The Celebration of Alabama Arts shines a spotlight on arts and creativity in Alabama and on individuals who make significant and impactful contributions to our state’s rich cultural landscape.

Click here to read the special celebration issue of ALABAMA ARTS magazine.

Celebration of Alabama Arts

round red logo with sunburst over text Celebration of Alabama Arts

Join us for the 2024 Celebration of Alabama Arts awards ceremony as we honor eight remarkable Alabamians!

Thursday, May 16, at 7:00 pm
Alabama Shakespeare Festival
Montgomery, AL


2024 Honorees

Please help us congratulate the incredible individuals being honored by the Council by submitting a note that will be shared with them after the event. Share your note(s) of congratulations here!

  • Pinky/MM Bass, visual artist – Alabama Arts Impact Award
  • Russell Gulley, musician, teaching artist, arts administrator – Alabama Arts Impact Award
  • Chester Higgins, visual artist – Alabama Distinguished Artist Award
  • Elias Katsaros, visual artist, iconographer – Alabama Folk Heritage Award
  • Kevin King, visual artist, arts advocacy leader – Alabama Arts Impact Award
  • Greta Lambert, actor, director, teaching artist – Jonnie Dee Riley Little Lifetime Achievement Award
  • Monique Ryan, dancer, artistic director – Alabama Arts Impact Award
  • Jeanie Thompson, poet, literary arts advocate – Albert B. Head Legacy Award

PINKY/MM BASS – Alabama Arts Impact Award

The Alabama Arts Impact Awards honors individuals who have made unique and meaningful contributions to arts in Alabama.

Pinky/MM Bass is a nationally recognized photographer with work in collections including the Polaroid Corporation, numerous museums, and publications such as Aperture and The Pinhole Journal. Her awards include a Media Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and an individual artist grant from South Arts/National Endowment for the Arts. Her large format images are made using alternative cameras and experimental processes and address issues of aging, death, and the mythology of that journey.

Pinky has had over 30 solo exhibitions and has work in the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Huntsville Museum of Art, The Polaroid Corporation, The Birmingham Museum of Art, several colleges and universities, and private collections. Publications in which her work is featured include The Polaroid Book, Book of Alternative Photographic Processes, Aperture Magazine, and Entwined.

Pinky received her MFA in Photography from Georgia State University in 1988. In 1989, she received an Interdisciplinary Grant for The Itinerate Photographer, a project that resulted in the construction of Pinky's Portable Pop-up Pinhole Camera and Darkroom. Made from an old pop-up camper, the camera had bellows and served as a walk-in camera obscura as well as a functioning camera. The 4'x6' paper negatives were often combined with images made by her Baldwin County grandmother at the turn of the century with an old glass negative camera. An artist residency at Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York, allowed her to create some 20 pinhole camera purses, exploring issues related to women and photography. In 1992, she began an in-depth exploration of collaboration with Kitty Couch, a ceramic artist from North Carolina. In addition to a residency at Headland Center for the Arts, the two women worked in the Resen Ceramic Colony in Macedonia in 1997.

In 1993-94, Pinky organized a six-month long program in Oaxaca, Mexico, where 17 artists were able to develop work in a retreat setting. A traveling exhibition entitled Tangle of Complexes: Photographing in Mexico resulted from that experience and was organized by Space One Eleven, Birmingham, Alabama. Image: Patterned Flowers on Half-hair, Pinky/MM Bass and Carolyn DeMeritt.

RUSSELL GULLEY – Alabama Arts Impact Award

The Alabama Arts Impact Awards honors individuals who have made unique and meaningful contributions to arts in Alabama.

Russell Gulley was born in Rome, Georgia, but spent his childhood in Fort Payne, Alabama. He loved music from an early age, listening to blues music on the radio and the choir at his local Pentecostal Church. In high school, he played bass with the Howell family gospel group and credits that experience as his introduction to the business of music. Russell recorded two LPs with the group — his first time working in a studio.

After serving in Vietnam, he found his way back to music. Russell played in the bands of artists such as Ray Peterson, Ronnie Dove, and Ruby Winter before receiving a fateful call from Jimmy Johnson at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. That led to the eventual creation of the band Jackson Highway — named after the address of the original Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, located at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield, Alabama. Russell recorded an album with the group, and they embarked on several tours before disbanding. He then moved to Nashville and continued to work as a touring musician, going on the road with the likes of Leroy Van Dyke, Gary Buck, and Miss Margo Smith, before finally returning to his hometown in northeast Alabama.

