Inspired and encouraged: 2011 Phoenix Award winners talk about their greatest mentors

2011 Phoenix Awards

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: The Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.

What: The 16th annual awards celebrating contributions to the arts in Lawrence. This year’s winners are Toni Brou, Sally K. Davis, Kate Dinneen, Rose Lawson and Susan Ralston.

For the first time in the 16-year history of the Phoenix Awards, the winners recognized for their contribution to Lawrence’s arts community are all women.

Yep, the ladies get their day at the awards, which will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H. The public is invited to the awards and reception for the women, all of whom have spent decades creating art and advocating for it through volunteering and education in Lawrence.

We had each of the winners answer a single question to get an idea of what has motivated or inspired them throughout their lives: Who was your greatest mentor?


Toni Brou is the 2011 Phoenix Award winner for visual arts. Brou cited her father, David Thennes as her greatest mentor.

Toni Brou, Visual Arts

The art produced by Toni Brou isn’t just visually stunning — it’s visual proof of both her survival and those she’s lost.

Brou works in several media, but she’s best know for creating an array of gorgeous suns that go right along with her personal mantra of “The sun always rises.” It’s a phrase the mother of three leaned heavily upon when losing both her father and her husband within a year of each other. She says that it wasn’t until she was an adult that she realized how her father’s choices really affected her life. Now, she honors the former amateur “junk art” maker by using salvaged items in her art.

“Immediately, what came to my mind was my dad (David Thennes). He died in 1999. But when I was about 6, he moved us out to the country. I think he decided to live a more simple life. And we had a lot fewer distractions — just had a chance to have space. And there weren’t a lot of things to distract us, and I think that I ended up being able to grow up hearing my creative voice that way. He didn’t work as an artist but he made what he modestly called ‘junk art’ using found objects ... I just think the space that we had out there (near Dodge City) — you don’t have a lot other than the ground and the sky. He taught us a good work ethic and we gardened and we learned how to use our hands. And the sad thing is I didn’t really come to appreciate the gift he gave me. It wasn’t until I grew up and had kids that I understood how his decisions impacted me in a positive way.”


Sally K. Davis is the 2011 Phoenix Award winner for arts advocacy.

Sally K. Davis, Arts Advocate

For more than 20 years, Sally K. Davis has been a staple in the arts education programs of the Spencer Museum of Art at Kansas University. And her fingerprints there run the gamut from children’s education to senior instruction.

Davis was the idea-maker behind the Docent Scholarship Fund that guarantees children can attend the museum’s “It Starts with Art!” program regardless of the child’s financial situation. She also created the “Spencer Art Minute” feature on Kansas Public Radio that allows the museum to highlight works of art from the Spencer collection in 90-second spurts. In 2005, she spearheaded the addition of the “Senior Sessions” art education program for senior citizens.

“I don’t call my parents mentors, but I call them inspirations or guides. My parents (Ralph and Edna Kniffin), both of them, were active in their community well in their mid-80s. And consequently, I’ve just always done a lot of volunteer work. And I have to say that they’re really my inspiration, because I really think you should be active in your community. ... And I just think when you have parents who were always doing something, you just think that’s what you should do. You should get out there and participate and it’s brought me lots of happiness.”


Kate Dinneen is the 2011 Phoenix Award winner for Exceptional Artistic Achievement.

Kate Dinneen, Exceptional Artistic Achievement

Kate Dinneen is an arts volunteer (Van Go Mobile Arts), educator (teaching KU students) and musician (the stand-up bass and the hammer dulcimer). But first and foremost, she’s an artist with an unusual art: blacksmithing.

Dinneen has been a blacksmith since 1994 and in that time has created pieces across town, including works at Free State Brewery, Tellers Restaurant and Wheatfield’s Cafe and Bakery, and just out of town at the entrance to the Black Jack Battlefield site near Baldwin. Moreover, her work can be seen on the new iron gates of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

“There have been many influential people in my life. Walt Hull of Walt Hull Iron Work introduced me into the world and art of blacksmithing, which gave me the chance to meet Uri Hofi, Peter Parkinson and Terrence Clark, all master smiths who have had a major impact on my work. ... However, the person who gave me the courage to take a different approach to being a grown-up was Mrs. Wilbur, English teacher extraordinaire at West Junior High here in Lawrence. Her positive response to my eighth-grade creative writing work encouraged me to explore my creative side and gave me permission to ‘color outside the lines.’”


Rose Lawson is the 2011 Phoenix Award winner for Volunteer in the Arts.

Rose Lawson, Volunteer in the Arts

For nearly 20 years, Rose Lawson has been a volunteer usher at the Lied Center of Kansas. She’s won the center’s “Usher of the Year” award three times, and was selected for the center’s usher advisory board in 2006. Lawson makes sure to help out with events across the board at the Lied, including the school performances that the center puts on for more than 7,000 children each year. Her warm personality is palatable to those who have met her smile while attending events there.

“Jackie (Jacqueline Z.) Davis, which is the original lady at the Lied Center. I knew her in Murphy Hall. ... She just was on top of everything. And very friendly, very outgoing. And always had time to listen. She recognized people, she didn’t ignore people, walk past them. I thought she was a great lady. She left for New York at least eight or 10 years ago. I worked in Murphy Hall, which was theater and music and I knew her in there before, while the Lied Center was being built. She was just a great person.”


Susan Ralston is a recipient of an Educator in the Arts, Phoenix Award. Ralston, who spent 32 years as an elementary music teacher in the USD 497 school district, retired in 2007 and has since taken on other projects such working with the Lawrence Children's Choir Choristers and directing the children's choir at Trinity Episcopal Church.

Susan Ralston, Educator in the Arts

The ladies theme this year is extra fitting for Susan Ralston, whose husband won the Phoenix Award for Musical Arts back in 2003. Eight years later, it’s her turn.

Ralston spent 38 years teaching vocal music, including 32 years in the Lawrence Public Schools. She also worked with the Lawrence Children’s Choir, within KU’s Department of Music Education and at Trinity Episcopal Church.

“My greatest mentor, the most influential mentor, was a lady named Judy Bond from Northfield, Minn. She was my teacher for my level 1 ORFF certification program. ORFF is a philosophy of teaching music to children by singing, playing, instruments, moving, listening, creating and improvising. It was during this course — it was a two-week course that I took in the late 1980s — that I think I finally understood the pedagogy of teaching to a child. Before that, I taught (laughs) children, but I didn’t think I quite understood the actual art of teaching. ... She showed me so many ways to work with a child in music. She not only talked the talk — she lectured — but she also showed (it) and she walked the walk in front of us and would demonstrate. I think probably the thing that impressed me the most about her was her kindness and respect for children, for the child. And I think of all the teachers that I’ve had, her mental approach to children and teaching, probably made the greatest impact on me.”

— Staff writer Sarah Henning can be reached at 832-7187.


Lawrence Morgan 11 years, 7 months ago

There are a lot of thoughts here that bear repeating. Especially true is the statement of Rose Lawson, who mentions that she recognizes people, she didn't ignore people, walk past them. That's very important to me to get more people involved in art and music.

And there is the great importance of education in art and music in early years-something that Lawrence Schools - and for that matter schools everywhere - will miss if it is no longer included.

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