Creative Visionaries - 405 Magazine

Creative Visionaries

Some are among the standard-bearers for imagination in their fields; others helped dream up their own specialties. While their challenges range from promoting the arts to re-crafting entire cityscapes, one thing these six Oklahomans share is a ceaseless drive to innovate.

Oklahoma has always run on creativity – from Sylvan Goldman’s invention of the shopping cart to the first unforeseeably cruel installation of parking meters in 1935. Let us celebrate the modern incarnations of Oklahoma’s Forward Thinkers.

Agent to Norman’s Stars

Artists who’ve sought to advance their work into the public eye have always benefited from a promoter, a patron, a manager or zealous habitué eager to promote their excellence. For the last three years, Erinn Gavaghan has been all of those for the Norman arts scene. An actress, film producer and professional photographer, the executive director of the Norman Arts Council interacts constantly with aspiring talent ranging from art students to accomplished veterans. She’s part nurturer, fire douser and chief cheerleader for the community’s 22 arts organizations.

The 38-year-old manages events and the council’s Mainsite Contemporary Art gallery exhibits, and keeps tabs on council-sponsored festivals, programs, workshops and arts education activities. Her job involves carrying out the wishes of an influential community board that deeply understands how Norman’s arts and culture make life better for everyone. She’s completely committed as an artist and promoter-in-chief.

“I very rarely say no to anybody when they come to me with a good idea,” she says. “‘I want to have this exhibit here or do that there.’ I always try to be as open and accommodating to artists who are passionate about their ideas.”

Juggling the needs of a thriving arts community can be tough, though. The gallery’s exhibition space is booked for the next two years. The artistic crush has led to creative solutions such as Mainsite Lite – “pop-up” events, lectures, art shows and screenings. As a taxpayer-supported funder of multiple Norman arts organizations that promote local talent, the council itself concentrates on presenting regional, national and international exhibitions. For example, the band No Age, an experimental punk outfit from L.A., performed in Norman last month. Gavaghan’s influence on spreading the arts extends across central Oklahoma through constant communications and partnerships with other central Oklahoma arts groups.

The Norman Arts Council’s success since 1976 was happily confirmed last spring when Norman voters approved a penny hike in the city’s hotel-motel tax. Part of the money funds the arts council. For spring 2014, the council has dreamed up a five-week program that will involve “place making.” The idea is to transform a rundown part of downtown with pop-up galleries, shops, exhibition space and learning opportunities to show what can happen when people come together to create imaginative possibilities.

As an artist who has succeeded in creating a career out of her passion, Gavaghan loves to work with college art students and jokes about the seed that she wants to pass on to them: “I like to give them hope that there are things you can do in the arts industry after college.”

The Best-Laid Plans

During the formative years of Blair Humphreys’ life, he was on track to become the Donald Trump of Oklahoma City. The son of successful land developer Kirk Humphreys, he was a Putnam City High School freshman when his dad won the Oklahoma City mayoral race in 1998.

In college at OU, he studied the perfect degree for an aspiring real estate developer – entrepreneurship and venture management. Years later, he would describe his trajectory at the time: “I wanted the life, the money.”

For him, though, the dreams didn’t work out. He spent two years in the developer life, but focusing on single projects for personal gain lost its appeal. He described it this way:

“My bookshelf of Trump books and get rich in real estate guides gave way to urban planning classics (“Death and Life of Great American Cities” being my favorite), books on New Urbanism and a growing collection of research on the history of Oklahoma City. Soon, so much of my thinking was focused on Oklahoma City: what it was, what it had been and where it was going. I couldn’t focus on a single development project, because I was more concerned with how to make the whole city better. I wanted to recapture the vitality and spirit that I felt had been buried beneath the rubble of the wrecking ball and to rebuild the city into something it was always destined to become – a great city and a great place to live.”

Swinging a personal wrecking ball, he dismantled his past and built a new path in city planning. He interned with the OKC Planning Department and later earned a master’s degree in city planning from MIT. At 31, he’s now the executive director of OU’s Institute for Quality Communities and is deeply involved in new visions for the metro and cities across the state.

The Institute for Quality Communities’ staff, students and academicians have conducted transformation studies that have included OKC’s Western Avenue District, Norman’s J.D. McCarty Center for children with developmental disabilities and downtown Shawnee.

Humphreys is part of a generation that has only seen OKC on the rise – from MAPS to MAPS 3. Citizen involvement in urban planning has become hip and saturated with input at city planning meetings, hyperlocal websites and Google chats. Quasi-guerrilla cadres like BetterBlockOKC invade run-down areas and erect temporary art exhibits, craft booths and food trucks to demonstrate imagined revitalized futures. Humphreys is a fellow traveler.

