At this time of year, we at What's Up! usually suggest folks you might want to watch in the coming year -- people we think will make a difference.
But the unique nature of 2020 seemed to call us to look back on folks who helped make this challenging year a little bit better. There's no way we could mention all of them, of course -- although we've touched on many of them in the past two issues. These are simply the ones who came to mind as people not yet acknowledged, people for whom we have been especially grateful.
Alex Tripodi, MayDay Community Kitchen
In a fine dining establishment, $5 isn't enough to tip the server. But Alex Tripodi left that world behind in the spring of 2020, when he was furloughed from the newly opened Atlas the Restaurant in downtown Fayetteville.
Instead, Tripodi found himself cooking for family and friends and soon became the masked provider of meals for a dozen or more people a day.
"I realized if I could find the right kitchen, it wouldn't be hard to crank that up significantly," says Tripodi, who grew up in Fayetteville and graduated with the FHS class of 2004. "I'm a board member of the Omni Center (for Peace, Justice & Ecology) so they were able to make some introductions for me."
Backed by an initial donation from the Fayetteville Friends Quaker community, Tripodi found himself -- supported by scores of volunteers, donors, the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, Tri Cycle Farms and TUMC Pastor Terry Gosnell -- feeding hundreds of people five or six days a week out of the kitchen at Trinity United Methodist Church on West Sycamore Street. His first "customers" were residents of Hillcrest Towers, a low-income housing community in central Fayetteville. Later, food preparation expanded to the Hillcrest Towers kitchen, too, and drivers started taking meals into the community. More recently, the "Safe Camp" at 7Hills Homeless Center joined the list of those being served, and on this last Monday of December, Tripodi was putting together meals for about 150 at a cost of less than $5.
"I had to buy some onions," he explained of the expense. The rest of the food on this day was donated.
Because of that kind of support, Tripodi wants potential donors to know that he can stretch $20 to feed hundreds. Operating under the Omni Center's 501(c)3 nonprofit status, he and his colleagues are starting to think about a business model for the future. But right now, he has lunch to serve.
For more information, visit MayDay Community Kitchen on Facebook or donate via Cash App to $maydayck.
-- Becca Martin-Brown
Donna Mulhollan, Give Us This Day Our Daily Bird
Donna Mulhollan of Fayetteville has no idea how much money was raised by her "Give Us This Day Our Daily Bird" efforts. But she knows what started in March as a way to help channel some donations to 7Hills Homeless Center ended up helping the Marshallese community in Northwest Arkansas, the Arkansas Audubon Society's Halberg Ecology Camp near Hot Springs and MayDay Community Kitchen (which you can read more about elsewhere in this story).
Mulhollan and her husband, Kelly Mulhollan, are best known to regional audiences as the musical duo Still on the Hill. What some may not remember is that they also used to perform as Toucan Jam, presenting a show titled "Things With Wings" -- "an imaginary trip around the globe with story-songs about birds from every continent."
"Birds are a big part of our life -- and birds are having a hard time right now," Mulhollan explained earlier this year, so, in March, they had a whole new show ready titled "Words on Birds." "We were going to unveil it on April 1, but then this crisis hit, and all our gigs canceled."
Instead, Mulhollan started creating birds via an art called needle felting and "began doing a bird a day for fun and to stave off isolation."
"I kept feeling weird about making all these woolen birds without them having a purpose," she said last spring, so "I thought maybe I could make these felted bird paintings and sell them and give all the money to 7Hills! I could even make custom birds."
Mulhollan doesn't know how much money she raised because she simply asked her buyers to send their donations to 7Hills. Then, her Sami roots -- her heritage comes from Lapland -- started to push their way into her art, and she sent donations from those creations to the Marshallese as another indigenous community. And finally, she returned to birds to raise money for the Arkansas Audubon Society's Halberg Ecology Camp, where she and Kelly have taught ornithology for two weeks every summer for the past 18 years.
By this time, of course, Kelly had found a way to help and created 26 "Ozark picking bows" -- a musical instrument kind of like a "jaw harp" that is sometimes called an "Appalachian mouth bow" -- which raised $4,600 in donations for the MayDay Community Kitchen.
