Gitana Productions Uses Art to Break Barriers

"Complacency of Silence: Darfur" written for Gitana by Lee Patton Chiles.

“Complacency of Silence: Darfur” written for Gitana by Lee Patton Chiles.

Since its inception in 1996, Gitana Productions, Inc. has used the arts as a vehicle to bring diverse segments of the St. Louis community together.

“Our mission is to build community and make it diverse using varied forms of artistic expression, such as dance, drama and music,” said founder Cecilia Nadal.

This spring, as a result of a $4,500 PNC Project Grant administered through the Arts and Education Council, Gitana Productions will produce “Black and Blue,” an original play by Lee Patton Chiles that explores the complex relationship between the African-American community and the police. The project will be produced using professional actors and will include community roles for African-American young males from the Ferguson area. “The reason we chose this concept is that we see both groups, African Americans and the police, wounded by mistrust,” said Nadal. “They both have a bruise, a black and blue, which needs healing. African-Americans stand out for the black color of their skin. The police stand out for their blue uniforms. Bias and judgment befall them. People have an unconscious bias that gets applied to both groups in similar ways.”

The play will be performed May 22, at the Missouri History Museum for three days. Then it will be performed at the Kranzberg Arts Center and other venues to be announced. Nadal says so far, nine performances have been planned, all of which are free.

“This is such an important topic we didn’t want any barriers to exist,” said Nadal. “We wanted as many people as possible to be able to see it.”

Currently, Gitana is working with young people in Ferguson at the Greater St. Mark Church who also will be part of the play. “We are training protestors to tell their stories,” continues Nadal. “Our plan is to incorporate some of their stories and the training we are doing with them into the play.”

Gitana Productions is an A&E 2015 PNC Project Grant recipient. For more information, visit

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Ann CorriganAnn Corrigan can think of no better day than one spent immersed in the arts. She’s likely to start with a morning coffee concert by the St. Louis Symphony at Powell Hall. After lunch, she’ll browse several of the art galleries before heading to the Fox Theatre for a show or to the Sheldon Concert Hall (an A&E grantee), where she has been a volunteer usher for 20 years.

“The Sheldon is St. Louis’ little Carnegie Hall and I absolutely love it,” says Corrigan, a retired special education teacher. She taught in the St. Louis Special School District for 34 years, retiring in 2004.

“I’m someone who bangs around Grand Center because it’s so rich in arts organizations,” she explained. “I have always felt comfortable and perfectly safe doing things by myself, and I have found the arts here to be quite modest in price, certainly compared to the coastal cities.

“It really doesn’t cost a lot to see a fabulous opera or symphony performance here,” she continued. “And if we don’t have more free things or nearly free things to do than anyplace else in the world someone is going to have to prove that to me, given our zoo, art museum, history museum and botanical gardens, among so many other places.”

No question Corrigan is a major cheerleader for the arts in St. Louis, but she also believes in giving back to arts organizations and institutions. When she was teaching, she supported the Arts and Education Council’s Workplace Giving Campaign through payroll deduction. Then she became a Workplace Giving Campaign Coordinator and encouraged her colleagues to give, explaining their donations to A&E help fund nearly 70 local arts organizations.

“I really love that A&E supports so many arts organizations on such a consistent basis as well as makes room to support new groups,” she said. “Once I retired, I could no longer do payroll deduction so now I write a check. It’s a very happy check for me to write.”

While Corrigan, 67, grew up in Sikeston, Mo., which wasn’t exactly an arts Mecca, she says her mother exposed her to as many community theater and concert performances as possible. “My mother grew up in St. Louis and loved the arts, and she instilled that love in me,” said Corrigan.

Looking toward the future, Corrigan is naming ten of her favorite non-profit organizations, including A&E, as beneficiaries of her retirement plan.

“Retirement funds are fertile ground for bequests,” says Corrigan. “Non-profits won’t have the heavy tax burden that a family member or individual would have to pay. I think it would be wonderful if more people remembered the organizations that gave them so much pleasure in life when they go about estate planning. It’s such a simple thing to do.”

For more information about including the Arts and Education Council in your annual giving or estate plans, contact Kate Francis, Vice President of Development at or 314.289.4003, or visit

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St. Louis ArtWorks Celebrates 20th Anniversary with a New Home!


Artist rendering of the new St. Louis ArtWorks building at 5959 Delmar Boulevard (above). Students participating in St. Louis ArtWorks’ programs (below).

Artist rendering of the new St. Louis ArtWorks building at 5959 Delmar Boulevard (above).
Students participating in St. Louis ArtWorks’ programs (below).

