Photography by Chris Thelen and Rhian Swain
Each year, the Greater Augusta Arts Council recognizes outstanding members of the Augusta community for their support and contributions to the arts.
The Kath Girdler Engler Award for Public Art
Jason Craig believes the creation of art is as essential to his life as breathing and eating. The senior Westobou designer, freelance illustrator, and artist behind several of Broad Street’s murals (including “Keep Downtown Augusta Funky” and “Get Up Augusta”) says art isn’t just a job or a hobby, but an integral part of his existence.
Craig grew up in the midwest but relocated to Augusta 20 years ago, immediately captivated by the many art galleries, burgeoning artists, blank spaces and dilapidated buildings up and down Broad Street begging for art. Craig’s first experiences designing and painting murals started in Atlanta and other cities, as well as office spaces. But after a while, he realized he wasn’t leaving a mark in his own town of Augusta. The creation of murals, says Craig, is an important way to celebrate the history and culture of Downtown and greater Augusta. They also provide opportunities for local volunteers and artists to come out and create projects together.
“[Murals] are not just to look pretty but serve a purpose,” explained Craig. “They’re not to point out an eye sore, like writing ‘wash me’ on a dirty car. I want to help enhance [the buildings] so Augusta doesn’t lose interest.”
Murals are just a small part of Craig’s impact and influence in the community. Craig also runs a collaborative studio downtown called Pink Slips, and organized Artzilla for the past 10 years, donating $7,500 to the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art. He travels frequently, giving talks at design conferences throughout the country, serves as the president of American Advertising Federation (AAF) Augusta, and hosts monthly AAF creative roundtable meetings for local creatives in the advertising industry.
“I am creative because I have to be,” said Craig. “I don’t understand being anything else. The thought of not being creative would be like not having air. There’s no finish line for my creativity. It’s a perpetual race I’m going to run forever. I want people to come away happier and better than they were before. I want people to think and stop, pause and forget about whatever they had going on. Pause for a second and think about it and hopefully they’re a little bit different because of it.”
According to Charmain Brackett, creative DNA can be traced throughout her family tree, going back to her circus-performing great grandparents (the inspiration for her children’s book, “Little Pearl’s Circus World”), and evident in Brackett’s long writing career, her brother Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman (a well-known local painter), and her three children who are all dancers.
An Augusta native, Brackett has been writing for The Augusta Chronicle for 30 years since her days at Augusta College. She writes about all things art from artist’s stories, to art shows, performing arts, new galleries, exhibits, concerts, events, and so much more in her arts column, which appears on first and third Thursdays in the weekly Applause section. Brackett is passionate about promoting the arts community and city she has always called home.
“There’s lots of history and interesting things about Augusta,” said Brackett. “There’s inspiration all around if you’re looking. So I learned a long time ago to look — look for what will make a good story, what is a good angle.”
Brackett has long been involved in the Augusta art scene, not just as a writer for the Chronicle but also as an actress in productions through the Fort Gordon Dinner Theatre, Augusta Players, and Aiken Community Playhouse, and recently played a small role in the online television series, “The Lyons’ Den.” Brackett says writing fiction is another one of her creative outlets and wrote her first novel six years ago, the first of a series of mystery novels based in Augusta. She is now the author of several children’s books and fictional novels, and received the Georgia Author of the Year Award (GAYA) in 2015 for children’s books.
“I find people very interesting,” said Brackett. “The best stories I write are about people. Everyone has a story to tell and some are not going to write a book, but maybe I can tell their story.”
Arts Professional Award
For Debi Ballas, theater has never been just a job. It’s her passion, something that has been a part of her life since she was a little girl and turned her family’s garage into a theater, and rode around the neighborhood on her bicycle passing out flyers and selling tickets.
Ballas grew up in Massachuchets and later moved to Augusta when she married her husband. She had been involved in musical theater in high school and later sang professionally. In 1992, Ballas performed in her first Augusta Players production as Mama Rose in Gypsy. In the late 1990’s, the organization was struggling financially and nearly closed their doors to the public. So in 1998, the board approached Ballas and asked her to become the executive director.
Ballas immediately went to work to save the theater company. She began researching the history of the organization, its supporters, and losses.
“It was an odd time for the Players because they had lost their home,” said Ballas. “They were bouncing around to different venues. My thought was that we needed one home so that people would know where we were, which became Imperial Theatre.”
Because of the costs involved with moving to Imperial Theatre, Ballas says the company had to do two important things: maintain quality in all theater productions and find sponsorship.
“People had lost their faith in the theater and I just had to reinstall that love, confidence, and belief,” said Ballas. “And slowly we got to where we are now.”
A strong proponent of arts education, Ballas instituted the Artreach Theatre program, which offers discounted tickets to productions for students in the area. She also helped lead the Augusta Junior Players, providing opportunities for children and teenagers to participate in plays, musicals, workshops, master classes, competitions, and even theater festivals. Ballas served for 19 years as the executive and artistic director of Augusta Players, until stepping down in May 2017. It was 19 years of hard work, ultimately driven by her passion for theater and love for community.
“Augusta Players was more than just an organization of artistic people,” said Ballas. “It became like a family.”
Gospel music (and music in general) has been an integral part in Trey McLaughlin’s life since childhood. McLaughlin’s mother, who served as the gospel choir adviser and choir member at Paine College, was a driving force in encouraging her son to sing, learn piano, and participate in the arts.
The Augusta native is the artistic director at Creative Impressions, a non-profit auditioned chorale music ensemble for local middle and high school students. McLaughlin participated in Creative Impressions when he was in high school and attributes his successes as a musician and leader to the encouragement and mentorship he received as a youth.