"We were very fortunate going in to this pandemic," Kelly says. "Donna gets Social Security, our house is paid off, and as folk musicians, we know one of the key tactics of survival is low overhead. We do have a Patreon page and do two videos a month for our patrons, and believe it or not, that adds up to a pretty substantial paycheck. And it's very humbling, but we've also been getting little checks from some of our fans, people who assume we could use it, and it's true. We're living simply, and everything is fine."
The couple plan to continue to help out wherever they can until they can play music again -- or introduce their new Ozark Flea Circus. But that's another story.
-- Becca Martin-Brown
Kyle Kellams, KUAF
When the covid-19 virus rolled in to Northwest Arkansas, Kyle Kellams, news director for KUAF, the Northwest Arkansas NPR affiliate, and producer of "Ozarks at Large," called his team of reporters together. They expected that with all the shutdowns that would come from the pandemic, it might be harder to fill the hours of local news programming. And with many staff members working from home, it might make reporting more difficult. They even considered reducing the number of hours devoted to the news.
Kellams says what happened couldn't have been further from that expectation. Instead, he says, he'd walk into his office on any given day thinking he knew the content of that day's shows and find emails and texts from Antoinette Grajeda, Daniel Caruth, Jacqueline Froelich, Timothy Dennis and Zuzanna Sitek pitching another half a dozen stories that needed to run.
Of course, they weren't just stories about the coronavirus -- although Grajeda updated the audience every morning on the numbers, which Kellams says he hopes made it real for listeners. There were also major ongoing stories like the Black Lives Matter/social justice movement and presidential elections, for example.
Ask Kellams which stories he thinks mattered most locally, and he'll tell you "stories about how education was dealing with the virus, the reporting that everyone did about underrepresented populations during all of it and stories about people helping each other." But coverage of the arts continued, too, "just not in a traditional way," as KUAF reported on how nonprofit organizations were pivoting to serve the community and stay in business themselves.
Looking forward to 2021 from the perspective of 31 years at KUAF, Kellams doesn't see anything slowing down.
"A big concern I have is we're all thinking, 'OK, see ya later, 2020!' That 2021 is going to be this restart. And I think that will be true eventually, but Jan. 2, 2021, isn't going to be much different from Dec. 30, 2020. There isn't going to be a VJ Day or a VE Day when it's just over. So I think at least the next two or three months are going to be just as challenging."
So KUAF will continue to exceed its own expectations.
-- Becca Martin-Brown
D. Riley Nicholson, SoNA
"A huge part of a role like this is relationship building -- with the board, donors, staff, artists and key organizational partners," says D. Riley Nicholson of joining the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas this summer as executive director. "So, at a time when I was essentially starting from scratch, my fear was that the difficulties with connecting in 2020 would significantly and negatively impact the organization.
"While it is a huge challenge to foster community and connections despite the lack of large in-person gatherings, it has pleasantly surprised me how supportive everyone has been of both the symphony and me personally, despite being the 'new guy.'"
Nicholson, who grew up in Hot Springs, came home to Arkansas this summer after earning a Master of Music in composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and working with several arts organizations there. When he accepted the job with SoNA, he had no idea he'd be reimagining the way an orchestra delivers music to its listeners, not just in 2020 but beyond.
"All of these alternative concert experiences that we are producing are not just a stop-gap to hold us over, but rather a strategic test of how we want SoNA to grow and evolve," he says. "We've learned that people really do tune in online and that classical music can go 'viral' if presented in a timely and culturally relevant way (and of course at the highest possible artistic level).
"Covid has been a wake-up call and forced us to be flexible. For the most part, I see the industry adapting and making enormous strides to do just that," he adds. "My hope is that we can continue that level of innovation for years to come.
"We can't wait to get back to the mainstage at Walton Arts Center, and we will always play the classics (Mozart and Beethoven aren't going anywhere). However, growth for us looks more like additions rather than replacements," he concludes. "My biggest question for the future of SoNA is, what does a synergistic addition to these time-honored methods of presenting music and these time-honored pieces look like? How can we be more equitable to artists, more diverse in programming, and reach a wider audience? This Reimagined Season is a great opportunity to start testing and answering some of these questions."
-- Becca Martin-Brown
Ken & Casey Weatherford, Beer and Hymns
The very essence of the Northwest Arkansas chapter of "Beer and Hymns" is togetherness: Music lovers gather in various pubs and bars throughout the region to tip a beer or two and enthusiastically sing their way through a music catalog of classic hymns and pop, rock and folk favorites.
