Ball State faculty and graduate students reflect on being nominated for Muncie’s fourth biennial Mayor’s Arts Awards

<p>Robert Dirden, Ball State assistant teaching professor of theatre, plans and prepares for a performance Oct. 28 at the Muncie Civic Theatre. Dirden is one of four Ball State faculty members nominated for the Muncie Mayor&#x27;s Arts Awards of 2021. <strong>Ally Haymaker, DN</strong></p>

Robert Dirden, Ball State assistant teaching professor of theatre, plans and prepares for a performance Oct. 28 at the Muncie Civic Theatre. Dirden is one of four Ball State faculty members nominated for the Muncie Mayor's Arts Awards of 2021. Ally Haymaker, DN

Attend the Mayor’s Arts Awards ceremony

Award Ceremony

Nov. 12, 7:30 p.m.

Sursa Performance Hall

Community Reception

Nov. 12, 8:45-10 p.m.

Sursa Hall lobby

Source: Muncie Arts and Culture Council

Categories for Mayor’s Arts Awards

Nominations do not require choosing a specific category for the person nominated. However, awards are separated into eight distinct categories. The nomination forms ask if nominees are individuals, organizations or students.

Arts Advocate – an individual or organization giving philanthropic or volunteer service

Arts Leader – an individual or organization whose leadership is outstanding within the local arts community

Arts Educator – an individual with far-reaching contributions to arts education

Corporate Arts – a corporation that shows exemplary support of the arts within the Muncie area

Artist in the Community – an individual artist in any discipline whose excellence contributes to Muncie’s cultural vitality

Next Generation Artist – an artist in any discipline under the age of 40 with outstanding promise to the arts community

Maker – a for-profit business owner exemplifying the vitality of Muncie’s creative economy

Lifetime Achievement – an individual or organization recognized for significant and sustained contributions to the field of arts and culture in the Muncie area

Source: Muncie Arts and Culture Council

Robert Dirden, Ball State assistant teaching professor of theatre, walked through the doors of the Muncie Civic Theatre as a 16-year-old in 1989 and wanted to help create sets and design shows. With theater experience from Muncie Central High School and a calling to create, Dirden said he helped the theater with whatever it needed, including painting sets, building props and sewing costumes.

Thirty-two years later, he still volunteers for Muncie Civic Theatre and is now the costume shop manager. For his consistent work in the arts community, Dirden said fellow Muncie Civic Theatre volunteer and former Ball State telecommunications professor Nancy Carlson nominated him for the 2021 Muncie Mayor’s Arts Awards, which aim to recognize contributions from artists and promote visual, performance, culinary and other arts to new patrons in the Muncie community.

“These are some of the most prestigious honors conferred by the city on individual artists, teachers, nonprofit organizations, patrons of the arts and more,” said Muncie Mayor Dan Ridenour in an Aug. 25 press release.

The City of Muncie started these awards in 2015, and since then, they have happened every other year. Dirden said he has never been nominated for a Muncie Mayor’s Arts Award before.

“It’s nice to be nominated —  it’s nice to be recognized by your peers,” he said. “Nominated for Ball State is one thing because it’s my job here, but nominated for something like Civic and the work I do down there, which most of it is done for free, it’s nice that people down there recognize what I do.”

Dirden said he is at Muncie Civic Theatre a few times a week and organizes costumes for shows, which include fittings for actors, assigning alterations to other costume design volunteers and hunting in the Civic Theatre’s collection of costumes, as well as buying or building new pieces when needed. He said his favorite part of costume designing is “the artistic challenge.”

“I don’t mind the sewing, but the passion for me comes from the designing and creating,” Dirden  said.

After Carlson sent Dirden an email in mid-September informing him she nominated him for the Mayor’s Arts Awards, Dirden said he spent some time finding photos of his favorite work to submit to the Muncie Arts and Culture Council to promote on its website.

“As artists, we all do work that is just work sometimes, and then, we do work that has our heart attached to it — things that you just started creating and it turned out amazing,” Dirden said. “It doesn’t always happen that way.”

While the Muncie Mayor’s Arts Awards present awards in eight different categories — arts advocate, arts leader, arts educator, corporate arts, artist in the community, next generation artist, maker and lifetime achievement — nominators do not have to claim one specific category on the nomination form, according to the Muncie Arts and Culture Council.

The nomination form asks for information on the nominee’s participation in Muncie’s art scene and a letter on why they deserve to be nominated. This year, the City of Muncie received 25 nominations.

On Nov. 12, the Ball State David Owsley Museum of Art will host a private nominee reception before the awards ceremony in Sursa Performance Hall, which will be open to the public. Dirden said he looks forward to attending the festivities to learn more about other people’s artistic contributions to Muncie.

“Most people nominated are my friends,” Dirden said. “The arts community in Muncie is a large community, but we all know each other.”

While Dirden has lived in Muncie since he was 6 years old, Jaylyn Graham, another arts award nominee, has only lived in Muncie for his college career.

Jaylyn Graham poses for a photo next to his artwork "The Colorism Series," Sept. 13 in the Multicultural Center. The piece was part of Graham's senior exhibition "The Black Experience." Rylan Capper, DN

Graham, Ball State information and communication sciences graduate student, was nominated by Multicultural Center staff members for his art focusing on issues in the Black community. Part of his work from “The Colorism Series” is on display in the new Multicultural Center next to Bracken Library.

“The colorism piece is a series that really just highlights a topic in the Black community [of] how dark-skinned females don’t get as much representation in media and they’re often discriminated against because of the color of their skin,” Graham said. “I was trying to highlight and bring awareness to that. I’m honestly not sure what all the Multi nominated me for, but I’m assuming they sent in multiple works from my senior exhibition, ‘The Black Experience.’”

