The Creative Living Award presentation at the Grange in West Tisbury on Nov. 4 was a high-spirited celebration, complete with jaunty music, poetry, heartfelt tributes, and reminiscences. A large crowd of friends, colleagues, artists, and appreciative well-wishers turned out to honor this year’s winners, Francine Kelly and her daughter, Ann Smith, mainstays of Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs.
Sing-along favorites by the Featherstone Uke Fest, an enthusiastic band of ukulele players led by Deirdre DeCarion, put arrivals into a relaxed party mood. Goodwill filled the air as guests greeted one another and congratulated the honorees.
This was the 33rd annual presentation by the Permanent Endowment of Martha’s Vineyard of the Creative Living Award, begun in 1983 with a $60,000 gift from Ruth Bogan’s estate to the Permanent Endowment establishing the Ruth Bogan – Ruth Redding Memorial Fund. This launched an award to be given to a Vineyard resident embodying Ms. Bogan’s spirit and love for the Island.
The organization issues a public invitation for nominations each spring. Its 11 board members consider nominees and make the selection. Since its inception, the award has gone to a wide range of Island residents for noteworthy contributions in the Vineyard’s arts, culture, and community life. The honor brings with it a $1,000 cash prize.
“They walk among us,” intoned the organization’s executive director, Julie Anne McNary with a smile. She explained she was not referring to aliens, but to the dedicated Permanent Endowment board members who provide meaningful service in many areas of the Vineyard community. Ms. McNary said the fund’s assets have grown from $60,000 to a robust $11 million today. The endowment has funded nearly 200 grants to Island nonprofits and academic scholarships.
“Tonight is about two very cool women,” Ms. McNary said, recalling the many thrilled emails she received when the awardees were announced. She added that board members were also pleased with the unanimous selection.
Francine Kelly is beloved by many for her role as executive director of Featherstone. She accepted the post in 2003, soon after moving to the Island to retire. An Oberlin College graduate, she had an extensive background in community arts endeavors, including 20 years as program director for the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.
After she retired from Featherstone in 2010, her daughter Ann Smith became executive director. Ms. Kelly continues her involvement as executive director emerita.
Ms. Smith studied at the University of Michigan, and later worked in teaching and administration for independent schools. She came to Featherstone as assistant to the director and then associate director, before becoming executive director in 2010. Ms. Smith has also chaired the Arts Martha’s Vineyard steering committee and works to organize year-round arts and cultural programs.
Both the popular honorees have kept Featherstone a thriving arts center bursting with classes and workshops for all ages, gallery shows, demonstrations, sales, and special events from Musical Mondays, the Art of Chocolate Festival, the Summer Festival of Poetry, the Potter’s Bowl, and a lush Garden Party. Community outreach ranges from the Arts and Memory Program to the Teen Arts Café and more.
Tributes were warm and varied. Ukuleles played their favorite tunes. Kaylea Moore on behalf of State Representative Tim Madden delivered a resolution from the Massachusetts House of Representatives, congratulating Ms. Kelly and Ms. Smith for “years of dedicated service.”
Poet Jennifer Smith-Turner adapted Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Famous” in praise of the two women, and described how they had filled the center with “joyful artists and happy children.”
“Ann and Francine, thank you for never forgetting what you can do, and in the doing, making this Island beautiful for all of us,” she concluded, borrowing a line from the poem.
Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Nancy Gardella spoke of her rich and deepening friendships with “these two amazing women.” Quoting from a poem on the value of friendship, she thanked the mother-daughter honorees for being her true friends.
“Francine Kelly and Ann Smith have put Featherstone Center for the Arts on the Island map,” said former board member and president Jean McCarthy, reflecting on the earliest days of the organization. She said that in those years, people were constantly asking directions, but that is no longer true.
“They transformed what was a horse farm into an art center,” she went on, explaining that the former farmhouse is now a gallery and classroom space, the horse barn is used for darkroom photography and woodworking, and other buildings have been pressed into use. “Ann and Francine have assembled a stable of artists and teachers.”
Cataloging an array of art activities, shows, classes, and special events, she praised the women for developing a center of “creativity, versatility, and knowledge”: “All part of the wonderland of arts created by Francine and Ann.”
Board member Paul Karasik took the podium to present each honoree with a unique gift added to the cash prize and community acclaim that come with the award. He said that for years, award winners received only a certificate. “We wanted a trophy that symbolizes the permanence of the awardees,” explained Mr. Karasik with a mischievous smile. He then ceremoniously delivered to each woman “a rock from an undisclosed Island beach” to applause and laughter from the audience.
“We are really thrilled to receive the Creative Living Award,” said Ms. Kelly, thanking everyone including speakers and musicians. “All of you serve as an inspiration to us.”
She noted that Featherstone founding Director Peggy Pinney Vance received this award in 1999, so now all three directors have won — “and I think that’s really a coup. Thank you!”
“I will always be in love with Featherstone,” said Ms. Kelly, with a tribute to all who have contributed. She recalled fondly the many artists who thanked her for support and encouragement in their work.
Ms. Kelly remembered that at the start, people would ask what and where Featherstone was: “I think we’ve answered that question. We’ve created a community through the arts.”
“2015 has been the best year and the worst year of my life,” said Ms. Smith, explaining that despite some difficult personal issues, her fifth year as director was wonderful.
“I’m privileged to work with the best people,” she said, adding that the center is “thriving and stronger than ever.”
“Loving what you do and doing what you love” describes her work, Ms. Smith said. She concluded with a grateful shout-out to Sharon Stevens-Grunden, whose family donated the property for an arts center, and lavished thanks all around — “I am so glad that you all are here!”
In one more joyful moment to conclude the program, Ms. Kelly drew pianist John Alaimo’s name as winner of the To Be a Philanthropist Raffle. Each attendee had been invited to fill out a free raffle ticket for the chance to win $1,000 for their favorite nonprofit. A beaming Mr. Alaimo indicated he would take some time to name recipients. The prize is entirely funded by donations from board members.
Festivities continued following the formal ceremony, with plenty of friendly appreciations for the dynamic Featherstone duo, conversation, and delicious light hors d’oeuvres by Truly Scrumptious Catering.