2019 Art Awards

Photo by Michael Holahan

Eryn Eubanks
Artist of the Year

Augusta native Eryn Eubanks grew up immersed in art and in her faith.

Today, the Augusta musician is well-known locally for performing Americana bluegrass, gospel, Celtic, and classic country music. Her continued dedication and love of the arts as a mentor, teacher and performer has earned Eubanks the 2019 Artist of the Year award.

Eubanks says her love of music is something instilled in her at birth, with her own parents being musicians and her own source of inspiration.

“I have had so many musical influences, but the most important ones to me are the people who aren’t ‘world famous,’… My parents – who shared their love for music with me since I was a baby, and went above and beyond for me to play however many instruments I showed interest in,” Eubanks said.

By the age of 12, she was already well-versed in more than a dozen musical instruments, which she used to participate as a member in the Richmond County String Orchestra and the Greater Augusta Youth Orchestra. She was the first honoree of the Augusta Genealogical Society’s Junior Membership Award, and as an adult has been nominated on multiple occasions as Augusta Magazine’s Favorite Female Vocalist, along with Best Bluegrass Band and Best Christian Gospel Band.

Eubanks has long enjoyed playing with her own family band, Eryn Eubanks and The Family Fold, complete with her father Patrick and her mother Ricie Eubanks. The family folk band is the first credited with performing music for visitors on the Augusta Canal Music Tours. If she’s not performing, Eubanks and her family are known for putting on their own music festivals, one of which benefits Lynndale, Inc., a community nonprofit for people with developmental disabilities here in Augusta. Eubanks has also released quite a few of her own albums featuring collaborations with other local musicians, including her “mandolin heroes” and bandmates.

“I’m thankful for my mandolin heroes – Ed Hurt and Henry Courtney – who took time to pick bluegrass music with me when others didn’t have an interest in this beginner,” Eubanks said. “And I’m grateful for my bandmates, Mike Merritt and the late Jim Jewell, whose guitars and special songs add so much to The Family Fold’s sound.”

While Eubanks said she stays busy most weekends hosting jam sessions, her talents extend beyond music. Eubanks is an ordained minister and leads her family’s ministry, Family Fold Church Services, each week. In addition, she is a talented watercolor artist, having studied for eight years under the instruction of artist Jim Gensheer. And for the past 17 years, Eubanks has shared the joy of music by providing lessons to young musicians at the studio in her home.

“I praise God that he let me be born in Augusta, Georgia. I love this town, love my hometown and I love the people and that I get to play music here,” Eubanks said. “It has been 18 years of our band playing music here. We started in 2001 when I was 13 and I’m 31 now and time has flown by because I have had so much fun through all these years.”

Her advice to young musicians – don’t forget the importance of being yourself.

“There are always going to be people who can do more than we can, or attain more at a younger age,” Eubanks said. “Just be you and do the creative thing that makes you happy! God made each one of us so unique, and with a special purpose for us to fulfill. There are multitudes of talented musicians and artists in this world, but there isn’t another you. Just strive to be the best you that you can be, and share what God has given you to help others.”



photography by Amy J. Owen

Gary Dennis
Arts Professional Award

Gary Dennis calls himself a “goofy guy,” quick with a joke or a laugh. But the impact of his time as executive director of the Jessye Norman School of the Arts is something to be seriously noted. Since 2003, the school has served economically disadvantaged youth in the arts at no cost. And at the school’s helm is this year’s 2019 Arts Professional award winner.

Today, Dennis’s impact can be seen in the Jessye Norman School of the Arts (JNSA) and their wide variety of classes for students, which include guitar, music, visual arts, drama and dance and even yoga with baby goats. Under Dennis’s leadership, JNSA has increased the number of programs, as well as the number of students, which serves primarily low-income families. Recently, Dennis implemented a weekly arts program for home-schooled students and has collaborated on a partnership with Lynndale, Inc., which allowed a group of citizens with disabilities a chance to see the school’s dress rehearsal for the upcoming production of “Madagascar.”

This summer, Dennis launched the Summer Sidewalk Music Series, which features live musical performances on the sidewalk in front of the school and in the school’s garden from 3-5 p.m. on Fridays. What’s more, the number of students the school serves has grown to nearly 150 students who participate five days a week in daily afternoon programs and approximately 170 students who take part in the school’s summer camp program. All of these students are served for free thanks to the support of the community and Dennis’s leadership.

