on the lives of so many Skokie students and community members through her inspiration, energy, passion, compassion, creativity, and dedication. Page (left) is pictured with Fine Arts Commission Chairperson Pamela Garbarini.
Robin Horwitz and the Devonshire Cultural Center
The 2022 group Award for Artistic Excellence was presented to Robin Horwitz and the Devonshire Cultural Center. Horwitz 35 years of experience in the arts and arts administration fields for 35 years, including work as a singer and actor. As facility manager of the Center, she oversees approximately 50 staff throughout the year and up to 150 during the summer season. Horwitz supervises Devonshire Playhouse theater productions and classes, supervises the summer performing arts camp along with managing all other programming offered at the Devonshire Cultural Center, including dance, visual arts, music, culinary arts, and early childhood/ preschool programs. She believes that experiencing the arts is vital to a person’s quality of life, and was instrumental in creating the Devonshire Theatre Academy, which offers a comprehensive theater curriculum for children and adults. Horwitz (left) is pictured with Fine Arts Commission Chairperson Pamela Garbarini.
Integral to all Devonshire Cultural Center programs is a continued emphasis on helping participants learn more about cooperation, social interaction, self-confidence, and creativity while having fun and making friends, and Horwitz and her team are integral to providing these enrichment opportunities to the entire community.
Nicholas Wyatt, Assistant Village Manager, received the award due to his many contributions to the arts in Skokie during the ten years serving as the Fine Arts Commission staff liaison while progressing from a Village of Skokie administrative intern, management analyst and assistant to the village manager before being promoted to Assistant Village Manager in January 2019. Wyatt secured numerous outdoor sculptures and vibrant, colorful, thought-provoking murals for Downtown Skokie and other areas of the community, and his creativity and vision helped to form the Skokie Through the Lens community photograph exhibit, enhance the annual Student Outstanding Artists Recognition (SOAR) program and much more. Wyatt launched an app to encourage visitors to enjoy Skokie’s abundance of public art, and created a several videos about Skokie’s mural art installations. One of these videos received a national award for its excellence at depicting Skokie as an arts-centric community.
MadKap Productions became the resident production company and management company for the Skokie Theatre in February 2014. Each year, an estimated 14,000 people attend productions at the Skokie Theatre, including plays, musical entertainment, comedies, storytelling, children’s theatre and more. The breadth of the Skokie Theatre’s programming appeals to a wide, inter-generational audience. 2019 recent or upcoming programming includes folk singers, a Frank Sinatra cover performer, the musical play “1776”, a magician, short play festival, the play “Golda’s Balcony”, a show featuring Wayne Messmer, several comedy acts, a tropical music show featuring steel drums as well as a suicide prevention benefit concert. MadKap Productions launched the successful “Skokie Idol” competition, cultivating and recognizing artistic talent in both adult and young performers, and is something the community looks forward to each year. This initiative has grown in popularity each year. Using a very conservative formula, the estimated annual economic impact of Skokie Theatre patrons is a $168,000 contribution to the local economy, just for dining in area restaurants (estimating that 60 percent of patrons dine before or after a show, with an average bill of $20 per person). Using these attendance figures and applying the same conservative formula, between 2014 and 2019, MadKap Productions/Skokie Theatre has drawn more than 70,000 people have attended shows, contributing $840,000 to the local economy just for local dining in conjunction with their attendance. MadKap Productions/Skokie Theatre owner Wendy Kaplan is a generous community citizen, becoming involved with special events and programs developed by the Downtown merchants groups and providing space for programming during the Skokie Backlot Bash. Wendy and Wayne Mell, director, have served on numerous committees and contributed to the growth of Downtown Skokie. Through a recent grant from the Skokie Theatricals, an affiliated non-profit organization, the Skokie Theatre is offering free theatre programs and camps for children in the community.
