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New funding supports Pittsburgh-based artists exploring diverse heritages, bridging political differences, healing from loss

PITTSBURGH, Oct. 4, 2023 – Pittsburgh’s rich cultural heritage and diverse artistic future are celebrated by 16 artists receiving a total of $346,000 through The Heinz Endowments’ Creative Development Awards program.

Projects by regional-based artists tapped for awards include a series of sculptures centered on a North Side home that was a critical gathering space for early 1900s’ civil rights activists; an album featuring legends of Pittsburgh’s jazz and Cuban music communities; photographic documentation of a basketball team consisting of players with deep family connections to indigenous communities in Mexico; and virtual reality experiences that immerse viewers into the worlds of African deities and Pittsburgh’s future as an AI-influenced robotic hub.

Themes of loss and healing, bridging political differences, and human rights advocacy connect the work of many of the artists, who also incorporate technology and science into their creations. The artists and organizations receiving grants, ranging from $16,000 to $35,000, represent a distinctive array of artistic disciplines, including filmmaking, photography, theater, virtual reality animation and dance. The grantees were selected from 116 applicants by a group of 13 regional and national artists and art educators.

The Endowments launched the Creative Development Awards in 2021 to celebrate the region’s professional artists and widen their national profile, with a special focus on those whose artistic achievements show great promise. The announcement of these awardees brings the program’s support of regional artists to a total of nearly $1 million in the past 30 months. The awards aim to help advance the artists’ careers through increased visibility and professional partnership opportunities.

  “The rich cultural history of our region has always been closely connected to our artists’ expression of their diverse heritages,” said Mac Howison, the Endowments’ Creative Learning program officer. “This group of Creative Development Awards recipients carries on that tradition in vibrant and insightful ways. These artists’ embrace of science and technology in their work echoes Pittsburgh’s own journey to being an innovation hub, and shows that our creative future is in extraordinarily capable hands.”

The 2023 Creative Development Awards recipients are:

Artist Residency category
Attack Theatre with dance artist Christian Warner ($35,000) to incorporate innovative autobiographical exploration with movement to reveal hidden narratives that heal and enhearten both performer and audience.  Using Mr. Warner’s personal experience of close family loss, the resulting work will investigate the power of neuroplasticity and one’s body to rewrite the trajectory of personal narrative through performance and the creative process.

Balafon West African Dance Ensemble with dancer/choreographer Naomi Diouf ($35,000) to create new works incorporating moves distinct to her Liberian heritage. Local dancers and musicians will train with Ms. Diouf and her team for an intensive period of 10 to 15 days, widening their repertoire and expanding Balafon’s reach through the creation of a set of video and photographic documentations of open workshop sessions with the artist.

Individual Artist category
Christine McCray Bethea ($20,000) to work with cloth, metal, wood, clay and other media to create art that brings the viewer closer to an understanding of our diverse society and our inescapable connectivity. Her work is influenced by reminiscences of the multiple cultures she experienced as a young traveler in a military family, often combining creative and historic influences of the African Diaspora, Asia and Europe in her large-scale pieces of mixed-media art.

Hugo Cruz ($20,000) to produce and record an album with his musical ensemble Caminos, featuring guest artists including legends of Pittsburgh’s jazz and Cuban music communities. The album will contain eight songs Mr. Cruz has written in recent years, representing genres of swing, jazz, traditional and modern Cuban music, Afro-Cuban music, funk, fusion, and R&B. The album will be complemented with a music video for each song, showcasing the individual studio sessions.

Caron Daley ($16,244) to produce a choral project featuring a choir of 16 professional singers and guest instrumentalists in two full-length concerts featuring music by women-identifying composers who have been historically underrepresented. A choral director and associate professor of music at Duquesne University, Dr. Daley’s work integrates vocalists’ sensory experiences with their creative imagination to gain greater technical accuracy and musical artistry.

Sherrie Flick ($20,000) to write in the literary genre of flash fiction, creating sharp, compressed stories under 1,000 words. Ms. Flick will complete drafting and editing of a book-length short story manuscript, tentatively titled “Breaking.” “To love these stories is to love the silences between, above, and below the written lines,” she says. “To love these stories is to devote oneself to the craft of the sentence.”

Dennis Funk ($20,000) to create three audio documentaries that combine journalism, poetry, sound art and music production; evoke joy in the mundane; and encourage conversation about divisive issues. Subjects will include escorts who safely accompany patients into health clinics; a group of three musicians from Belarus, the Czech Republic, and the United States; and an audio book of poems – with accompanying musical elements – centered on how lasting memories are often built from brief interactions.

Isla Hansen ($20,000) towards creation of a Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood-inspired interactive installation at the Mattress Factory in spring 2024. The installation will include multiple rooms, representing reality and fantasy, connected by a miniature trolley that moves between the spaces. The installation will also serve as the sets for a limited-episode television series made for young audiences that addresses contemporary political and social issues.