While employed by the City of Fort Payne, Russell began a working relationship with the Council on the Arts, specifically the Alabama Center of Traditional Culture. As he developed the Big Wills Arts Council (BWAC), Russell realized he needed to learn more about the nonprofit and public arts landscape – specifically in terms of grant writing, fundraising, and creating arts education and community programming. During his tenure with BWAC, Russell helped develop programs such as Radiovisions, a revival of the DeKalb County Fiddlers’ Convention, Fort Payne’s Boom Day Heritage Celebration, and an arts in education program with Fort Payne City Schools.   

This led Russell to become a teaching artist himself, participating in the Council on the Arts’ Collaborating Artist Program and Rural Touring Artist Program, among others. His work inside the classroom focuses on traditional roots music and oral histories.  

Remaining steadfast to his craft, Russell has continued to tour and record. His solo albums include 2004’s Back to the Swamp and 2019’s Howard: Gospel Blues Inspired by Howard Finster. He also helms the Salt and Pepper Roots Music Celebration – a quarterly series hosted by the University of North Alabama that celebrates traditional music and its influence on the Muscle Shoals music industry. Image: Contributed

CHESTER HIGGINS - Alabama Distinguished Artist Award

The Distinguished Artist Award recognizes artists with deep connections to Alabama who have earned significant national acclaim for their art over an extended period.

With his camera, Chester Higgins "wrestles with issues of memory, place, and identity, he sees his life as a narrative and his photography as its expression. His art gives visual voice to his personal and collective memories. It is inside ordinary moments where he finds windows into larger meaning. Light, perspective, and points in time are the pivotal elements he uses to reveal an interior presence within his subjects as he searches for what he identifies as the Signature of the Spirit." The works of Chester Higgins challenge us to see the full breadth of our humanity. Through his portraits and studies of living rituals, traditional ceremonies, and the monuments and ruins of ancient civilizations, viewers gain a rare insight into cultural behavior — a window to another place and time.

Higgins is the author of eight collections: Black Woman, Drums of Life, Some Time Ago, Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa — a comprehensive look at the African Diaspora — Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging, his memoir Echo of the Spirit: A Photographer’s Journey, and the illustrated Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile. His most recent book, Sacred Nile, explores the ancient migratory route of faith along the River Nile. Higgins’s photographs have appeared in ArtNews, New York Times, Nile Magazine, Explorers Journal, and Archaeology Magazine. His work is the topic of two PBS films, An American Photographer: Chester Higgins Jr., and Brotherman, and has been featured on Sunday Morning News (CBS), The NewsHour (PBS), Like It Is (ABC), Freedom Forum, and CUNY TV’s Tony Guida’s New York.

His solo exhibitions have appeared at the International Center of Photography, The Smithsonian Institution, The Museum of African Art, The Museum of Photographic Arts, The Schomburg Center, The Newark Museum, The National Civil Rights Museum, The Field Museum of History, The New-York Historical Society, the Windows Gallery/Kimmel Center of New York University, The Dapper Museum in Paris, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Higgins was recently honored with his induction into the International Photography Hall of Fame. He is the recipient of grants from The Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the International Center of Photography, the Open Society Institute, The National Endowment for the Arts, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. In 2014, he retired from The New York Times as a staff photographer after 38 years of contributing images to the paper. Image: Self-portrait from Kigali, Rwanda, 2023.

ELIAS KATSAROS – Alabama Folk Heritage Award

The Alabama Folk Heritage Award was established to recognize exemplary folk artists who have made outstanding contributions to their artistic tradition.

Elias Katsaros was born of Greek parentage in Istanbul, Türkiye in 1945. He moved to Athens, Greece, in 1963 where he studied art. Elias kept to the strict Byzantine tradition of Iconography and painted in the 16th-century Cretan style. Elias has been in the United States since 1969 making Huntsville, Alabama, his home where he established his studio with his wife Elaine. In 2016, Elias retired from taking on Iconography Projects. He now continues to paint and draw portraits, landscapes, and still life.

Elias’s Iconography projects can be found in Orthodox churches along with a few Episcopal and Catholic Churches across the United States. Image: Contributed.

KEVIN KING – Alabama Arts Impact Award

The Alabama Arts Impact Awards honors individuals who have made unique and meaningful contributions to arts in Alabama.

Artist and arts advocacy leader Kevin King established The King’s Canvas in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2018, and currently serves as the Executive Director. After relocating to the historic Washington Park neighborhood in 2007, Kevin and his family actively collaborated with neighbors, becoming woven into the fabric of the historically marginalized community.