Ellen Blum Barish
Ellen Blum Barish is a resident of Skokie for over 25 years and, while raising her two daughters which she claims has been her best work, she’s an award-winning writer, editor, and educator whose work has appeared in national print and electronic media, as well as in high-profile public relations corporate and non-profit communications projects. Students are fortunate to also have her as a teacher of journalism and academic writing at several Chicago-area universities including Northwestern, Columbia College Chicago and North Park University bringing language and writing skills to adults throughout the north shore.
Skokie Valley Symphony Orchestra
The Skokie Valley Symphony Orchestra (SVSO) has provided musical entertainment for adults and children around Skokie since 1962. Not only has the Skokie Valley Symphony Orchestra brought world-class musicians to Skokie to perform with the SVSO as guest soloists, they also have encouraged young musicians to bring classical music to their generation, providing recognition and showcases to their most talented young musicians at SVSO performances.The SVSO has continued its outreach efforts, presenting a free concert for over 700 students in addition to bringing musical art to others throughout the year at their concerts.
Arlene Rakoncay is a founding member of the Chicago Artists’ Coalition, which was started in 1975 and became its executive director and later a founding member of the Illinois Arts Alliance (the state’s first arts advocacy group). She has also taught at Columbia College for several years and has been an advocate for the arts in Skokie for 45 years. Rakoncay has tirelessly lobbied for the arts in Illinois, the city of Chicago and even fought the IRS so that expenses could be deducted from filed taxes despite the art not having sold. Rakoncay formed the Committee for Artists Rights to fight art censorship issues. She also launched the Artist Emergency Fund as a way to help the artists of the Huron and Orleans studios that burned to the ground in Chicago and thus lost their work and livelihood. She also has presented at numerous seminars and continues to support the arts community in any capacity she has available.
Robert Bouwman of the Skokie Jewish Community CenterRobert Bouwman has provided theatre entertainment for adults and children around Skokie for a decade. As a director for the Skokie Jewish Community Center, Bouwman wears many hats as a director, including producer, stage manager, at times costume designer, set overseer, technical advisor, and he’s not above being a ticket taker if needed. He has been committed to each play he directs whether it is a musical such as The Sound of Music, works of Neil Simon or the heartfelt Holocaust drama I Never Saw another Butterfly”. He’s adept at working with all actors, professional, children, novice, disabled and all in between. Bouwman has had a key role in the summer performance camp experience for youth at the JCC and has provided a platform for performances to share with the community. He allows the actors to interpret their roles; but at the same time guides them to portray the character in an honest way using their emotions, relationships, and reactions to the script. Bouwman has been known to see the stage as a moving piece of art. He will spend hours preparing for each scene, conducts rehearsals in a focused manner, is aware of every nuance and has a keen sense of timing. Many Skokie residents have been in his plays or a part of his plays and many more attend on a regular basis. He’s made the stage come alive for Skokie residents and beyond, where singing, dancing, drama and music are woven together in a thoughtful way for everyone to appreciate.
Chip De Stefano
Chip De Stefano received both his Bachelor of Music in Trombone Performance and Master of Music Education Degrees from Northwestern University. While at Northwestern, he was director of the Northwestern University Basketball Band and the University Jazz Lab Band. For more than 20 years, De Stefano has been the Director of Bands at McCracken Middle School. Under his direction, the McCracken Middle School Symphonic Band has received numerous notable awards including first division ratings at all district and state organization contests of the Illinois Grade School Music Association and has made multiple appearances at the Illinois Music Educators Association All-State Conference, University of Illinois Superstate Concert Band Festival, and National Association for Music Education (NAfME) North Central Division Conference. In 2006 and 2013 the symphonic Band received an invitation to present a concert at the Midwest Clinic: An International Band and Orchestra Conference. In the Spring of 2007, the John Philip Sousa Foundation awarded the McCracken Symphonic Band the prestigious Sudler Silver Cup. De Stefano also serves as Director of the University Wind Ensemble at the University of Chicago, where he prepares the primarily non-music major ensemble for three performances each year. As a published arranger and composer, De Stefano has received commissions from the marching bands of Northwestern University, Samford University, the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, the University of Idaho and dozens of high schools from across the United States. His works have been performed on ABC’s Rose Bowl Halftime Show, Live! with Regis and Kathy Lee, and WBBM News Radio 780. De Stefano is active nationally as a clinician, guest conductor, and adjudicator. He's conducted honor bands, festivals and camps both nationally and internationally. De Stefano is a recipient of nineteen National Band Association Citations of Excellence. He was awarded the Chicagoland Outstanding Music Educator Award, the IGSMA Barbara Buehlmann Young Conductor Award and the IGSMA Cloyd Meyers Memorial Award.