"To me, we're fostering community -- that's what I've loved the most about what's happening," said Ken Weatherford, the Bentonville-based founder of these local events, in an interview with this newspaper last year. "Singing, drinking, all kind of have -- I hesitate to use the word 'magic' power, but they really can help break down some barriers for people. We live in such a divided world today. Nothing hurts my heart more than that, and so that's what I love about Beer and Hymns."
That's a reason worthy enough to hold the events, but Beer and Hymns is not just a social event. In 2019, the organization donated over $50,000 to area nonprofits. So when it became clear that the global pandemic was going to close down events where large groups of people gathered, Weatherford was loathe to let down the organizations to which he had promised proceeds -- especially given the fact that the pandemic was affecting all sectors of the nonprofit world.
"We were dreading having to cancel on our charities for the rest of March and April," he explains. "So, it was really an easy decision to pivot to Facebook Live at that point, as we were hoping it would only be for a short period. As time went on, we realized this was going to be our only way of doing things for the foreseeable future, and we were thankful to have a way to stay connected with our audience and still give back to our community. Giving is down, but we have truly been blown away by the generosity of our community and the remarkable capacity of people to care for their neighbors during an unprecedented time."
It hasn't been easy, especially given that the bar-based Beer and Hymns depends so heavily on the give and take from the audience.
"Performing to a camera is just not the same -- the energy and dynamic of a crowd is exhilarating and infectious," says Weatherford. On the other hand, he says, "people can now tune in from all over the country. We've received donations from people in other states who are caring for charities in our community. Our hope is to continue with an online option, even when we return to in-person events."
Despite the setbacks, Beer and Hymns raised nearly $28,000 for 12 different nonprofits, including the Northwest Arkansas Women's Shelter, Arkansas Support Network, Northwest Arkansas Center for Sexual Assault and Ozark Guidance Center.
-- Lara Jo Hightower
Kat Wilson, Quarantine Habitats
One side effect of Pandemic 2020 was a certain stressful boredom: Though worried about the global health crisis, we were also confined to our homes, bereft of any kind of community contact or outside stimulation, leaving many stultified and depressed. But artist Kat Wilson stepped in the void and presented two ways for folks to be creative, even -- or especially -- while social distancing. #geokatting encouraged people to get outside for a digital treasure hunt, and #quarantinehabitats, a play on her previous "Habitats" series, challenged individuals and groups quarantining together to photograph themselves surrounded by the items that had become enormously important to them in this particular period of time.
"My No. 1 goal in my art career is to be a pioneer," notes Wilson. "I take a lot of chances by trying out new ways to create art. Sometimes I bomb, and sometimes there's a beautiful gem, like #quarantinehabitat. You will remember that my work had started to become very community-outward in the few years before the current pandemic. I'm sure I've told you in one of our interviews that my portraits are so good because of my sitters' performance for the camera. This thought expanded into the #selfiethrone, where I collaborated with local artists to create a scene where people took their own photographs and disseminated them through the hashtag #selfiethrone. So when the sh*t hit the fan, I knew we would all do something together. I wanted it to be profound, layered and beautiful. I almost did several other ideas before settling on the #quarantinehabitat project. I wasn't sure I wanted to demystify my life's most significant work."
The result? It was a hit. Submissions flowed in to Wilson's Facebook page from all over the world. Just like Wilson's original series, there was something deeply personal about these photos -- with the added bonus of a communal thrill in taking a peek at what was keeping the spirit of strangers up during this difficult time.
Wilson has an idea about why the project became so popular.
"Because we all wanted to be part of history," she says. "Some talk about where they were when Kennedy got shot, some describe what they were doing when 9/11 happened, but we can show you what we were doing during the Great Pandemic of 2020."
-- Lara Jo Hightower
Chris Selby, Food And Funds
On March 20, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson ordered that restaurants and bars be closed to the public in an attempt to slow the continuing spread of covid-19. Restaurants were allowed to continue serving through delivery and curbside pick-up -- albeit to a much lower volume of customers -- but bars had no such income potential. The impact on those in the hospitality industry was immediate and dire in Northwest Arkansas, and Chris Selby, who owns and runs his own food delivery service, was in a position to witness the panic first hand. Selby didn't wait for some other organization to swoop in and help; instead, he capitalized on his social media following and larger-than-life personality to help raise and distribute funds and food himself.