IMG_26266.24.14 011St. Louis ArtWorks StudentIMG_06440276.24.14 009research assisitant with video group

Among the area’s many excellent local arts education programs, St. Lous ArtWorks stands out not only because it trains and nurtures young artists, but also because it pays them. Come summer, it also will be able to grow the number of teenagers it hires and expand its programming thanks to a move to a new building in the Delmar Loop East neighborhood and financial assistance from an Arts and Education Council PNC Project Grant.

Priscilla Block, executive director of St. Louis ArtWorks, says the new building at 5959 Delmar Boulevard and additional grant money will allow the organization to expand how many kids they can hire; have a media and innovation lab that is state of the art; provide membership for adults to do their own work; have an outside garden area for environmental art projects; and partner with schools and organizations that can rent the space.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of St. Louis ArtWorks, which was founded by a group of local citizens who saw a need for meaningful summer employment for underserved teens. Today, the work-training program provides young adults, ages 14 to 19, a yearround opportunity to gain life skills, boost self-esteem and earn a paycheck.

After a competitive application process, selected teens – called apprentices – work in teams to produce artwork that is sold at a public sale, commissioned for public and private clients or performed publicly. Teens not only make art, they also learn about the business of being an artist. Working on commissioned artwork, apprentices have the experience of meeting their clients, preparing a project budget and seeing their work installed.

Block anticipates working with more than 200 under-resourced teens this year. “This spring, we have our largest after-school program with 72 kids,” she said. “From June 6 to July 18, we will have 95 teens participating as apprentices for six weeks, five hours a day, five days a week.” Participating apprentices will be evaluated on objectives relating to growth in artistic skills and knowledge, workforce development, fiscal literacy and communication skills.

Currently, ArtWorks operates in two locations – a primary site at Grand Center’s Centene Center for Arts and Education, owned by A&E, and a satellite studio in old North St. Louis. The new flagship building will allow ArtWorks to consolidate all of its programs in one location.

“We’re thrilled that St. Louis ArtWorks has been able to grow and thrive as a tenant of the Centene Center for Arts and Education,” said Cynthia A Prost, president of the Arts and Education Council. “Seeing organizations like St. Louis ArtWorks move into their own building and expand their programming is a fulfillment of the Arts and Education Council’s mission to enrich our community.”

St. Louis ArtsWorks is a PNC Project Grant recipient of the Arts and Education Council and a tenant of the Centene Center for Arts and Education. For more information, visit

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C.J. Watkins, Jazz St. Louis All-Star

C.J. Watkins plays with the Jazz St. Louis All-Stars

C.J. Watkins plays with the Jazz St. Louis All-Stars

Christian Brothers College High School sophomore C.J. Watkins didn’t think he would audition again for Jazz U, a program for talented middle and high school musicians through Jazz St. Louis (an A&E grantee). He had won a spot as a drummer in Jazz U during his freshman year in 2013, but he knew this year would be that much more rigorous academically. There also was the matter of another of C.J’s passions – basketball – where C.J. is an active part of CBC’s varsity program.

“I was really close to not coming back because I knew I would have such a busy schedule,” he says. “Then I made the All-Stars as a sophomore. It was a big surprise and a really good one.”

The Jazz St. Louis All-Stars play at Jazz at the Bistro.

The Jazz St. Louis All-Stars play at Jazz at the Bistro.

The Jazz St. Louis All-Stars is the top-tier group of the seven musical combos that make up Jazz U. Phillip Dunlap, director of education and community outreach at Jazz St. Louis, explained that 135 emerging musicians auditioned for 53 spots in Jazz U for the 2014-15 season. C.J. is one of seven students in the All-Stars, and among the youngest in that group.

“C.J. is in a great place for his age,” says Dunlap. “He has a good grasp of the fundamentals, a good sense of time, good communication skills, being present and playing together as a unit. It’s easy to learn the flashy stuff. Fundamentals are much harder.”

C.J. is aware that being part of Jazz U is an honor; being selected as an All-Star is the ultimate. It not only gives students the chance to meet and work with musicians participating in the Jazz St. Louis Artist Residency Program, but it also can help jump start a student’s musical career.

Jazz U and the All-Stars are free of charge to the students involved. Dunlap says that because of the support from granting organizations such as the Arts and Education Council, Jazz U has been able to grow and flourish.

“A&E has been a great friend of ours for years and one of the cornerstones of what makes up our funding base,” he says. “Without A&E support, we would not be able to do what we do.”

C.J.’s parents say that their son’s involvement in the All-Stars has been a gift. “It’s been a blessing,” says his father, Christopher Watkins. “From a musical education perspective, C.J. has gotten the chance to meet people that he otherwise would never have been able to meet and greatly broaden his horizons as a drummer and well-rounded musician.”

C.J. thoroughly agrees. “I’ve definitely gained more confidence as a drummer,” he says. “My goal is to keep playing with the All-Stars throughout high school. I definitely want to pursue music in college.”

