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Flagstaff Celebrating the Arts

The results of the Fifth Annual Viola Awards are in the books. About 500 well wishers and nominees turned out to honor the 11 award winners out of the 66 nominees in the field of arts and sciences. The event was held on March 2 at the High Country Conference Center.

John Tannous, executive director of the Flagstaff Cultural Partners, said even though the nominees are pitted against each other for the awards, there is no sense of competition between the artists.

“It is more a sense of mutual respect and almost love when you come to the event,” he said. “We’ve had people come in who don’t live in Flagstaff and they are blown away by the event because of the camaraderie.”

Tannous says most artists work very hard all year, with little recognition. “This is a chance to come out and celebrate one another. It is sort of like their Super Bowl. It’s really a celebration for the arts community and a lot of folks call it the party of the year. They get dressed up for the fancy gala and get together for the camaraderie and ‘Rah! Rah!’ spirit. Before the Viola Awards, that wasn’t tangible.”

The spirit of annual awards reflects its namesake, Viola Babbitt, who was heavily involved in the cultural community.

“She was interested in the cultural life of Flagstaff and worked hard on it for a long time,” said her cousin, Jim Babbitt. “She was involved in the arts in Flagstaff in the ‘50s and ‘60s. She almost singlehandedly saved the old barn – having it converted to a community art center called the Art Barn – and she was a painter in her own right.”

Tannous said several years ago when organizers were trying to decide what the awards should be called, “someone said, ‘What about the Viola Awards?’ and we knew immediately that is what it had to be.”

Dr. Rayma Sharber, one of Viola’s five daughters, says her mother would be delighted to have these awards named for her and that all the media of arts, crafts and sciences are included.

“She always wanted everybody to get in on things.”

Sharber said her mother’s interest in art came later in life at age 50. “She started painting and taking lessons. When she undertook something, she did it wholeheartedly. She used to bowl and broke some toes at one time (by dropping the ball on them). She tried hard and she was pretty good at most everything,” she said. “In the early days, she was very interested in golf and was a good golfer.” Viola also played bridge and became a master bridge player.

In Viola’s 60s, she led the charge to restore a historic barn to be used as an art center for local artists.

“It was a real barn and needed to be cleaned and repaired. It had become very unstable for quite a few years. She was also instrumental in starting the Coconino Center for the Arts.”

Sharber says a fact that is not widely known is that the mural in Nativity Church was commissioned by Viola. “It was her inspiration for the mural painted on the wall behind the alter. Mother raised every penny of his fee to do it.”

Viola commissioned well-known artist Stephen Juharos for the job.

“She was well respected. She was Citizen of the Year and has received many honors. The art barn was dedicated to her,” Sharber said.

Viola graduated from Tempe Normal School and was a teacher before marrying and having five children.

Sharber says she and her siblings grew up when there was no outside entertainment.

“There were no movies and things people do now,” she said. “We all played the violin, we tap- danced and learned poems, so in the evening we were making our own entertainment.”

 

When Viola Babbitt had her 100th birthday, it was very difficult to narrow down the guest list, so they came up with another solution. “We invited the town to drop by. Many, many, many of them did.

Viola Babbitt died in 1994, a few months after her 100th birthday, but her love for the arts and science lives on through Flagstaff’s Viola Awards. FBN

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