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Familiar faces, old and new
A former arts grant recipient tracks down others like him

Date: 05/20/2008

In 2006, I received a second-place grant and award from the Santa Maria Arts Council in the visual arts category. Being a mostly self-taught artist (save for a few pivotal classes at Allan Hancock College) who works in an experimental, animation-inspired style, it was extremely encouraging to have my work recognized by the local arts community.

Three of a kind:
The Peng siblings--(left to right) Sheppard, Kimberly, and Gabrielle--are all Santa Maria Arts Council recipients.
Of course, I know where I am now.

I recently did a commission to edit some vintage illustrations in Photoshop for an opera company in Utah--they'll be projected on a scrim between the acts.

wholesale phone cases I'm working on a documentary about my artwork, making plans to give private art lessons in Santa Maria, and I have a gallery show tentatively scheduled for this fall.

I'm still writing for the Santa Maria Sun--but you may have guessed that already.

I'm also a proud rejected applicant to computer animation studios Pixar, LucasFilm, and Santa Maria's own Cafe FX. (But even Pixar's "Careers" website says that most of their current employees didn't make it on the first try.)

Recently, I became curious what became of other arts grant winners--and there are plenty of them, since the grant has been presented since 1972.

The sole recipient of the 1985 award in the drama category, Kurt Genge, hosted this year's event. Other past recipients, however, are harder to track down, but here's a smattering of some familiar names from the last few years and beyond.

Visualizing a future in the visual arts

See it:
Luis Ramirez, a past winner in the visual arts category, won a grant again this year.
Luis Ramirez won first place honors in the visual art category in 2006, and he took the award again this year.

Ramirez describes his artistic background as pretty similar to everybody else's.

"I always had the fascination," he said. "There was always a pencil in my hand. I was always doodling as a kid, and I never really stopped."

Ramirez went to Santa Ynez High School, where he attended art classes with teacher Connie Rhode, who took her class on a "spectacular art trip" to New York City, which made a considerable impression on a young Ramirez.

After graduating, Ramirez went to Hancock College as an ag/business major. However, he found that Hancock's art classes sparked his interest and decided to change focus.

"The class that made the difference for me was Marti Fast's life drawing class," he said.

He noted that winning the first grant was a "nudge" that made him want to go on to graduate school. He was pleased to know that his community was supportive of his artistic endeavors.

History in the flesh:
Nat Fast, long involved with the Santa Maria Arts Council, has roots that stretch back decades. A 1974 grant winner in visual arts, Shelley Higuera (ne e Stroop) cites studies with him as pushing her along in her art career.
The grant also paid the tuition for his first semester at Cal State Long Beach. The artist said that he first arrived there without knowing too much about the school, but later discovered that it's "one of the strongest painting schools this side of the Mississippi."

Ramirez said that he's growing by leaps and bounds as an artist.

"At the same time, with everything I learn, I become more na've," he said. "I figure out that there's so much more to learn."

Ramirez also works in the art department at Long Beach, as receptionist for the art advising office.

He noted that the school's Southern California location has enriched his experience as an artist. He said that when he lived on the Central Coast, he wasn't fully aware of "the potential of Southern California how many museums there are, how many gallery opportunities."

Ramirez will put his current grant toward studying abroad, in Italy and China.

"Aside from having amazing instructors," he said, "it will be good to make myself uncomfortable, take myself outside of my comfort zone, and see what comes from that."

The artist said that he's currently working toward his MFA. After that, he wants to come back to Santa Maria and teach.

"I'd like to be close to where I grew up, close to my parents," he said. "I'd be tickled to death to do that."

One of Ramirez's predecessors is 1974 grant winner Shelley Higuera (then Shelley Stroop), who has been a graphic artist for "the last 30-something years."

At the time Higuera won her award, she was a student studying drawing, painting, and design courses with George Miro and Nat Fast. Like Ramirez, Higuera was encouraged to continue her career in the arts by receiving the grant.

"It actually helped me develop confidence in what I was doing," she said. "It was the recognition that kind of pushed me out there and got me going."

Following her education at Cal State Long Beach, she found graphic design work in Los Angeles. After about 10 years, she started her own design firm. Among her clients was the Walt Disney Company, which hired her to design art-heavy books like Disneyland Dreams: Traditions and Transitions.

"It was a great job," she said of working for Disney. "Like being a kid all over again."

Higuera now does graphic design for a medical education facility in Southern California.

A musical dynasty

The Peng family of Santa Maria has produced not one but three winners in the music category: Kimberly, Sheppard, and Gabrielle, the violin-playing children of James and Maggie Peng.

A new face:
Steven Jasso can add his name to the decades-long list of Santa Maria Arts Council grant recipients. He took top honors in the dance category this year.
"I played a lot in high school," Kimberly said. "I would say it was probably my No. 1 pursuit [at that time]--everything from competitions, taking lessons in L.A., and playing with my brother and sister all around the coast."

Kimberly won her first Santa Maria Arts Council grant in 1995, at the age of 12. She went on to win two more, in 1998 and 2000.

She said that the highlight of her first win was meeting music category judge Jed Beebe, who became "one of my family's dearest friends." She describes the friendship as "one of the great gifts the Santa Maria Arts Council gave my family."

After college, Kimberly moved to Chicago, where she currently works as a computer systems designer.