"I knew tons of people who were instantly out of work with no way to get money," Selby says. "So I did what everyone would expect -- I went live on Facebook with a one-person dance party and wrote everyone's Venmo, etc., on a big white board and tried to get folks to donate to those who needed a boost. Also, I got pretty drunk."
Selby's infectious enthusiasm soon led to others in the community pitching in to help.
"One night, I decided I was going to buy some Eureka Pizzas and give them out for free," he explains. "I bought five or six and asked my friends to send me their addresses if they needed a pizza. That morphed into me working with local places to buy food from them using donations or them donating food to help. For two or three months, we were delivering free food to 65-plus addresses. It was a lot. I found a volunteer driver for every one of those days. I would give out their Venmo if folks wanted to help pay them for the work.
"Mangos Gourmet Taco Shop was the backbone -- they sold us tons of burritos for really, really cheap. Woodstone Pizza donated tons of free pizzas even though they were closed. Dot's Chicken; Cafe Rue Orleans; Wicked Wood Fired Pizza; Foghorn's; Leo's Taqueria; Girls Gone BBQ; Hammontree's; Rymolene's Pies -- I'm sure there were more. Some came to me; I went to some."
At the same time he was coordinating the delivery of free food for hospitality workers, he was also conducting Facebook fundraisers for single parents.
"I think it was pretty successful," he says. "I really worked myself to death, though. I don't think I could've done it any longer. Pretty much every second I was awake, I was thinking about how to get people to help deliver the next day, what food to get and just organizing it. It was a whole lot. I kind of did a lifetime of philanthropy in a few months. And a huge thanks to all of the volunteer drivers. OMG, they were freaking amazing."
Selby also notes that MayDay Community Kitchen took over all of the addresses he had gathered through the course of the project and "helped with food toward the end."
-- Lara Jo Hightower
Nate Walls, Food is Love
Nate Walls has long fed the hungry: He grew up helping his mother run a cafe in Stuttgart and went on to cook for large groups in the Army. Today he runs Secondhand Smoke, a barbecue catering service that frequently works with nonprofit organizations in the area to help keep community members fed. So when a friend asked for help at the beginning of the pandemic, Walls was more than ready to answer the call.
"A friend of mine, Carl Dunn, reached out to me and asked me if I could do anything about the community kids because his wife worked at the Yvonne Richardson Community Center," he says. "I said, 'Of course!' My wife and I decided to take out $1,000 to put forth to the communities that I knew would be most affected. I wanted it to mirror the struggle that was actually going on, so I went to Sam's and got bulk items and nonperishables and created what we used to call 'struggle meals' but in reality they are just meals that we all grew up with -- comfort foods."
Here's the thing about Walls that sets him apart: He doesn't just hand out physical, tangible items like food. He extends his ear and his empathy, and he comes out the other side, he says, with a deeper knowledge of the struggle experienced by folks from all kinds of backgrounds.
"I went out with the thought that I would help people, and I had a pretty good idea what poverty looked like, but I was wrong," he says. "Poverty wasn't just black. It was white people in trailer parks; white, Marshallese and Hispanic people in apartment complexes. I ran into people of all ethnicities going through terrible situations like domestic abuse, sexual abuse, teenage pregnancies, [people who had] other needs like feminine products without knowledge of how to get them, child care -- issues that I was kind of aware of, of but during covid, these services and resources just weren't available. So I partnered with Light House Solutions, a nonprofit that finds people in poverty resources, and My-T-Bydesign, an art therapy program that encourages kids and families to talk about their problems in a therapeutic setting."
Walls' work has clearly attracted attention: This week, he found out he had been nominated for the Division of Arkansas Heritage's 2021 Arkansas Food Hall of Fame in the category of People's Choice Award. The program, according to the DAH, "salutes our unique foods, legendary restaurants, remarkable chefs, influential food entrepreneurs and culturally significant festivals and events."
"It started with food, then trust, then communication, then resources," says Walls. "It really does take a village -- or a 'Ville'."
-- Lara Jo Hightower