“People today realize that more can be accomplished by having a little more comprehensive view and more thought process that actually focuses on the details – because the details matter,” he said. “We can’t afford to allow the architects to design this building, and the engineers to design this street and the landscape architects to design this park, all in a silo and hope together that they will work perfectly. The reality is we’re seeing a much bigger push toward collaboration both among the professionals and the staff, but then ultimately they are co-dependent on the users, and that’s where – beyond even our democratic ideals – we need users to be involved in the process, because if they don’t buy into what the intentions of a project are , it won’t work.

“For most of the 20th century, we were clearly on a trajectory to become a smaller, less impressive version of Dallas. I think during the MAPS era we put ourselves on a trajectory to become something else. Ultimately, though, we’re going to just be Oklahoma City, and the question is, what do we want that to be? Do we want it to be a community that values places and people and quality of life? I think we’ve proven over the last 20 years that if we put our minds to it and work together, we can reshape our city and craft a vision for Oklahoma City in the future that will not only amaze other people, I think it will amaze ourselves.”

The Good Shepherd of Sustainability

Bob Waldrop’s beard. As personal signatures go, it borders on glorious. The lamb-white waterfall of hair flows south in vertically undulating waves seemingly purloined from the twin-tailed mermaid of Starbucks herself.

Combined with Waldrop’s shiny half-bald pate, dramatically flaring eyebrows and an authoritative-yet-comforting Renaissance visage, four images resurrect themselves inside your head: Santa Claus, Charlton Heston’s Moses, da Vinci’s self-portrait or the master’s depiction of God on the Sistine ceiling.

Not bad company.

In part due to his permissive grooming, the founder of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative is often suspected of being a liberal hippie; he was arrested this year for locking himself to construction equipment at a Keystone XL oil pipeline construction site. More-liberal co-op members, though, have suspected he might be an anti-government conservative. Waldrop himself describes the co-op as a “startup, entrepreneurial business.” As a fourth-generation Okie who grew up in southwest Tillman County, he says he has “a disposition against government solutions.

"Politics other than those of food are officially banned in the diverse, 5,200-member cooperative. Billed as the first co-op in the nation to focus on local foods and non-food products, Waldrop’s humble 2003 idea produced gross revenues of $1 million last year, including $850,000 of product sales. One hundred and twenty farmers, craft artists, jam makers and other producers have sold through the co-op over the years. It currently features more than 4,700 Oklahoma products that can be picked up at nearly 50 sites within a 190-mile radius of Oklahoma City.

Waldrop travels the state like an itinerant priest spreading the gospel of local empowerment. He preaches to chambers of commerce and Rotary Clubs, and he’s a devout Catholic who also founded the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House. That organization delivers food to people who can’t afford transportation to bring it home.

His typical homily falls along the lines of local self-reliance, economic opportunity and environmental sustainability. He spread the word to McAlester Rotarians in Pittsburg County that they were sitting on a $20 million retail market for locally raised and slaughtered beef – if only they’d come together with their existing ranchers and beef-buying families, and work away from letting cattle-buying conglomerates reap the highest profits. An experienced speaker, Waldrop constantly evaluates his audiences for signals of boredom or interest.

“They looked at me like I had lost my mind,” he says, “But I also sensed that that they seemed more than politely interested in economic development.”

Bob Waldrop is hard to pigeonhole as a type; his visions’ successes are more sustainably obtainable.

Oklahoma’s Creative Minder

Since Creative Oklahoma is head cheerleader for an abstract concept – creativity – describing how the Oklahoma City-based nonprofit works can be tricky. It’s not like the group gathers people in a room, hands out crayons and construction paper and announces, “Be creative!”

Creative Oklahoma, led by President Susan McCalmont, is based on research that shows creativity in a community, school or business can be revved up and propagated when it’s actively encouraged. The group does that by hosting conferences, bestowing creativity awards, sponsoring creativity “boot camps” and more. After seven years of doing just that, Creative Oklahoma is better described by its achievements.

· Serendipitously brought together the mind behind Bricktown’s 500-student Academy of Contemporary Music with educators who made it a reality.


· Hosted a record-breaking 2,600 people from 18 countries and 38 states at the seventh annual World Creativity Forum (first time in the U.S.).


· Influenced an economic development delegation from Chiang Mai, Thailand, with a metro of about 1 million people, to visit four U.S. destinations to study creativity and innovation: Silicon Valley, Austin, San Francisco and Oklahoma City.