"The music scene of Chicago is amazing," she said. "I live two blocks from one of [the best] symphony orchestras in the world, concerts every weekend. I'm so lucky to live in a place where there's so much culture and the arts."

Kimberly said that her main musical outlet is now her church.

"I'm looking at music from an entirely different angle from the competitive and performance angle," she said. "The question on my mind and the minds of my fellow musicians is: Without losing the spiritual significance of what we do, can we bring the best of our talents to the table without losing the worship component?"

She said that thinking about this question has helped the musicians "raise the bar" of her church's music ministry.

"I go home to California for Christmas," she said. "I can't tell you how fun it is to be at home, and my brother, sister, and I can just pick up our violins and play together. That is one thing that I think is invaluable."

Kimberly commented that she and her siblings each have their own strengths as musicians.

"I'm proud how the three of us carved out our own niche," she said.

"[Kimberly] set the standard," Sheppard said. "We played a lot of duets together. She played first violin to my second. Of course, later I played first to Gabrielle's second."

Sheppard won his grant in 2001, and now attends Stanford University.

"I really enjoy it," he said. "I'm growing as a person. I'm a really different person than I was [when I won the grant.] One thing that has remained constant is my love for music."

Sheppard said that his "classical upbringing" in music continues to influence his taste--particularly his love of melody--but living in the cultural crossroads of college has inspired him to branch out into many musical genres. He takes violin lessons at Stanford with an instructor Kimberly recommended.

"It was interesting," Sheppard said. "He pretty much had to take what I knew about violin, break it down, and rebuild it from the bottom."

Sheppard explained that the instructor broke down his "technicality" and built up his "musicality."

"I'm probably not as good as I used to be, technically, but I can enjoy it a lot more and do it for a lot longer," he said.

Recently, Sheppard participated in a performance in which he played the song "I Will Survive."

"It was about letting loose and enjoying it," he said. "It doesn't matter if I could play the greatest song in the world if I wasn't enjoying myself."

Finally, 16-year-old Gabrielle won the music category in 2005.

"It was exciting because I was the only violinist who had auditioned for music," she said.

Her competition for the grant included pianists and vocalists, and she was "usually up against other violinists."

Gabrielle is currently a junior at Righetti High School in Orcutt. She's also the concert master and first chair violinist for the Santa Barbara Youth Symphony.

"I want to play violin for the rest of my life," Gabrielle said. "It's going to be with me forever."

In addition to music, she also plans to study medicine, with an eye toward dermatology or pediatrics.

"Definitely pre-med," she said. "I want to play music for my patients."


INFOBOX: Setting the stage for stars

PCPA and the Santa Maria Arts Council have more in common than just being locally based artistic nonprofit organizations with four-letter acronyms.

Several past winners in the drama category have been PCPA students, including current students Molly Stillens and Colum Parke Morgan.

Broadway star Boyd Gaines is both a PCPA alumnus and a former grant winner (drama, 1975). Gaines has appeared in such premiere productions as Wendy Wasserstien's 1989 play The Heidi Chronicles and the 2004 dance musical Contact, as well as revivals of classics like Gypsy and She Loves Me. To date, he has received five Tony award nominations and won three. I'm sure they look great next to his SMAC Arts Grant certificate.

This year, there's another connection between the SMAC grants and PCPA. According to a SMAC press release, this year's grants were given in the name of PCPA's director of acting, Roger DeLaurier.

"Roger was PCPA's first outreach director and has since directed over 40 plays for PCPA's mainstage productions and has mentored hundreds of students who have gone through the two-year conservatory acting and technical theatre program," the release reads.

Three of this year's recipients are PCPA students: Annie Hughes, Jenna Zeilman, and Andrea Salaiz.


INFOBOX 2: Gotta dance

This year, Steven Jasso joins the ranks of Santa Maria Arts Council arts grant winners in the category of dance.

Jasso said that he's "primarily trained in ballet," but also performs "modern jazz, hip-hop, pop and lock, the list can go on."

Jasso's interest in dance began when he was in high school, when he enjoyed raves and hip-hop dancing. Since then, he's taken classes at Hancock College and trained with Santa Barbara's State Street Ballet Company.

At the time of this interview, Jasso was preparing to perform two pieces that he choreographed himself at the SMAC Arts Showcase on May 19: an allegro ballet set to the "Tango Roxanne" from the film Moulin Rouge and a contemporary ballet/pop-and-lock piece set to "Colorblind" by Counting Crows.

Jasso's ambition is to join the world-renowned sophisticated circus company Cirque de Soleil. He plans to submit a demo to them in about five years.

This year's other winners are as follows:

Dance: Irene Kleinbauer, second place

Drama: Annie Hughes, first place Jenna Zeilman, second place

Music: Michelle Lawton, first place Andrea Salaiz, second place

Visual Arts: Luis Ramirez, first place Areil Roullo, second place


INFOBOX 3: The grant and this community

"I think when you go to our showcase awards dinner," Santa Maria Arts Council President Craig Shafer said, "it's always so amazing that you see such tremendous talent that's homegrown. It's right here in our backyard. It makes you feel good about the state of the arts."

"The behind-the-scenes working of it all takes a lot of volunteer effort," Shafer added. "They have full-time jobs, but they take the time to volunteer, they're there for the meetings every month, they work overtime to make these events happen. Volunteers are the unsung heroes of every nonprofit organization."

Remember Brent Parker's name so you can say you knew him when. E-mail comments to Executive Editor Ryan Miller at

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