Storybook Characters Again Highlight of Abilene Arts Luncheon

The nearly annual Celebrate the Arts luncheon offered a bit of the new and familiar on Wednesday at noon.

First, there was an event. Last year’s lunch did not take place due to the pandemic. Getting together and, according to Kaye Price-Hawkins, a member of the Abilene Council of Cultural Affairs, “seeing so many smiling faces” was cause for celebration.

“Let’s applaud each other,” she said.

When it returned, the event was back downtown but for the first time at the 201 Mesquite Event Center.

Finally, storybook characters once again stole the show.

Dancing to the disco-era hit “We Are Family” – but failing to get emcee Theron Holladay to boogie too – Winnie the Bear, Doris the Boar, Lighthouse (yes, a working lighthouse, far from the ocean) and a crow were a highlight of the awards program that introduced the arts to Abilene.

All are characters from books illustrated and written by Australian Sophie Blackall. She will be the first woman to be featured in the Children’s Art & Literacy Festival, which includes an exhibition of the winner’s work at the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature.

The next CALF will take place June 9-11.

The appearance of a dancing crow was spot on as Justin Crowe was honored with the Individual Outstanding Art Award. He’s been chairman of the Cultural Affairs Council and a board member since 2014, painted steel for the Adamson-Spalding Storybook Garden, and precision-steered his supersoaker during vocalist Joe McDermott’s CALF performances.

Crowe applauded artists and art supporters for their adaptability during “two strange years”. Sometimes, he says, the shots had to turn 180 degrees to work.

Justin Crowe takes the stage after being named Outstanding Individual of the Year during the 2021 Abilene Art Awards portion of the Celebrate the Arts luncheon at the 201 Mesquite Event Center.

“Congratulations to those in the room who were able to do this,” he said.

Unlike Mr. Crowe, the costumed crow did not wear a bow tie.

The organization award was given to the Excelsior Foundation, which over seven years has had a great impact on local arts organizations.

“It’s truly an honor,” said Leah Doty, executive director of the foundation. Excelsior moved to Abilene from Midland.

“It’s truly a blessing to be here,” she said.

Doty got a laugh when she described her foundation as “sneaking in as an arts organization.”

Excelsior Foundation Executive Director Lean Doty speaks as Dan Robison, the foundation's grants director, stands behind her. Their group was named Outstanding Organization of the Year at the Celebrate the Arts luncheon.

In addition, 18 organizations presented their volunteer winners. Each has been introduced.

The event also serves to boost membership for HeARTS for the Arts, which over the years has injected $650,000 into the local arts scene.

The lunch also serves as a kind of preview of the upcoming CALF, which in 2022 will celebrate its 10th anniversary.

Already, sculptor Steve Neves is working on the next outdoor work to be included among 37 in the storybook capital of Texas. The most recent works are a 3D storybook mural titled “Flight of the Dragon” – it’s in the tunnel under the train tracks just south of the T&P depot – and a kinetic sculpture titled “In Cloud Light IV” at the Storybook Garden at the Abilene Convention Center six blocks north.

Neves is also working on a limestone sculpture of Sandman from the imagination of William Joyce. Soon it will signal the entrance to the downtown Arts and SoDA districts.

To work on the two-tonne piece of stone, Neves said he would need an angle grinder, hammers and chisels. No problem. He is also adept at carving with a chainsaw.

CALF president Glenda Young said her family lived in Abilene from 2006 to 2009, before there was a summer event downtown.

Upon their return, they discovered that CALF was “something we just do in Abilene”.

In addition to the 10th anniversary plans, a performance of “Ivy and Bean” from the Children’s Performing Arts Series on the Friday and Saturday nights of the event.

Volunteer winners from nonprofit arts organizations appear on stage on Wednesday.

Plus, there will be readings from each of the 10 featured author-illustrators to celebrate a decade of storybook fun.

So expect Winnie and the other Blackall characters to make personal appearances around town over the next seven months.

Get your boogie shoes ready, Theron Holladay.

Greg Jaklewicz is editor of the Abilene Reporter-News and general columnist. If you enjoy local news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to

And the winners are:

Here are the winners of the Abilene Art Award 2021:

Tim Adcock, Abilene Community Band

Dr. Jami Adams, Abilene Community Theater

Amy McAdams, Abilene Education Foundation

Naomi Wood, Abilene Performing Arts Company

Todd Wilson, Abilene Philharmonic Association

Pat Nelson, Abilene Star Chorus

Kay Talley, Abilene Writers Guild

Dr. Christopher McNair, Zoological Society of Abilene

Nicole Wiedemann, Celebration Singers

Michael Derrick, Contemporary Art Center

Sharon Kelley, Debbie Langford and Nancy Wilkinson, Children’s Arts and Literacy Festival

Jill Bertsch, Children’s Performing Arts Series

Tim and Pam Smith, Chorus Abilene

Dr. Tim Lillick, Friends of Abilene Public Library

Carol Walt, the Grace Museum

Belinda Southall, Abilene Junior League

Erica Hall, National Center for Illustrated Children’s Literature

Dr. Kim Hardin, Young Audience of Abilene

Outstanding Individual of the Year: Justin Crowe

Outstanding Organization of the Year: The Excelsior Foundation

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