Maxwell Street Klezmer BandMaxwell Street Klezmer Band has been entertaining in Skokie and around the world since 1983. Founded by Skokie resident Lori Lippitz, the band has played in Carnegie Hall and dozens of European festivals and produced five CDs. In 2013, Maxwell Street marked its 30th “Bandiversary” at The Old Town School of Folk Music. In 2014, Alex Koffman was the featured soloist with Chicago Sinfonietta at Symphony Center in Chicago in Levinson’s “Klezmer Rhapsody.” The same year, the band was featured in the world’s first klezmer opera with The Lyric Opera of Chicago. Not only is the band office located in Skokie, but many members of the band live here, including the Band Director (Lori Lippitz), Bandleader and Violin (Alex Koffman), Trumpet (Ivo Braun), Bass (Jim Cox) and Administrative Assistant and Vocalist (Natasha Bodansky). The band is represented in the Skokie 4th of July Parade, the Sunday Sundown Concert Series in Devonshire Park and the Skokie Festival of Cultures with their Junior Klezmer Orchestra. Numerous Skokie residents have enjoyed the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band performances at Skokie's Wednesdays on the Green Concert Series.
Eddie "The Chief" Clearwater
Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater was born Edward Harrington in Mississippi with music from blues to gospel to country & western surrounding him from an early age. Eddy taught himself to play guitar (left-handed and upside down), and began performing with various gospel groups. After moving to Chicago in 1950 his first music jobs were with gospel groups playing in local churches. Quickly though, he met many of Chicago's blues stars of the time. Eddy fell deeper under the spell of the blues, and under the wing of blues star Magic Sam, who would become one of Eddy's closest friends and teachers. By 1953, as Guitar Eddy, he was making a strong name for himself, working the bars of Chicago’s South and West Side. He met and befriended everyone from Sunnyland Slim to Earl Hooker, picking up licks and lessons along the way. He recorded his first single, Hill Billy Blues, in 1958 under the name Clear Waters. After a successful appearance on a Chicago television show called Bandstand Matinee in 1959, he started receiving more and more local radio airplay. The name Clear Waters morphed into Eddy Clearwater, and Eddy rarely was in need of a place to play. He worked the local circuit steadily throughout the 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s. Wearing a full Indian headdress on the cover of the 1980’s LP The Chief (an homage to his Cherokee blood), The Chief, as he was now known, reached the largest audience of his career. Recording numerous albums for various labels during the 1980s and 1990s, Eddy's star continued to rise. His 2003 CD Rock 'N' Roll City was nominated for a Grammy Award. Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater and his wife Renee reside in Skokie and he continues to perform often at local venues.
Skokie Concert ChoirThe Skokie Concert Choir has been sharing its love of music with area residents for 30 years. The Skokie Concert Choir has 56 enthusiastic singers and draws its members and audiences from Skokie and the surrounding region. The choir annually participates in the Skokie Festival of Cultures and provides music for the Niles Township Clergy Forum Interfaith Thanksgiving service. In addition, the choir performs twice a year for local-area seniors at assisted living residences. In addition, the choir hosts two concerts each January and June that reach over 500 individuals.