· Helped establish the Oklahoma FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) regional robotics competition, and Oklahoma schools’ robotics teams grew from a handful to more than 50.


· OKC’s 7-year-old Halloween parade, with 60,000 spectators last year, was the brainchild of Creative Oklahoma collaborators searching for a new signature event.

Creative Oklahoma operates on the supposition that brilliant ideas fuel the 21st century economic engine. “You have to be intentional about creating this environment,” says McCalmont. “We philosophically believe that everyone is born with creative talents and gifts. Creativity is not just for the lone geniuses. We’re all capable, and we don’t age out of it.”

The group’s members focus their work in three areas: education, commerce and culture. The goal is to forge creativity-oriented graduates, foster more entrepreneurial approaches in business and build a better place to live through arts and cultural initiatives.

“People have that need to connect with one another physically, to be inspired by new ideas and to rub shoulders with Oklahomans who are the creative businesses,” she said. “It can feel pretty tough if you’re a very creative and innovative person – whether it’s a school, a business environment, a church or a home – where you feel like ‘I’m all alone.’”

McCalmont and Creative Oklahoma have already changed mindsets about opportunities in the state. Students and entrepreneurs have been amazed after finding out about the movement and the resources already in place to help innovators.

“The real rationale behind it is that we want to be a perception game changer for Oklahoma,” McCalmont says. “We do produce some of the most incredible individuals, but no one has looked at that collective talent. No one has put together the synergy of saying, ‘Look at Oklahoma. We are the state of creativity.’”

A Crush of Creativity

The core of Oklahoma’s creative class in commerce, education and culture will converge Nov. 19 at the 2013 State of Creativity Forum in downtown Oklahoma City, one of the largest creativity and innovation conferences in the United States.

More than 1,200 entrepreneurs, educators and students, policymakers, business leaders, technology experts and trailblazers are expected for the third annual event at the Civic Center Music Hall. The festive environment includes innovative business exhibitors, visual and performing artists, interactive conversation groups and provides a platform for networking and idea generation.

Keynote speakers include:

· Nancy Kanter, executive vice president of Disney Junior Worldwide. Kanter leads global creative content for Disney Junior digital and TV programming.

· Brad Moore, president of Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions, whose series is the most honored in U.S. TV history.

· Gregg Fraley, an innovation consultant and author of “Jack’s Notebook,” a business novel used by Berkeley, Cambridge and other business schools. 

· Peter Sims, best-selling management author, entrepreneur and founder of BLK SHP Enterprises, a California creative consultancy.

Call 232.5570 or visit for more information.

Finding the Spark

Valerie Naifeh wasn’t sure what to expect when she stepped into Ann Garrett’s Designer Jewelry store in 1984. A 20-year-old Tulsa University student with a predilection toward architecture and graphic design, she showed up out of politeness. Her high school art teacher, Otto Duecker, who later became a noted hyperrealist painter, recommended her to Garrett for an apprenticeship.

Naifeh thought she’d be filing papers, running errands and was prepared to turn down the job. Garrett liked her, was impressed with her maturity and explained how she would be her apprentice jeweler. On Naifeh’s first day, she sat down at a jeweler’s bench. Garrett showed her three kinds of files used for carving and a jeweler’s saw. She explained a few basics about making a wax model for an 8-millimeter-wide wedding ring. Then she left her alone.

Naifeh spent what she thinks may have been half an hour – she can’t quite remember – spellbound in carving and crafting a simple ring. Then thunder struck. 

“I was so happy,” she says. “It was just this enormous, light bulb moment. No. 1, I thought, ‘People get paid to do this?!’ and No. 2 – that I’m supposed to be working with my hands. I’m supposed to be creating things, designing and building things. It was just this huge overwhelming feeling of ‘This is exactly where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing.’”

Her flash of clarity and purpose may have flowed from growing up with a father – Tulsa TV personality Lee Woodward – whose amateur pen-and-ink portraits amazed her and her two brothers. The siblings competed to match his fidelity to people’s faces and animals. Her brothers excelled, but Valerie couldn’t quite capture freehand. Instead, she drew elaborate designs alive with squares, triangles, colors and forms.

A tomboy, Naifeh would play with her older brother as they pawed through pieces of erector sets, Lincoln logs, buckets of building blocks … They constructed imaginary structures and worlds. By high school and college, Naifeh was taking drafting and technical drawing classes and considering architecture as a career.

