Presented by Shannon and Mike Barnes of Tranquility Fine Arts gallery, the Very Influential Artists [VIA] Awards is an honorable spotlight on creatives leaving a mark in their field.
The VIA Awards cover visual, literary, and performative arts alike; this year, the awards focused on the theme of “art with a purpose.” The ceremony was hosted in Woodstock where selected artist honorees were recognized for their advancement and purpose in their respective fields.
This is the second year of the ceremony—last year commemorated artists at “the top of the mountain,” the theme of the awards. Noteworthily, several artists honored this year draw inspiration from nature in particular.
Debra Meekins is an en plein-air artist, meaning she paints landscapes while actually outdoors. She first began in 2010 at a workshop with Amanda Lovett Fine Art, and has fallen in love with creating en plein-air art ever since. With the dream of having her own studio and gallery, Debra would love to teach and inspire other plein-air artists as well.
She describes her process of this unique painting technique: “When I first arrive at a location, I like to take some time to walk around and get the feel of the place. After I’ve decided on where I want to set up, I’ll complete a thumbnail sketch or two to make some composition decisions… [then] I’ll make a loose paint sketch on my panel based on my thumbnail. [I] get lost in the process as I begin using the local color to bring the piece to life.”
“Creating art feels like a natural compulsion,” Sean Mills reflects, “and sharing artwork with my community feels like my purpose.” After starting in his sophomore year of high school, Sean has built up his painting career to great heights and says his biggest achievement thus far is the “Everyday People” mural painted on the site of the old Whistle Stop Cafe in downtown Kennesaw.
Sean uses a unique process to create his work, beginning with capturing photos of his inspiration and creating a digital collage he refers to as a “calculation.” He then uses the calculation as a guide while improvising brush strokes. Sean encourages aspiring artists to find the subjects and techniques they are truly passionate about, and build off this passion.
Harold Waight is an abstract and surrealist artist whose creations reflect climate change, the importance of preserving the planet, and nature’s beauty. His work captures his raw emotion through a combination of plaster and acrylic layering, and using tones and colors associated with different aspects of nature.
Harold began painting abstracts in 2018 and really picked up the craft in 2020. Since then, his many creations have been displayed in various art shows, including one at Tranquility Arts, and has sold several paintings as well. “Stay true to your craft,” he remarks. “Your perspective is important… there is no such thing as ‘wrong art,’ so don’t be scared to take a risk.”
One of the recognized musicians from the event is singer, songwriter, and guitarist Ethan Senger. From a young age, Ethan was inspired by his dad, who also played guitar. He attributes his father as the original inspiration for picking up music. Once Ethan gained more experience, he picked up gigs in high school and has expanded to sharing his music on streaming platforms. His first EP, titled Standing Still, was released in July.
“My favorite part of being an artist and musician is live performance. I’ve played more live shows than I can count,” he notes. Ethan has high ambitions for his music career and hopes to inspire other artists, just as he was inspired.
Recognized at the VIA ceremony for her landscapes, Dodie Fretwell captures beauty and emotion through colorful landscapes, florals, abstracts, and faces. Dodie’s art career has spanned nearly her entire life, beginning from spending time with her artist mother and grandmother. “I began to take my art more seriously in my thirties,” Dodie recalls. She took online and in-person classes for several years, grew her craft, and in her fifties, “got bold and created a website, joined Etsy, and flooded Facebook and Instagram with art.”
Now a successful artist with works displayed in the Tranquility Fine Arts gallery, Dodie loves to support both charity and recovery programs with her art. After losing family members to depression and witnessing loved ones go through addiction recovery programs, Dodie has turned outward to advocate for suicide prevention, mental illness awareness, and addiction recovery programs. She specified, “I think there is too much stigma put on [awareness for] suicide, mental illness, and addiction. I hope to help change that.”
The only photographer recognized at the VIA Awards, Carol Hudson is a capturer of gorgeous skies, landscapes, and the natural world. Beginning in the dark room developing film and now mastering digital photography, Carol takes her photography seriously and often scouts out locations for photo sessions multiple times to get the just-right climate for her perfect shot.
In regard to this year’s awards theme, Carol responded, “My purpose in photography is to showcase God’s Magnificent Creation. He is the Master Artist and I just try to capture His creation in all its beauty. I hope that I come close to doing it justice.” She encourages rising photographers to know their camera inside-and-out, try different angles and lighting, and always stay in awe of natural beauty.
Sanaz Rafi is a talented painter with years of skill developed from attending private art school and painting and drawing from an early age. Throughout her growth as an artist, her father and various art teachers have encouraged her to succeed and take her art seriously—and the payoff is evident.
Sanaz noted that while her career began with ambitions of fame and selling her work, drawing and painting has become more about the creative process, embracing her journey of artistic exploration, and imparting her passion on other rising artists. “I believe that art is intertwined with my life… this year’s theme is particularly evident in my creations, as the past challenging year influenced my artwork to convey my emotions and inner self.”
Marty Manous was the second of two musicians recognized. He is a singer and songwriter specializing in a unique blend of rock, blues, and pop. Marty began performing professionally at sixteen and, later on, began his own record label, Lucky Street Music, with his fiancée, Leslie.
His first single was released in 2014, and since then, he’s released two albums: “Transcendence” and “Know My Name.” The latter is inspired by the tendency of DJs and fans to mispronounce his last name (pronounced “main-us,” by the way). However, tragedy struck, and Leslie unexpectedly passed away in 2017.
“She is absolutely one of the most amazing people I’ve ever known… Leslie was beautiful, brilliant, and kind,” Marty remarks. With help from friends and therapy over the last six years, Marty has returned to his career, now playing three hundred shows a year and in the process of creating a third album. He can be found on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and X (formerly known as Twitter).
Sha Huang, a professor in Chinese and Asian studies at Kennesaw State University, has always been drawn to art, but never truly delved into painting until recent years at the encouragement of her friends. Yet during the pandemic, her artistic abilities flourished, particularly with watercolor painting. “[With] watercolor, you have to dance on the line between control and letting go, and that’s a kind of philosophy,” Sha told Tranquility Fine Arts. Sha’s art transformation is something she hopes to inspire with her audience, to connect with others through her art and hopefully spark their creativity as well.
From BillSuttles.com: “Bill Suttles started creating his fine art professionally in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1950 after completing art school in Chicago and his service in the Korean War. He continues to paint daily in his home studio, Suttles Arts, high on top of the Track Rock Gap Mountain Pass near Blairsville and Young Harris, North Georgia. Suttles Arts is open seasonally to the public by appointment.”
The awards ceremony was hosted at Rootstock Restaurant & Bar in Downtown Woodstock, where the artists gathered to receive their trophies and recognition.
There were no literary recognitions this year; Tranquility Arts encourages nominations for next year’s literary category.
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Makenzie Bird is a Cherokee County resident and intern with Enjoy Cherokee. She is the editor of Cherokee High School’s student newspaper and a communications alumni of the Governor’s Honors Program. In the community, Makenzie is involved with youth leadership opportunities with the school board and the public library system.