Nested in a back alley in Champaign, The City Center pleasantly astounded me. This was the perfect setting for the 40 North ACE Awards. The space was gigantic and decorated exquisitely. In the front, there was a huge stage facing numerous tables with dark blue tablecloths and chairs for the guests. To the left there was an appetizer table with a variety of cheeses and vegetables. On the right, there was an elegant bar and a dessert table. I helped myself to pumpkin flavored mousse.

Despite not knowing anyone I felt very welcomed in this environment of prominent community members and respected artists. I soaked in the lively music and friendly chatter before I sought out to meet the woman behind 40 North, the fantastic Kelly White.

Only recently had I learned about 40 North and their mission to cultivate creativity in Champaign County. 40 North is well known for hosting Boneyard Arts Festival, an annual four-day event that showcases various art forms from all over the community. They are also responsible for curating the Sky Gallery and MTD Art, as well as organizing Poetry Out Loud, the Eric Show, and various other events.

The ACE Awards celebrate outstanding contributions in the arts, culture, and education. They honor the work of passionate community members making a difference with their everyday actions. The 2019 recipients of the ACE Awards are all extremely talented individuals driven to enhance the lives of others through their service, art, and teaching.


From left to right, Bea Nettles, John Currey, Keenan Dailey, EKAH, Lance Dixon, Susan Curtis, and Jason Finkleman

To begin the ceremony, there was a special music performance by Zondo, a well-known musician residing in Champaign. He performed two self-written songs, The Void and Eden. The latter was inspired by John Lennon’s “Imagine”. The mellow guitar riffs and Zondo’s voice flowed through the audience. The chair he was sitting on rocked back and forth with his movements as Zondo delivered soothing acoustic melodies. These set the mood for honoring the winners and nominees.

The winner of the 2019 Advocate ACE Award, Jason Finkelman strives to create music that challenges listeners. Finkelman is responsible for cross cultural music projects in collaboration with the Spurlock Museum. His motivation is the pure joy of audiences. He is dedicated to bringing unique music to Champaign and to challenge himself in his work. Finkelman is grateful for this art infused community that sparks his imagination. “There’s so many folks here in the room that continually inspire and do incredible work here in Urbana-Champaign and I think all of us who contribute in the ways that we do really make this home a special place,” Finkleman states. As a fourth-year student at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign I have witnessed the magic that exists within these two towns. I am constantly meeting new people with a similar drive to enrich the world with their passions.

The winner of the 2019 Business ACE Award, Dixon Graphics, is a full-service printing company in Champaign dedicated to serving their customers to the best of their abilities. Lance Dixon values making a difference to making a profit. He expresses his mission to produce prints that are satisfactory to customers, especially artists reproducing their work. Dixon highlights an important issue in our society regarding the financial support of the arts. Too often art classes are cut from schools due to lack of funding. Recently, the Art Theatre had to shut down in Champaign because they had no money to continue film screenings and hosting events. Lance poses a vital question when he asks, “How valuable is a vibrant, creative, fully funded group of artists to a community such as ours?”. The answer is invaluable. Artists are the backbone of the ecosystem that is Urbana Champaign. They are constantly cultivating new ideas, events, and work that stimulates residents and enriches their lives.

The winner of the 2019 Lifetime ACE Award, Bea Nettles, a community hero striving to help those around her. Nettles has been exhibiting her own artwork since 1970, when she would display her photography, painting and printmaking. Always working to improve her surroundings, Nettles is the reason students can receive a BFA in Photography at the University of Illinois. This program did not exist before she worked to design it. As a teacher, Nettles pushes her students to try new things and to never stop exploring the arts. As a mentor, she makes sure her tutees have the resources they need. She emphasized the fact that “nobody gets anywhere on their own”. We must aim to support one another as we attempt to contribute to society. Nettles compared art making to a garden in which ideas can be transplanted and ready to be divided and given to someone else. This beautiful metaphor made me reflect on my own art practice and how the ideas I visually communicate travel with the viewers of my work. As artists, we are influencers of the public and we need to positively mold our world as Nettles does.

The 2019 ACE Awards were a valuable experience that I will always cherish. As I began my first year of undergraduate studies in Art and Design I made it my personal goal to get to know distinguished students, faculty, and community members. As I delve deeper into the rich art community in Urbana Champaign I find no shortage of such individuals. I am very fortunate to work, learn, and live amongst such influential people. I strongly believe that to uphold this abundance of arts we must make it our priority to support it. We should take inspiration from the winners of these awards and fight for the arts to hold a high place in our community because life is empty without them.

2019 40 North ACE Awards Celebration
City Center
505 S. Chestnut, Champaign
November 8th, 2019

All photos by Melinda Edwards except group image of winners, which is from the 40 North website