It’s not surprising, then, that in her personal creative work she grasps for shapes, colors, lines and curves that sing beautifully together. She simultaneously constructs the jewelry’s technical architecture – the moldings, clasps, bails, bezels – with the simple visual beauty of the object she creates.

Only six years after her apprenticeship began, Naifeh won her first design award for a mother-of-pearl, diamond and onyx triton-shell brooch; she rose above 600 other North American designers in the De Beers’ Diamonds Today Awards. She’s the only Oklahoma designer to win it twice – again in 1994 with a hematite, diamonds and platinum beaded bracelet design.  She placed in the Japanese International Pearl Design Competition, competing with designers from over 40 countries.

Naifeh’s creative process unfolds best in certain circumstances. Quiet is a must. No music or other distractions. She most often designs in solitude at home or in-studio. Inspiration can come unexpectedly, too, while jogging, or in the middle of a meeting – even gardening.

“If you’re pulling weeds, you’re trying to figure out where the next weed is and you’re not just sitting in front of a blank piece of paper trying to force yourself,” she says. “You have to be willing to allow the process to be organic and take you where it will. I just find when I’m not under pressure to really solve something, is when the resolution just becomes very clear to me.”

From life-changing spark to a lifetime of artistic inspiration, Naifeh’s experiences exemplify experts’ advice for anyone craving creative release: Expose yourself to new experiences as often as you can, and let your creativity flow.

Headmaster: School of Rock

Scott Booker was pretty much the unknown guy among about 150 “thought leaders” Brad Henry hosted at the governor’s mansion in October 2005. The A-list gathering was about creativity – especially how Oklahoma could harness it to blaze the state’s way in the 21st century.

Booker was there because he was a good friend of Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne, Oklahoma’s de facto ambassador of global rock ‘n’ roll hipness. The gathering’s organizers called him because he was also the Lips’ longtime manager. As Booker tells it, he told them he’d bring Coyne, but he wanted to be part of it, too.

Good thing he was.

Among those at Booker’s table were Roger Webb, then-president of Booker’s alma mater, the University of Central Oklahoma, and Paul Risser, then-chancellor of Oklahoma’s higher education system. It was the first big meeting of the Oklahoma Creativity Project – an informal movement that would later officially become Creative Oklahoma, the state’s nonprofit driver of innovation and forward-thinking.

With the governor informally commanding all those present to be creative, Booker told his group he wished he’d had one thing available when he became the Lips’ manager in the early 1990s: a class on how the music business works. Risser told him, in so many words, “that’s what I do – I can help you do that.” Webb liked the idea, too.

Over the next four years, a few key events happened. Booker was at a music business conference in France when he was turned on to the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford, England, southwest of London. He told Webb about it, and the UCO president made it a point to stop by on a trip to England. He loved it. Later, another former state chancellor, Phil Moss, happened to be at the South By Southwest festival in Austin – and so were England’s ACM crew.

“I literally grabbed Phil and I grabbed the ACM guys and I stuck ’em in a corner,” Booker recalls. “I said, ‘You guys have to talk.’” They all hit it off, and the Academy of Contemporary Music of the University of Central Oklahoma (ACM@UCO) held its first classes in music industry education in 2009.

Booker is now CEO of his brainchild, head of an academy that teaches 500 students on multiple floors of the historical Oklahoma Hardware Building astride the Bricktown canal. In partnership with its English counterpart, the school offers associate and bachelor’s degrees in music production, performance and business. The school focuses on rock, pop, gospel, country and any other contemporary sounds. Inaugural-year class member Dante Jones won a Grammy for his work on Kelly Clarkson’s platinum “Stronger,” which won Best Pop Vocal Album. He co-wrote “Mr. Know It All” and was one of the record producers.

Booker is all-Oklahoman. The 48-year-old Edmond resident grew up in Midwest City and worked at Rainbow Records until the mid-1990s, when managing the Lips forced him to give up the record-store job he loved. Such are life’s choices.

Over the years, Booker has witnessed a wealth of talent – including performers, booking agents, producers, etc. – leave the state to build careers in Nashville, L.A., New York and Austin. He thinks the metro can build a nationally known music industry hub to match or outstrip them.

My long-term vision for the ACM is to really be the catalyst for growth of the entertainment industry here in Oklahoma,” he said. “And I think we’re starting to see it already, in small ways. Anyone that paid attention to music five years ago, compared to now, would think there’s a more thriving ‘scene,’ for lack of a better term, and I think it’s better organized. Whether it’s artists or people that book venues or whatever, I think there’s a kind of a realized level of quality to what we’re doing, and I think that’s going to continue.”