Through involvement in his fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma, and personal projects, Graham said he regularly volunteers for programs that support homeless people and those who are food insecure. He said he knew his weekly volunteering at the Muncie Mission was making a difference in the community, but he never stopped to think about how his art was affecting people.

“I really feel like my art has been creating dialogue and been doing what I wanted it to do,” he said. “I never really thought about how my art can help the community, so now I’m realizing the things I’m doing with my art is actually helping the community, too, which I think is really cool.”

While Graham said he is honored to be nominated for the Mayor’s Arts Awards, he was slightly intimidated when he looked at a list of past winners.

“There are people that have been in the community for decades,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Thank you for the nomination, but I don’t know if I really live up to them’ … but even if I don’t win the award, I still got nominated, and I appreciate that.”

Graham said he is most looking forward to networking with other community artists at the nominee reception.

“I’ve been reading a lot of their stuff, and I’m interested to hear about this stuff in person and learn from different people — just networking and meeting different professionals in the Muncie community and hearing their stories,” he said. 

Natalie Lowe, a graduate art assistant at Ball State, is the only other Ball State graduate student nominated for the Muncie Mayor’s Arts Awards.

Lowe found her home in the art department, specifically the metalsmithing studio at Ball State, which is located in the Art and Journalism Building. She met her mentor Jessica Calderwood, associate professor of art, there and Calderwood nominated her for the award. 

“[Calderwood] is 95 percent of the reason why I came to this school — she’s really a wonderful person,” Lowe said. “Having all of this access to these different machines and these processes and these people really allow me to make the work that I want to make.” 

Before coming to Ball State, Lowe completed her undergraduate degree in metalwork at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Illinois. There, her work specifically focused on metals. Since studying at Ball State, she has expanded her multimedia skills, which she said, “allows me to work larger and in the way that I want to work.”

It was through this work that Lowe became more acquainted with Ball State and the Muncie community at large. This is the first time she has been nominated for a local art award, and the news came as a pleasant surprise for the out-of-town artist. 

“Moving here and not being a part of the place, it kind of feels like there’s a level of involvement that I now have," Lowe said. "I left impressions upon the community and I’m excited to use this as a stepping stone to get even more involved."

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Lowe is looking forward to someday opening a studio of her own and continuing her teaching, in addition to her upcoming commencement in May 2022. 

“In coming here, since this is such a new graduate program, you kind of get to establish a culture of camaraderie and being positive alongside that," she said. "I’ve been teaching my students [and] trying to cultivate a really positive, wonderful studio environment for everyone to work in, which I think has been especially important over the course of [COVID-19]."

Actors perform "Alias Grace," a play written by Jennifer Blackmer, director of the Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry and professor of theatre, at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. Blackmer's colleague Christie Zimmerman, associate dean of the College of Fine Arts and associate professor of dance, nominated her for the 2021 Muncie Mayor's Arts Awards. Mikki Schaffner, Photo Courtesy

While other nominees were surprised by the news of their nominations, Christie Zimmerman, associate dean of the College of Fine Arts and associate professor of dance, asked nominee Jennifer Blackmer if she would like to be nominated for her playwriting and screenwriting.

Zimmerman said she has nominated Blackmer, director of the Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry and professor of theatre, for other awards before but hasn’t nominated anyone for a Mayor’s Arts Award.

“I’m super familiar with Jen’s work, and before I went through [the nomination process], I wasn’t super familiar with Mayor’s Arts Awards nominations,” Zimmerman said. “I was like, ‘Oh, here’s another opportunity where it might be a good fit to nominate Jen’ … Any opportunity that comes along where Jen’s work may be able to be recognized is something that I would love to be able to do for her.”

Zimmerman submitted the nomination packet Sept. 17 with supporting materials including a review of one of Blackmer’s plays.

“The Muncie Mayor’s Arts Awards are certainly awards that I knew of, and I had seen other colleagues get recognized in different ways for the work that they do in the arts and around Muncie,” Zimmerman said. “I felt like Jen would be a really great fit.” 

Blackmer helped Zimmerman gather materials for the nomination packet, and Zimmerman said she could see Blackmer winning multiple different arts award categories.

“In the [nomination] letter, I talked about the fact that she is a playwright and a creative person, and I also talked about how she is a real artistic spirit as well,” Zimmerman said. “There’s a couple of categories where Jen may be a really great fit. Rather than me saying, ‘This is the category I think Jen should be considered for,’ it was more ‘Here’s everything that’s awesome, and you can pick what category might best suit all of the highlights that I’ve brought forward here.’”

Blackmer said via email she’s never been nominated for a Mayor’s Arts Award before. After Zimmerman nominated her, Blackmer wrote a short biography for promotion on the Muncie Arts and Culture Council website and gathered some photos of her work to publish.

“I'm super excited because Muncie is my home — it's where I write, it's where my family and friends are and where I find peace and solace,” Blackmer said. “To be recognized by my community is incredibly meaningful because it feels personal, almost like the city itself is saying, ‘Hey, we're glad you're here.’”

Being nominated for a Mayor’s Arts Award was meaningful especially after the art community lost some fellowship opportunities earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, Blackmer said.

“We've lost so much, and artists in my industry haven't had any chances to share their work,” she said. “It's been isolating and sad. When I learned of this honor, I felt hope that we might be able to come out of this COVID era even better than when we went in.”

Blackmer said she looks forward to the Nov. 12 reception and awards ceremony at Sursa Performance Hall, especially because she has the opportunity to reconnect with fellow artists.

“I also have several friends and colleagues who've been nominated, and I'm excited for them — yet another reminder of how vibrant the arts are in this area,” she said.

Contact Grace McCormick with comments at or on Twitter @graceMc564. Contact Sarah Olsen with comments at


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