Articles by

Ira Brooker

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    Watching clips of Donte Collins reading poetry online, the first thing that stands out is the straightforward beauty of the words, the carefully observed imagery and perfectly chosen descriptors that immerse the audience immediately in Collins’s world. The second thing that grabs the attention is the confidence and nuance of Collins’s stage presence. The poet generates a captivating aura that befits a long-time veteran of literary performance, and is well beyond what some people might expect of a reader young enough to claim the title of St. Paul Youth Poet Laureate.
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    Each year, the Knight Arts Challenge helps arts organizations’ biggest ideas take flight. Along the way, the funding also allows them the time, tools and training to elevate their work, opens up their organizations to new audiences and much more. As this year’s challenge continues to accept submissions in four cities through April 28, we talked to several recent grantees about the impact of the challenge on their work.
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    One of the unique things about the Knight Arts Challenge is that it provides funding to individual artists, so that they can help make their ideas a reality. For some, it’s an opportunity to get the supplies or training they need For others, the funding and acknowledgement opens doors to new opportunities. As Knight Foundation continues to accept applications for the Knight Arts Challenge through April 28, I spoke to several recent arts grant winners about their experiences and how the Knight Foundation helped make their dream projects a reality.
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    Run an image search for “poet” and you’ll get a lot of variations on white men dressed like either beatniks or old English nobles, most of them holding a page at arm’s length with wide-open mouths captured mid-elocution. The average person probably understands that this is a rather reductive stereotype, but the fact remains that poetry is frequently seen as an elitist pursuit.
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    We’ve all heard artists explain that the struggle of doing what they do is worth it for the sheer joy of creation. For some artists, though, even making it to a creative space is a struggle unto itself. Naomi Cohn, founder of St. Paul’s Known By Heart Poetry, sees evidence of that every time she leads one of her poetry classes for seniors.
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    Photos courtesy of Theater of Public Policy. In an instant-messaging age, when even email is dismissed as an outmoded form of communication, the notion of sending in-person, door-to-door greetings is downright antique. That isn’t keeping one Twin Cities comedy company from resurrecting the format with a contemporary spin. Theater of Public Policy has built a reputation for whip-smart, issues-oriented comedy, but the company’s Knight-funded All St. Paul’s a Stage project is an apolitical undertaking. “It’s a kind of twist on the singing telegram,” said Theater of Public Policy co-founder Brandon Boat. “Instead of a singing performance, it’s a comedy performance.” 
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    All photos courtesy of The Floating Library. Minnesota takes a lot of pride in both its lakes and its literacy. We famously house more than 10,000 of the former and consistently rank among the national leaders in the latter. It only makes sense, then, that we’re also the home of The Floating Library, a unique intersection of books, lakes and visual art. “The Floating Library is a collection of books that are made by artists. They sit aboard a raft that has specially designed bookshelves and floats in the middle of a lake,” explained book artist and Floating Library creator Sarah Peters. “It’s conceived as a public library for boaters. People are not supposed to swim to the library, because when you’re in a boat you’re dry, for the most part, so you can read books and not damage them or get them wet.” Since its 2013 inception on Cedar Lake in Minneapolis, the library has visited lakes in Winona and St. Anthony, and even made a West Coast trip for this February’s Los Angeles Book Art Fair. This July, the project makes its debut in the capital city. “This is the first time the project will be presented in St. Paul, and that’s entirely due to the Knight funding,” said Peters, a winner of St. Paul’s Knight Arts Challenge. “Lake Phalen has a really interesting history as a lake that has been and still is host to a lot of boating tradition. The St. Paul Sailing Club is there, they have sailing lessons, there are a lot of regattas and things like that that take place there. At the turn of the last century when canoeing was a big trend for certain people of means in St. Paul, hundreds and hundreds of canoes were stored on the banks of Lake Phalen. It’s an interesting site to think about putting a boat-based art project on, since there’s a whole history there.”
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    Above: The Qhia Dab Neeg film festival in St. Paul. Photo courtesy Qhia Dag Neeb. Cinema in St. Paul has a checkered history of late. While the city can claim a couple of small mainstream movie houses and a smattering of other occasional screening venues, it’s been a long while since locals had an art house theater to call their own. The April launch of Film Space, a Knight-funded cinema venue on the Metropolitan State University campus, marked a strong new effort to fill the void. “Film Space is a 300-seat, state-of-the-art, DCI-compliant, digital cinema theater. It is a dedicated, non-commercial, film art venue for our community,” said James Byrne, project manager for Film Space and coordinator of Metro State’s Screenwriting Program. Byrne and the Film Space team have spent much of the last year upgrading a rarely used campus auditorium into a functional and inviting space to serve the long-neglected cinephiles of St. Paul. Currently the space is focused on special events and screenings, with non-profit rental rates available to community members, individual filmmakers and festivals. Even though the venue is freshly launched, the organizers have wasted no time putting it to use. “April-May was and is a big month for us,” Byrne said. “We had eight days of films and screened 12 feature films and 28 short films and hosted three different festivals.” Film Space opened big, with a well-attended, five-day showcase of movies as an official venue of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF), the Upper Midwest’s largest and longest-running festival of its kind. Byrne even got to host a home-theater screening of his own film, “Mist on the River,” as part of the festival’s short films showcase. The engagement was followed immediately by the Qhia Dab Neeg Film Festival, a Knight-funded project focused on filmmakers of Hmong descent that drew more than 500 attendees over two days. Next up is LunaFest, a nationally touring festival spotlighting women in film that rolls into Film Space on May 20.
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    Andy Froemke. Photo courtesy of IFP MN Screenwriting Residency. Minnesota might not be the first place most people associate with moviemaking, but locals know that our film culture runs considerably deeper than “Fargo” and “Grumpy Old Men.” The Twin Cities area is home to one of the Midwest’s longest-running film festivals, multiple film education and production companies and an ever-growing base of filmmakers from all walks of life. IFP MN is one of the most visible driving forces of the Minnesota film industry, and their Knight-funded IFP MN Screenwriting Residency is arguably the most sought-after award in the local orbit. With a top prize of $10,000, this year’s residency drew nearly 100 submissions from across the state. Screenplays were assessed by both a local and a national panel of judges, including “Juno” producer Mason Novick, The Black List Director of Community Kate Hagen and Sundance Institute Labs Director Ilyse McKinnie. In early April, the panel awarded this year’s top prize to Lindstrom, Minn. writer Andy Froemke, whose screenplay “The Lowrie Gang” chronicles the true adventures of Native-American folk hero Berry Lowrie as he and his band of outlaws take a stand against the Ku Klux Klan in post-Civil War North Carolina.