Leonid Osseny is an artist, architect, designer, poet, painter and educator. Leonid was born in Russia in 1948 and began his formal education in art at the Ural College of Applied Arts. After returning to Belarus, the native country of his mother, he attended State Theater and Art University studying art and design. Following graduation, Leonid began work at the Belarussian Institute of Restoration where over the next several decades he participated in many important projects, including renovations of the Radziwill Castle in the Township Mir, planning and construction of the exposition space at the Vetka Folk Museum, and rebuilding of the Trinity Suburb, capital city's old quarter. After moving to the United States over 20 years ago, Leonid and his wife Sonya opened Lincoln Terrace Art Studio and Gallery in Downtown Skokie. Since opening the studio, Leonid and Sonya have taught and influenced hundreds of young and aspiring artists. Many of their first students now bring their children in for art classes. Leonid also continued to work as an architect and pursue his interests in painting, furniture restoration and design. His work is not only widely recognized in the United States and his native country of Belarus, but throughout Europe.
Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park
The Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park was originally incorporated in 1988 and is a vital cultural and recreational resource to Skokie and the Northern Illinois region. The land where the Northshore Sculpture Park now occupies is owned by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) and by the mid-1980s had become neglected and was an eyesore. The MWRD developed guidelines and sought suggestions for its improvement. The Village of Skokie came forward with plans to turn the area into a recreational park with biking and jogging paths and picnic areas. At the same time, a group of private citizens proposed using the park to display large scale contemporary sculptures. What evolved was the Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park, Inc., a collaboration between these three entities. The Village cleaned and landscaped the area and created parking lots, pathways, benches and other amenities. The citizens incorporated as a private not-for-profit corporation with a mission to select, install and maintain a world-class sculpture exhibition and to provide educational programs to enhance the appreciation of these exhibits.
The Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park now exhibits over 60 large-scale contemporary sculptures throughout the two miles of riverbank parkland. The Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park is visited by over 100,000 people annually and is consistently honored as one of the top sculpture parks in the world.
Kevin Luthardt is a painter, muralist and author and illustrator of nine published children's picture books. Kevin is committed to using his work to teach and inspire students of all ages, with a special impact on local Skokie students. He began this endeavor years ago as the staff artist for the Skokie Public Library.
Kevin Luthardt (Individual Award Recipient)
Each year, Kevin visits 40 schools, including many in Skokie, an addition to libraries and other venues as an author and illustrator. Kevin has created more than 60 murals in Illinois and beyond, including several large scale projects in Skokie at Devonshire School, the Skokie Public Library, Highland School and at Old Orchard Mall.
Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1995 by Music Director Alan Heatherington and is composed of the finest professional musicians in the Chicago metropolitan area, including many members of the world-renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Ars Viva has performed its five-concert season exclusively at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie for 16 years, giving Skokie residents extraordinary access to some of the finest musical experiences to be found anywhere in the Chicago area.
Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra (Group Award Recipient - Alan Heatherington, Music Director/Founder)
A big part of Ars Viva's mission and history is service to local youth and disadvantaged groups. Since its inception, the orchestra has reached out to the local community, providing concert tickets through residential facilities for senior citizens and persons with physical disabilities. Since 2007, Ars Viva has hosted concerto competitions for aspiring young artists, providing a showcase for the winners at a concert each spring.
Edward Berger was best known for his commitment of 30 years to the performing arts in Skokie which led to the creation of "Devonshire Players." Through Berger's work, this complication of actors, singers and dancers performed at the Devonshire Playhouse in Skokie for many years under his direction. Berger received the award for Artistic Excellence in 2011. Berger passed on November 30, 2011, five months after receiving the Artistic Excellence Award from the Fine Arts Commission.
Mary Sass was the recipient of the first Artistic Excellence award, given in 2010. Sass's involvement in the Skokie art community began with her oil paintings and continues with her work with the Skokie Art Guild, whom she acts as an art show coordinator and writes a column in their monthly newsletter. Sass has illustrated and published a children's book and co-authored Autumn Dreams, which she received a grant previously through the Skokie Fine Arts Commission.