Of course that means discipline. Most every Monday night from September through May, C.J. attends All-Star practices. In addition, he performs with the All-Stars throughout the year when they entertain at several community performances as well as at Jazz at the Bistro.

“The All-Stars get their own weekend on stage at the Bistro,” says Dunlap. “There’s no question (the AllStars) is an intense program for very mature students. We don’t hold their hands. Students at Jazz U get additional structure and knowledge. They can take what they learn from us and apply it in their school music group. They become leaders that other students gravitate toward.” Jazz St. Louis is an Operating Grant recipient of the Arts and Education Council.

For more information, visit

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From Trapeze to Dance: Elizabeth Herring, a lifetime in the arts

Elizabeth Herring teaching ballet at the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center.

Elizabeth Herring teaching dance at the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center.

They enter the large, multi-purpose room at the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center dressed in yellow sweatshirts and matching pants, wearing tentative looks on their faces. It’s unclear what these four African-American young women, all teenagers, have done to land in detention, but each will stay here until her court date. In the meantime, there is schoolwork to be done, appointments with counselors and ballet class with Miss Elizabeth.

For the past decade, Elizabeth “Bunny” Herring, who is 88 years old, has been volunteering with Prison Performing Arts (PPA), a non-profit that involves incarcerated youth and adults in the performing arts to enhance intellectual and personal development. PPA is the recipient of a PNC Project Grant from the Arts and Education Council and a tenant in the Centene Center for Arts and Education.

Herring has been teaching the weekly ballet class through PPA the last three years. “I really love being with the girls. It’s the most fulfilling work I know,” she says before her 45-minute class. “It’s really not about them becoming dancers. Many of them have been abused and have a diminished sense of self. Through ballet, they can take ownership of their bodies, be proud of themselves and carry their heads high.”

On this Friday afternoon, Herring first shows the girls a video performed by Dance Theatre of Harlem, which was in town in November 2014 through Dance St. Louis, another A&E grantee. Then she leads them to a makeshift ballet barre to take them through the paces – first position, second position and so on, all the time checking their posture and form. After, she challenges each to make up a few steps of her own. The tentative look returns to their faces, but eventually they succumb. In fact, they seem to enjoy waving their arms midair and moving their legs across the floor. As they dance, Herring provides positive feedback.

“Volunteering with Prison Performing Arts is the most fulfilling work,” says Herring. “I see wonderful results as to how performing arts can change people for the better. It helps them to get in touch with their creative side and blossom. It’s a very, very wonderful thing.”

Rachel Tibbetts, director of education at PPA, explains ballet is just one of several arts programs through the organization’s Learning Through the Arts initiative, where local artists mentor youth at the city detention center in music, dance, opera and theater.

“The young people get to work with professional teachers and performers, which really helps them learn through the arts,” says Tibbetts. Other PPA youth programs include the “Hip Hop Poetry Project,” which provides intensive performance arts programming during public school breaks at the detention center. The goal is to have each youngster spend every day of the project in classes, workshops and creative activities; it culminates with a student poetry performance.”

Before ballet, Herring taught poetry to at-risk youth and shared the stage with convicts in other PPA programs. She also tutors at the detention center. Dance, though is a natural for Herring, who tries never to miss her weekly trapeze class at the City Museum with Circus Harmony, still another A&E PNC Project Grant recipient.

“I decided I would do a trapeze act to celebrate my 80th birthday,” said Herring, a stunning wisp of a woman who moves with grace. “Pushing yourself to stay fit and doing things to help others, why that’s the greatest thing you can do in your life, especially in old age.”

Herring grew up in St. Louis, attended Mary Institute and an East Coast boarding school, and then studied ballet at the American School of Ballet in New York City. The plan was for her to dance professionally, that is, until, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus came calling.

“They were looking to recruit professional dancers and I had always loved the circus,” Herring recalled. “There were many girls who tried out. I auditioned and was one of 60 who were hired as dancers.

“That was terribly disappointing to my father,” she continued. “He wanted me to go to Vassar and marry someone from Yale.”

Herring spent three years as an elephant and horse rider under the big top. She left to marry Skyler “Swede” Herring, a cowboy whom she met while on a family vacation out West. The two moved back to a farm in Pike County, Mo., had four children, lost one, and were married for more than 50 years – Swede passed away in 2005. Today, Herring has five grandchildren, all of whom, most likely, think she is the hippest grandma around.

Let’s face it, how many grannies do you know who received their bachelor’s and master’s degrees after the age of 60, hang by their knees and ankles from a trapeze, sport several tattoosand have written a book about their life?

Then again, that’s part of what makes Herring so dynamic and relatable. She doesn’t believe in the word “can’t” as the girls in detention have come to find out.

“Oh yeah, Miss Elizabeth is cool,” says one. “Her class beats playing cards upstairs and pretty much anything else.”

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