Their participation in the neighborhood’s growth stems from a shared commitment to nurturing, serving, and connecting with the community. This work has driven transformation and renewal and cultivated leadership within the area. Operating as a creative haven, The King’s Canvas seeks to provide opportunity and access to artists who have been historically and systemically marginalized by focusing on creativity, entrepreneurship, and personal development. Through artistic expression and creative placemaking strategies, The King’s Canvas also channels efforts towards using arts and culture as a conduit to address issues of community and economic development. Image: Contributed.

GRETA LAMBERT – Jonnie Dee Riley Little Lifetime Achievement Award

The Jonnie Dee Riley Little Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes individuals who have devoted a lifetime of energy, service, and contributions to the arts in Alabama.

Originally hailing from Birmingham, Alabama, Greta Lambert has called Montgomery home for many years. Greta retired after 38 years of joyful service at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF). During her time at ASF, she wore many hats — actor, director, teaching artist, MFA faculty member, Director of the Intern and Fellowship programs, Director of Education and Community Engagement, and Associate Artistic Director. She and her husband Rodney Clark were both members of ASF’s Acting Company.

Over the years, Greta had the good fortune to play some amazing roles, including Ivy Rowe in Fair and Tender Ladies, Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy, Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, the titular role of Shirley Valentine, Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, Lady Croom in Arcadia, Dottie Otley in Noises Off, Truvy (and later Ouiser) in Steel Magnolias, Linda in Death of a Salesman, Hedda Gabler, Sarah Bernhardt, Eliza Doolittle, Candida, Miss Havisham, Hanna in Night of the Iguana, Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Maggie in Dancing at Lughnasa –   to name a few. Her regional theatre credits include Doubt, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Private Lives, Three Sisters, To Kill a Mockingbird, Death and the Maiden, A Shayna Maidel, Woman in Mind, and Alabama Story. In Shakespeare, she has played Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Viola, Queen Katherine, Gertrude, Mistress Page, Beatrice, Constance, Rosalind, Emilia, Cressida, Kate, Titania, Miranda, Duchess of York, Princess Katherine, Lady Ann, all three Weird Sisters, and, most recently, Prospero. Her television credits include Picket Fences and Young Riders. Her directing credits include Much Ado About Nothing, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, Relative Values, Proof, Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Beauty & the Beast, Alice in Wonderland, and Cinderella. Image: Stephen Poff.

MONIQUE RYAN – Alabama Arts Impact Award

The Alabama Arts Impact Awards honors individuals who have made unique and meaningful contributions to arts in Alabama.

Monique Ryan is the Executive Director and Founder of Dance All Productions, Inc./Dance Theatre of Huntsville, Alabama. She moved to Huntsville in 2003 from Atlanta, Georgia, where she choreographed and performed with the nationally known dance company Atlanta Ballet, Total Dance/Dancical Productions, and The Patdro Harris Co. Her extensive training comes from master instructors like Mary Jacobs, Teri “Ajile” Axam, and Valjean Grigsby. At Western Kentucky University, she studied under Beverly Veenker in the Performing Arts degree program. As a member of the International Association of Blacks in Dance, she trained with Joan Myers Brown, Chuck Davis, Eleo Polmare, Donald McKayle, Sarita Allen, Ojinga Love, Mamady Sano, Djian Tie, and Lula Washington. Some of her most notable performances include dancing for: Elton John, Arrested Development, and Wei Wei of China at the 1996 Olympics. She appears in the video “The Moving Word,” produced by Patdro Harris. Monique has more than 30 years of experience in the dance and performance world both nationally and internationally and has served on the board of the Alabama Dance Council and is a member of the Leadership Huntsville Access team.

Monique is a two-time recipient of a Dance Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts. She has trained with the World Dance Movement in Rome Italy, as well as the Alvin Ailey School and Complexions Contemporary Ballet, both in New York City, and holds a Bikram yoga certification.  

Upon arriving in Huntsville, she quickly found the dance community and soon after began teaching at the Community Ballet School (now Huntsville Ballet). She also opened Dance Theatre of Huntsville in North Huntsville to bring dance closer to Black and Latinx children and young adults who had little to no access to classical, contemporary, and modern dance training. Monique has trained several dancers who have gone on to perform in professional companies, major film productions, commercials, professional sports performance teams, and Broadway.

With a passion for storytelling, Monique stages dance productions of familiar tales, but with an Afro-Latin twist that brings a sense of pride designed to educate the performers and the audience members as well. Her most beloved performances include The Gift, an adaptation of the “Black Nativity” by Langston Hughes, The Lion’s Tale, Rio, and 50 Years of Space. She has been awarded numerous awards for choreography and was awarded the title “Living Legend in Dance” for her contributions to the African American community in Huntsville.