McLaughlin graduated from Columbus State University and has since performed at L’Opera de Massy in Massy, France, conducted a 300-voice choir in Krakow, Poland, and taught workshops and performed in Menorca and Rajadell, Spain. But despite his many travels, McLaughlin is passionate about cultivating the arts in Augusta and mentoring local students.
“I would love for Augusta to become a place where if you want to be great or if you want to get great instruction, this is the place where people come,” said McLaughlin. “I think we have a lot of hidden gems here but I would love people to say ‘we got to get a gig in Augusta’ or ‘Augusta is where you need to go if you want to become a good singer or dancer’ because there’s a community here where you can excel in the arts.”
Though he is known for singing gospel, McLaughlin sings and teaches all kinds of genres and has been influenced by various musicians from Rodgers & Hammerstein to Stevie Wonder, Journey, and Shania Twain.
“I am definitely a creative being all the time,” he said. “Even in my daily life I sing everyday at least a little bit. If I’m not singing I’m not happy.”
Born and raised in Augusta, Levi Hill has a particular fondness and passion for the city and the revitalization of downtown. The president of Richmond Supply Company (founded in 1942 by Hill’s grandfather) has been instrumental in helping bring Broad Street’s Miller Theater back to life.
The project began back in 2008 when Hill was serving as a board member for the Augusta Symphony, and the theater was donated as its possible new home. Hill was asked to lead a study group to determine whether the theater could be renovated. It took three years to complete the study, which led to the development phase: construction and fundraising. Ten years later, the Miller opened for its first performance in January 2018 – a tribute to Hill’s (and many others) hard work and dedication to the restoration of historic architecture.
“I love Augusta. We have beautiful historic assets here,” said Hill. “I think it’s important to protect our history and downtown. The arts are an ingredient to lead to downtown restoration.”
Hill has been involved with the 63-year-old Augusta Symphony for so long, he can’t quite remember when it started. He says he originally volunteered with the Augusta Symphony League and “stumbled onto the board at some point in time.” Hill is still a board member and has also served with Historic Augusta, Inc., the Augusta Museum of History, and the Morris Museum of Art.
“Augusta doesn’t lack for a thirst for the arts,” said Hill. “The Miller is a wonderful opportunity to provide that to the community. I’m happy as a native to see downtown coming back to life.”
MAU WORKFORCE SOLUTIONS
MAU Workforce Solutions was founded in 1973 by William G. Hatcher, Sr., after he was laid off from his job. Forty-five years later, the company is now run by his son Randy Hatcher, and remains independent and family owned, providing staffing, recruiting and outsourcing solutions.
“Our vision statement is to make lives better through delivering workforce solution globally,” said Hatcher. “This sums up what we do in the community. We tell people you can work for anyone who can give you a job, but we’re interested in making your life better.”
With deep roots in Augusta, the company is passionate about involvement in the local community through volunteering and giving back, specifically through the arts. MAU employees have volunteered time and resources to the Augusta Symphony Orchestra, the Miller Theater, the Morris Museum of Art, Westobou Festival, Heritage Academy, and Historic Augusta, Inc., just to name a few.
“Every city we do business in has different needs,” said Hatcher. “We feel like we should be a part of making that city better. We should give a percentage back and encourage employees [towards] opportunities to be involved and expand their horizons.”
MAU’s conviction in giving back has led to generous corporate sponsorships in Augusta to local schools, universities, and churches, Storyland Theater, performing arts and arts series, non-profit organizations and local agencies, including United Way, the Alzheimer’s Foundation, and the University Hospital Foundation.
Hatcher served as co-chair for the Morris Museum of Art annual gala, generously contributed financially, and set a new record for generating sponsorships. With offices located on the corner of Fifth and Green Street, MAU is dedicated to helping beautify and bring more art downtown.
“With the arts, there’s never enough,” said Hatcher. “We’ll always be trying to get more people involved. From that standpoint I’m always happy to be involved and other employees as well.”
DR. DENNIS SKELLEY
Dr. Dennis Skelley is always on the lookout for public art. An avid traveler, he’s seen much of the United States and makes it a priority to check out the art scene in whatever city he may be visiting.
Skelley is the president and CEO of Georgia Rehabilitation Institute with a clinical background in physical therapy. But despite his clinical side, he is also a creative individual who believes in the arts and has spent decades involved in championing the creation and display of public art in Augusta.
Skelley served as board chair of The Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau, and helped draft a destination plan for the city that identified public art as destinations for tourists and residents. He currently serves as a board member and the vice president of public art with the Greater Augusta Arts Council, working on the public arts master plan to implement funding in 2019.
“I am very pleased with the working relationship we’ve developed through public art with the city and the recreation and parks department,” said Skelley. “That relationship is making for a fruitful public art relationship between the Greater Augusta Arts Council and the city, and our effort to put public art in place.”
Skelley’s physical therapy and artistic backgrounds are not mutually exclusive. His passion for learning metal welding was realized under the tutelage of local artists Kathy Girdler Engler and Tommy Lyles. Skelley commissioned art projects through the hospital, and helped design and name three community public art works in Augusta: “Navigating History,” “Healing Patience” (dedicated to hospital caregivers for their efforts in caring for patients), and “Ribbons of Hope.”
“I think we’re at a crossroads where the community is eager and interested in having more public art to enjoy,” said Skelley. “And the Greater Augusta Arts Council working in tandem with the city is the right model to make it happen.”
Article appears in the August/September 2018 issue of Augusta Magazine.