When he isn’t launching and managing new programs for the school’s growing student base, Dennis has no trouble getting his hands dirty to keep things in working order for the benefit of his students. In addition to his administrative duties, Dennis has built an addition to the performance stage inside and outside the building, he has helped with wiring the sound and lighting systems in the school and in the garden, and has also constructed a booth students use for the school’s Arts Technology Program.

“I am kind of a goofy guy, but I can be serious, so seriously, I’m grateful for the award, my family, friends and parents and all of our staff, faculty, and friends who showed up to support me,” Dennis said when accepting his award. “I’m grateful that I live and work in a community that you are completely aware of the limitations of all of us and you still choose to encourage, support and sometimes award us.”   

“We don’t know what the future will hold for JNSA, but we know with Gary at the helm it will be very exciting and we are very proud of [him],” said award presenter Linda Scales, JNSA visionary, member of the JNSA Board of Directors and 2016 Arts Awards Winner, Volunteer.



photography by Amy J. Owen

Jessye Norman School of the Arts
The Kath Girdler Engler Award for Public Art

From its storied and humble beginnings of providing art education without a permanent brick and mortar location, today, the Jessye Norman School of the Arts is a hub for public art fueled by the support of the Augusta community. The school was founded in 2003 to provide arts education to economically disadvantaged children free of charge and is often seen as a beacon of hope for its students. The school is known for fusing its own elements of educating future generations with being a vessel for public art productions.

Its most recent project earned the school this year’s Kath Girdler Engler Award for Public Art and was born of the Piano Project, which commissions artists to paint pianos that are placed outside of the school to make music for the community.

The project is one example of how the school is using its building as a “transformative” space.

“Not only has JNSA (Jessye Norman School of the Arts) transformed the building’s physical space, gallery, garden performance stage and educational institution, but they have brought art into the community beyond the walls of their school,” said award presenter Scott Thorp, Chair, Department of Art and Design, Associate V.P., Interdisciplinary Research at Augusta University.

Thorp shared a comment from a submission nominating JNSA for the award.

“The JNSA school through the passion and hard work of the faculty and staff brings the community closer together.”

“I think that’s very true,” Thorp added. “I know I am not alone in saying that I am incredibly grateful for this place and that it embodies the transformative power of the arts.”

Another project the school began is called Painted Windows, which gives local artists the opportunity to showcase their work on the windows of the school for all to see, another free public art showcase for the community.

The after school program is possible through a collaboration of financial support in part by the Greater Augusta Arts Council through appropriations from the City of Augusta by the Georgia Council for the Arts, along with contributions from other foundations and personal donations.



Photo by Jon-Michael Sullivan

City of Augusta
President’s Award

The City of Augusta and the many departments that help the city go round were recognized for their support of the public arts, earning them the 2019 Greater Augusta Arts Council’s President’s Award.

The city’s support has bolstered the arts community with services that run the gamut, including collaborating with Arts Council volunteers, traffic and engineering staff, and the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office on events like Arts in the Heart of Augusta.

More than 18 city departments routinely support public art in partnership with the Greater Augusta Arts Council, collaborating on Arts in the Heart, the city grants program, and the city gallery, which regularly features local art on display in the Municipal Building.

The city’s finance department manages funds set aside for public art in SPLOST 7, ensuring funding for the City Arts Grant, which funds nonprofit and arts-based organizations. Ultimately, this establishes educational opportunities throughout the city, gives under-served audiences access to the arts, encourages economic development, and promotes metro Augusta as a cultural destination.

The city’s tax commission offices assist with managing the ticket gates and festival financial office at Augusta Arts in the Heart Festival.

Other departments recognized include Housing and Community Development, the Land Bank Authority, Planning and Development, Traffic and Engineering, Recreation and Parks, Procurement and Central Services.

Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis accepted the President’s Award on behalf of the city and emphasized the role of public art in the cultural development of the area.

The Mayor’s Office and staff and the Board of Commissioners and staff were applauded for their support of the arts by routinely voting for public art programs, allowing the arts to thrive.

“It gives us a unique opportunity to reflect and reveal our society and more importantly our city’s culture and [how] civic spaces can be used to demonstrate it, not just for economic growth and sustainability, but our values. Public art quite frankly is a way of telling us who we are and what we can accomplish and where we come from,” Davis said.



