50 Stories | Supporting the Artist’s Journey

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Mid-America Arts Alliance (M-AAA) is celebrating its 50th year of ensuring more art for more people—strengthening and supporting artists, cultural organizations, and communities throughout our region and beyond. Founded in 1972, M-AAA has awarded grants to artists and arts organizations, helped to bring cultural programs to communities urban and rural, and empowered creatives throughout Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas; across the nation; and internationally. As part of its anniversary recognition, M-AAA is pleased to share 50 Stories | 50 Years, a weekly series of stories and statements submitted by colleagues, program participants, and others that speak to M-AAA’s profound impact on their lives, creativity, communities, and the region.

Arkansas-based sculptor and painter Kevin Kresse has received national attention and accolades for his larger-than-life-size sculpture of country music icon Johnny Cash, a commission that will reside in the U.S. Capitol Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. He appreciates M-AAA for playing a “pivotal” role in his career as a working artist, adding, “I … couldn’t have dreamed up the wonderful life in the arts I’ve enjoyed to this point. We all need encouragement and people who believe in us. I appreciate M-AAA for their support of my journey.”

My first encounter with a Mid-America Arts Alliance was back in 1996. I had been painting for five or six years at that point, and applied for one of their individual artist fellowships. My wife and I were living in a sweet garage apartment on a dead end, overlooking a small creek, the rent being a staggering $200 a month.

One day my wife and I were outside when the postal carrier brought us pure magic in an envelope. When I opened the letter of congratulations and a $5,000 check, it was as if God had parted the clouds and personally confirmed my status as an artist. I can’t overstate the effect that fellowship had on my confidence, and my belief that I could somehow make it in this world as an artist.

My next pivotal encounter with Mid-America was when I was chosen to be a facilitator in the Central Arkansas inaugural class of Artist INC. During my college years, not a single word was said to me about how to make a living as an artist. To me, the implication was that it was impossible to make a living as a working artist. In my mind, the only way to be an artist was to go into advertising, or become an art teacher, and teach others how they couldn’t make a living as an artist. Through trial and many errors, I had somehow carved out a life for not only me but also my family, as a working artist. Oh, how I wish Artist INC had existed at the beginning of my career.

Artist INC benefits artists on several different levels. The main thing is that it provides an artist with a network of other creatives, letting the artist know that they are not alone in their unique endeavor. It also allows all of the participants a window into each other’s processes, which gives everyone a free flow of information, encouragement, and ideas about better ways to navigate their own careers. Artist INC also gives everyone concrete information and ideas on how an artist can set up their life and business, for the optimal chance at a successful career in the arts. Everyone I encountered through Artist INC came away with a more mature, refined sense of how they fit into the art world. They also had fun in the process and came away with a new set of friends.

I know Artist INC helped me get a more objective view of my own career. I’ve started a personal project that I’m passionate about, and have thought of a more unique way to get it funded. I’m excited about this new approach, and I am on track to make this personal vision a reality.

Currently, I’m working on the biggest commission of my career. Last year I won a national competition to sculpt a full figure of music legend Johnny Cash. I am now close to taking my eight-foot-tall clay to the foundry to be cast in bronze. It will then go to Washington D.C., to be one of two statues to represent Arkansas in the U.S. Capitol.

If you had told me that day I received the fellowship from the M-AAA, what I would be doing today … I wouldn’t have believed you. I had the love and passion back then, but couldn’t have dreamed up the wonderful life in the arts I’ve enjoyed to this point. We all need encouragement and people who believe in us. I appreciate M-AAA for their support of my journey.