Dance and dance performance have always been her passion, but what her mother taught her was that if you can share dance with those who have limited access then your passion can live far beyond your years. Monique continues to teach at Dance Theatre of Huntsville where to her, dreams do come true! Image: Contributed.

JEANIE THOMPSON – Albert B. Head Legacy Award

The Albert B. Head Legacy Award recognizes public officials, arts patrons, or arts educators who have empowered arts to thrive in their community, creating lasting importance for future generations in Alabama and beyond.

Jeanie Thompson was born in Anniston, Alabama, in 1952, and soon moved to Decatur with her parents, Katherine and Byrd Thompson, and younger brother Charlie. She was educated in public schools and graduated from The University of Alabama with a BA in English (’74) and an MFA in Creative Writing (’77). With fellow classmates in UA’s fledgling graduate creative writing program, Jeanie founded and edited the literary journal Black Warrior Review for its first four issues (1974-76). BWR celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2024.

Jeanie has worked in literary arts management and teaching for more than 45 years while also pursuing her own writing. Her five poetry collections include The Myth of Water: Poems from the Life of Helen Keller, The Seasons Bear Us, White for Harvest: New and Selected Poems, Witness, How to Enter the River, and three small press chapbooks. With Jay Lamar, she co-edited The Remembered Gate: Memoirs by Alabama Writers.

Jeanie’s interviews, poems, and essays have appeared widely. She was recently featured in The Southern Poetry Anthology: Volume X Alabama from Texas Review Press (2024). 

As a teacher of young writers, Jeanie taught at the University of New Orleans, the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, in poetry-in-the-schools programs in New Orleans, and at St. Martin’s Protestant Episcopal School (Metairie, LA) from 1977 - 1984. She currently is an adjunct poetry faculty in Spalding University’s Naslund-Mann MFA Writing Program (Louisville, Kentucky). She received Individual Artist fellowships from the Louisiana State Arts Council and the Alabama State Council on the Arts (twice) and was a Walter Dakin Fellow at the Sewanee Writers Conference in 2000.  

In 1993, Jeanie spearheaded the founding of the Alabama Writers’ Forum (AWF), a statewide literary arts partnership program of the Alabama State Council on the Arts at the urging of then Executive Director Albert B. Head. The Forum’s signature arts education program, Writing Our Stories, a collaboration with the Alabama Department of Youth Services, was started in 1997, and its curriculum has been recognized nationally. The Forum’s mission includes serving young writers and educators.

In 2014, the Forum established the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame in collaboration with the University of Alabama libraries to recognize the best of Alabama’s authors to date.

In fall 2023, Jeanie retired as Emerita Executive Director of AWF and the AWF Board of Directors created an award to recognize contributions to Alabama literary arts by individuals and for community service in her honor. The inaugural ‘Jeanie Thompson Champion of the Literary Arts’ awards will be presented with the 2025 Alabama Writers Hall of Fame class in Tuscaloosa in Spring 2025. Image: Jerry Siegel.

Award Details

  • The Alabama Arts Impact Awards honors individuals who have made unique and meaningful contributions to arts in Alabama.
  • The Jonnie Dee Riley Little Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes individuals who have devoted a lifetime of energy, service, and contributions to the arts in Alabama.
  • The Distinguished Artist Award recognizes artists with deep connections to Alabama who have earned significant national acclaim for their art over an extended period.
  • The Alabama Folk Heritage Award was established to recognize exemplary folk artists who have made outstanding contributions to their artistic tradition.
  • The Albert B. Head Legacy Award recognizes public officials, arts patrons, or arts educators who have empowered arts to thrive in their community, creating lasting importance for future generations in Alabama and beyond.

  • For a detailed look at the history of the awards, click here.

    About Us

    The mission of the Alabama State Council on the Arts is to enhance the quality of life and economic vitality for all Alabamians by providing support for the state’s diverse and rich artistic resources.

    Agency goals:

    • Support excellence and professionalism in the arts.
    • Provide opportunities for high-quality arts education for every Alabama student and lifelong learner.
    • Provide opportunities for all Alabamians to experience the arts.
    • Identify, preserve, and present folk art traditions.
    • Promote diverse cultural artistic expressions.
    • Recognize and support the arts as a driver of economic vitality.
    • Increase public recognition and appreciation for the arts, arts organizations, and individual artists.

    Our Supporters

    The Alabama State Council on the Arts is funded by state legislative appropriations, a partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts (a federal agency), Support the Arts license plate sales, and tax refund donations.
    Thank you for your support!

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