Photo by Rhian Swain of REDWOLF

Mike Sleeper
Volunteer Award

After a hurricane forced the Saturday closure of the annual Arts in the Heart of Augusta Festival last year, the group’s operations were put to the ultimate test. And according to Executive Director Brenda Durant, what she called “The Mike Sleeper Plan” passed the test.

For his efforts as Operations Lead for the Arts in the Heart of Augusta Festival, Mike Sleeper was named the 2019 Volunteer of the Year.

Each year, Sleeper and his team settle into their home away from home for the week leading up to the festival in order to execute the set up and breakdown of one of the area’s largest festivals of the year.

The annual arts festival draws nearly 80,000 people to downtown Augusta for a jam-packed weekend. Each year, Sleeper volunteers his time to take on the giant job of ensuring all pieces are put in place for the massive and highly anticipated event. His duties include overseeing the Augusta Common, three blocks of Broad Street and the 700 block in downtown Augusta. He ensures the festival area is mapped, chalked and fenced off. He works to respond to the requests and needs of 150 individual fine arts and crafts vendors and 25 international food booths – while keeping five performance stages humming. His duties also include ensuring all equipment is accounted for and returned and stored properly for next year.

As if the laundry list of duties that would test any normal group of people was not already overwhelming, go ahead and tack on the looming landfall of an actual hurricane.

The threat of high winds and rain forced the event’s closure Saturday. Sleeper and other arts council and City of Augusta leaders planned and talked with local law enforcement and first responders to ensure all were safely evacuated from the site. The external communications plan set forth in the event of an emergency was executed to kept arts and crafts vendors and the public informed of the event’s closure and planned reopening the following day.

“This plan, ‘The Sleeper Plan,’ worked,” said Durant, executive director of the Greater Augusta Arts Council. “I don’t think I can tell you how much Mike Sleeper does for the Arts in the Heart of Augusta Festival and for the Greater Augusta Arts Council.”

Also a husband and father, Sleeper donates his time and expertise in technology and logistics each year for the Arts in the Heart of Augusta Festival, while working a full-time job and training for an Iron Man Competition.

But Sleeper said the award was for his team, not just him.

“What can I say? I love Arts in the Heart, I love downtown Augusta and everything that goes on down there,” Sleeper said. “But this award isn’t just for me. I’ve got crew, I’ve got folks who do so much. They live on that festival site. Some of us literally check into a hotel on Wednesday and don’t go home until Sunday or Monday…For them, and for everybody out there, I thank you.”



Photo by Rhian Swain of REDWOLF

Bank of America
Sponsor of the Year

Bank of America was recognized as the 2019 Sponsor of the Year for their support of the arts in the community for the past 15 years.

Globally, the bank supports more than 2,000 nonprofit cultural institutions each year and, locally, institutions who have been the recipient of the bank’s steadfast support include the Morris Museum of Art, The Miller Theater, Augusta Symphony, Columbia County Ballet and Columbia County Community Events.

The bank’s local partnerships include funding of nearly 20 major exhibitions each year ,including a recent partnership with Morris Museum of Art to present Modern Masters: Group f/64, featuring photographs from the Bank of America Collection by some of the most influential artists of the 20th century.

“At Bank of America, we believe in the power of the arts to help economies thrive, educate and enrich societies, and create greater cultural understanding,” Ora Parish said, market president for Augusta and Aiken.

Parish explained that the bank is focused on helping nonprofit arts institutions thrive and has its own collection of art.

“We use our art collection, which has come to us from many legacy banks that are now part of Bank of America, for the benefit of the community,” Parish said.

Through the Art in Our Communities Program, museums and nonprofit galleries are able to borrow complete exhibitions at no cost. The bank incurs shipping and other costs, which allow museums and nonprofit galleries the ability to retain revenue generated by the exhibitions. Parish said since the program was established, more than 130 museums worldwide have borrowed exhibitions.

Parish accepted the Sponsor of the Year Award on behalf of Bank of America.

The Greater Augusta Arts Council serves as an important catalyst creating a vibrant arts community,” he said. “Bank of America is proud to call Augusta home.”

The award’s presenter, Kevin Grogan, executive director of the Morris Museum and 2005 Arts Awards Winner, Arts Professional, said under Parish’s leadership, Bank of America has virtually supported all arts institutions and called its involvement a great example of corporate partnership.

“It is wonderful to have so many organizations that we are able to align our values with, enabling economic mobility within our community,” Parish said.

Article appears in the May 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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