Dr. Nikki Spotts and Al Mitchell

Dr. Nikki Spotts, dance educator at Shaw VPA Elementary School receives her Art Educator of the Year Award from Al Mitchell, vice president of corporate engagement for Bayer, during the Arts and Education Council of St. Louis’ 29th Annual St. Louis Arts Awards on Monday, January 27 at the Chase Park Plaza.

“Solomon Thurman is a local treasure,” Nancy Kranzberg said in the video that captured the life and experiences of Solomon Thurman Jr., who received a Lifetime Achievement in the Arts award at the Arts & Education Council’s 29th Annual St. Louis Arts Awards Monday night in the Khorossan Ballroom of the Chase Park Plaza.

Kranzberg, a local treasure in her own right for her philanthropy – particularly in the arts, was eager to brag on Thurman for his most famous creative contribution.

“Every time I walk by ‘Black Americans in Flight,’ the mural at the Lambert Airport, I brag to whoever I’m with,” Kranzberg continued. “[I say] ‘that’s my friend Solomon Thurman. Look at how great of an artist he is.’”

Thurman, a visual artist, educator, local art historian, activist and co-owner of 10th Street Gallery (with his wife Pat Smith-Thurman) was one of a handful of individuals and institutions recognized for giving of their time, talent and resources to uplift the arts community in the region during the dinner program presented by the Centene Charitable Foundation.

“Tonight, we will honor people who have stepped up to make sure our next generation and generations to come inherit a St. Louis with outstanding arts and cultural opportunities,” said. Caren Vredenburgh, Arts and Education Board chair.

In addition to Thurman, honorees included Excellence in the Arts recipient Ambassadors of Harmony, Arts Educator of the Year Dr. Nikki Spotts, Champion for the Arts recipient Employee Community Fund of Boeing St. Louis, Excellence in the Arts recipient Pulitzer Arts Foundation and Arts Collaborator Adam Maness. Stages St. Louis founders Jack Lane and Michael Hamilton also received a Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Awards.

“We invest in people and programs that shape a more vibrant community by inspiring us to think more creatively, build bridges among cultures, energize our communities and our economy and quite simply enrich our lives,” said Cynthia Prost Arts and Education Council President and CEO.

Thurman saw a bridge that needed to be built when he first laid eyes upon the mural dedicated to pioneers in the field of aviation at Lambert International Airport back in 1985.

“On that 147-foot mural there were no African Americans on there,” Thurman said. “I grew up around Tuskegee Airmen, so I knew that was not right.” He worked with an artist named Spencer Taylor on a proposal to get “Black Americans in Flight” on the wall at Lambert. “He was a masterful painter and to work with him for those five years was almost like going through a master’s program at [an art] school,” Thurman said.

Having a painting on the walls of Lambert was a full-circle experience for Thurman. His father enrolled him in art classes at the People’s Art Center in 1958 after he was caught as a youngster drawing on the kitchen walls of the family home.

“When we were kids, he would set out sketch paper all the time,” said son Lance Omar Thurman said, crediting his father’s creativity for his own path as a noted photographer.

Rev. Ralph Irving, senior pastor of Greater Leonard Missionary Baptist Church, knew Thurman way back then, boasting that their friendship stretches 60 years. “We were neighbors and footwear maintenance engineers – everybody else called us shoeshine boys,” Irving said.

Years later, Irving commissioned Thurman to create a painting of their boyhood experience walking home after a long Saturday of shining shoes. “He got it absolutely right – even down to this one tidbit where the dog would run out every time we would come close to his house. He would bark and snarl and charge at us.”

Spotts was a fourth grader at Shaw Elementary, where she now works as a dance educator, when she discovered dance. Soon after, it was impressed upon her to use her gifts to pour into the next generation of artists. “I remember my principal saying to me, ‘When you leave here, hold on to your story. When you complete your story, you must return. When you return, that’s the beginning of someone else’s story.’”

Her dance teachers were so invested in her talent and potential that they poured into her – including Charley Johnson and Pelagie Wren. After a successful career as a dancer and choreographer, Spotts returned to Shaw in 1999 and never left. From then to now she helps her students find their own stories. “What I would like to see is every school having the arts,” Spotts said. “Every school having dance and drama and music and art included. These kids need that voice.”

Renee Franklin, director of audience development at the Saint Louis Art Museum, spoke of the time she saw Solomon Thurman help a particularly vulnerable group find their own voice.

He facilitated an art class for women housed in a domestic violence shelter.

“Solomon went in there and there and it was phenomenal,” Franklin said. “He not only empowered the women to work through their pain, he helped them to bridge where they were with where they wanted to go.

“When I think of Solomon, I think of someone who is a talented artist, but he also a gifted educator, a community activist. But most of all, he is a kind person.” 

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