Aunel Kimbembe Makaya ($20,000) to support “Letter to Maya,” a 52-minute documentary featuring human rights activists, journalists and academics exploring U.S. immigration policies.

Adil Mansoor ($20,000) to prepare, coordinate and manage a national tour of “AMM(I)GONE”, a solo performance work that adapts Sophocles’ “Antigone” as an apology to his mother. Mr. Mansoor created the work with his mother as a way to explore queerness, the afterlife, and obligation to family, self and faith. The award will fund conversion of existing set pieces into durable, tour-ready materials, purchase of road cases, and the hiring of a touring director and production manager.

Kontara Morphis ($20,000) to fund “UNDERLAND x Alice,” a contemporary ballet that reconfigures “Alice in Wonderland” as a choreographed reimagining of Black wealth in the 1920s and Black culture in today’s world. The work will include collaboration with musical composers, singers and rappers to create original musical scores for the production, as well as interactive audio software that allows sound to erupt based on dance and movement cues.*

Sean Morrissey ($20,000) to establish an artistic publication studio that focuses on creative experimentation with printmaking media. A trained painter and printmaker, Mx. Morrissey’s work examines questions of access and equity in the context of the American Dream, and draws inspiration from the connections and barriers of suburban and commercial sprawl, examinations of personal identities including class and queerness, and the constructs of societal markers of success.

Britt Ransom ($20,000) to create a new sculptural series and publication based on archival research of the civil rights movement in the early 1900s in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The publication will tell the story of Ms. Ransom’s great-great grandfather, a civil rights activist and founding member of the Niagara Movement – a forerunner to the NAACP – who lived on Pittsburgh’s North Side, and the sculptural series will focus on Tawawa Chimney Corner, the family’s former Wilberforce, Ohio home and a critical gathering spot for activists.

Marques Redd ($20,000) to create "Blackstar Sanctuary," a virtual reality experience that brings users to a cosmic world that serves as a site of self-expression and meditation. Combining technology, art, healing protocols, and African spirituality, the project introduces users to 16 Black queer deities that oversee an immersive, personalized healing journey. Mr. Redd is inspired by a multitude of indigenous African societies where queer people were believed to have a special connection to the creator and were honored as gatekeepers to the spiritual world.

Jorge Santiago ($20,000) to document a Los Angeles basketball team consisting of players who are immigrants and/or descendants from the indigenous communities of Oaxaca, Mexico’s Sierra Norte. “Photography for me is a path to understand my homeland,” says Mr. Santiago, a Pittsburgh-based photographer and documentarian who hails from the Oaxaca, Mexico region. “I’m primarily interested in my people: the ones who have stayed and the ones who have left, and the links that unite them.”

Rebecca Shapass ($20,000) to produce an animated virtual reality short film experience that incorporates videos sourced from public datasets of Pittsburgh streets, including those collected by the now-defunct autonomous driving company Argo AI. Meant to be viewed through VR headsets, the film will be informed by Pittsburgh’s contemporary industrial revival as a robotics hub, the city’s historic contributions to the development of autonomous systems, and the costs and benefits of artificial intelligence.*


Panelists who assisted in determining Creative Development Awards finalists and grantees were:

  • Harrison Apple – associate director, Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, Carnegie Mellon University.
  • Marty Ashby – musician, executive producer MCG Jazz, Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild.
  • Megan Bridge – dancer/choreographer/producer/scholar, co-director of Fidget, Philadelphia.
  • Tameka Cage Conley – assistant professor, English and Creative Writing, Emory University, Atlanta.
  • Crystal Frazier – assistant professor, dance, Point Park University.
  • Michael John Garcés – professor of practice/literature, Arizona State University, Phoenix.
  • Ryan Inouye – associate curator, 58th Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art.
  • Shannon Reed – co-director, Undergraduate Studies/Writing Program, University of Pittsburgh.
  • Ingrid Schaffner – curator, The Chinati Foundation/La Fundación Chinati, Marfa, Texas.
  • Sean Shepherd – composer, visiting assistant professor of Composition, University of Chicago.
  • Kim Weild – theater/film/opera director; head of directing at The John Wells Directing Program, Carnegie Mellon University.
  • Ayesha Williams – executive director, The Laundromat Project, Brooklyn.
  • Gregory Scott Williams, Jr. – award-winning independent filmmaker.

Key factors considered in determining grant recipients included quality of the artists’ current body of work, potential of future work, and clear articulation of artistic and career development goals. Applications were open to professional artists who had a significant body of original works of art, were at least 21 years of age or older, and were a resident of an eligible southwestern Pennsylvania county.

The Creative Development Awards program is one of the few grantmaking programs in the region that directly funds individual artists. Program details and guidelines may be found here.



*Updated 10.04.23, 2:00 PM

Contact: Scott Roller
The Heinz Endowments
Images of artist and their work available upon request