‘Wow, this is fascinating’: Yoknapatawpha Arts Council wins Governor’s Award

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Photo courtesy of Yoknapatawpha Arts Council

A YAC volunteer hangs work by artist Bradley Gordon inside the Powerhouse.

Paint brushes meticulously place droplets of watercolor on paper, elementary school-aged kids twist and turn fingers to learn to knit, a musician belts out a note that’s been practiced all week and a writer scribbles notes in a journal. The Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, headquartered at Powerhouse in Oxford, doesn’t discriminate. Every artist is welcome, and all art forms are encouraged.

Behind the scenes, in a humble office shared with all of the full-time and part-time (five) YAC staffers, is Wayne Andrews.

Mississippi Arts Commission

Yoknapatawpha Arts Council executive director Wayne Andrews, left, and Mississippi Arts Commission executive director Malcolm White

Before Andrews began his role as YAC executive director approximately nine years ago, he and his wife weren’t in Oxford, but they knew the town well. Andrews is from the Northeast, but his wife is a native Mississippian and a University of Mississippi graduate, and both of their children were attending Ole Miss at the time. When a job opened in Oxford, they jumped on it.

“I don’t know if they thought I was the greatest fit, but I think it’s worked out well and I’m happy here,” Andrews said. “I think the board and the community are very happy with the efforts we’ve put in to make the arts council an exciting and vibrant community resource.”

It would seem so. Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, named after Oxford author William Faulkner’s fictional county, has grown to 670 members since it was established in 1975, and the council is the recipient of the 2018 Arts in the Community Governor’s Arts Award, which will be presented by the Mississippi Arts Commission on Thursday at the Old Capitol Museum.  A public reception at 4:30 p.m. will be followed by an awards ceremony at 6 p.m.

Others being recognized are songwriter, performer and producer Steve Azar,  Governor’s Choice Award; Ballet Mississippi artistic director David Keary, Leadership in Performing Arts; painter, arts promoter and activist Joe Overstreet, Excellence in Visual Art, and former executive director of the Craftmen’s Guild of Mississippi and Very Special Arts Mississippi V.A. Patterson, Community Arts Leader.

Andrews said winning the Arts in the Community award highlights the hard work put into the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, the support it has received from its founders, artists and community and the consistency it has sustained over its 42 years.

“I’m very excited to be the person that gets to accept the award, but I don’t think it’s work that I did,” Andrews said. “It’s work that we’ve built year upon year upon year by having consistency.”

Andrews chuckles when anyone asks him, “What’s your favorite thing YAC does?”

Photo courtesy of Yoknapatawpha Arts Council

This art crawl is one of hundreds of programs put on annually by the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council.

It’s hard to choose, he says, because last year alone, YAC hosted 320 days of programs.

The full calendar includes such annual events as the Oxford Fiber Arts Festival, Miss-I-Sippin’ and the Art-er Limits Fringe Festival. The council also partners with other art groups to lead a monthly art crawl to museums and pit stops throughout the city.

YAC-organized programs seem unlimited. To name a few, there’s Small Hall Concert Series, Creative Art Classes, Art Vending Machine, Oxford Maker’s Market, creative art classes of all types and the OxFilm Society.

Over the past year, the city of Oxford has given YAC the chance to manage the Old Armory Pavilion, which will allow for an expansion to outdoor activities.

Andrews said art is one of the greatest ways to show the state’s progress because it breaks down stereotypes, gives voice to diversity and builds connections through stories.

“When you’re experiencing someone’s story, whether it’s through a song or a play or reading a book, it’s not a threatening experience,” Andrews said. “It builds understanding and helps you empathize. All of a sudden you start realizing, ‘Wow, this is fascinating,’ whether it’s an experience or a thought or a concept. It is a great way to make our state stand out.”

Photo courtesy of Yoknapatawpha Arts Council

Local children benefit from the programs provided by the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council.

Oxford and Lafayette County make a creative place for all artistic outlets, Andrews said, because it’s home to a flagship university, renowned bookstore (Square Books) and a smorgasbord of restaurants.

“Oxford’s a very fortunate town that built a reputation out of giving a voice and opportunity to those creative things, and YAC is a nice strong, cohesive organization that focuses on promoting that,” he said.

“We didn’t discover these musicians. They’re talented and they’re already here,” Andrews said. “We didn’t discover these writers or painters. We’re just giving resources and organizing these things to help people come together and celebrate those skills.”

And the state’s people are taking notice. Cathead Vodka co-founders Richard Patrick and Austin Evans donate $1 of every bottle sold to YAC.

They said they chose YAC because of Andrews’ enthusiasm, how the council provides a marketplace for the local arts community and how the organization challenges their minds to connect with the creative side.

“We consider our distillery to be liquid folk art; therefore, it’s fundamentally important to rally around businesses and foundations that align with our efforts in the arts community,” Patrick said. “YAC supports and cares deeply about engaging in the local arts; therefore, they are vital to the local arts community.”

Square Books co-owner Richard Howorth was the mayor of Oxford when Andrews took over as YAC executive director. He said YAC is more active programmatically under Andrews’ direction.

“He is very open to ideas from other people, which has made the community much more responsive and active in the arts activity,” Howorth said.

Photo courtesy of Yoknapatawpha Arts Council

Yoknapatawpha Arts Council partners with the Sarah Isom Center at the University of Mississippi for a concert at Rowan Oak.

“In such an environment, the arts generally become more mainstream, rather than being considered an outsider culture, which is limiting to artists and the community alike,” Howorth said. “Supporting an arts community and being involved in the arts simply makes life more interesting, more enjoyable and more worthwhile.”