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Ask Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship recipients Tracey Bonner and Jacob Gotlib what the award meant to them and the responses are similar: life-changing, validation as artists and a sense that they have risen to a new level of professionalism in their respective disciplines.

The Kentucky Arts Council is currently accepting applications for its most prestigious award for individual artists, the $7,500 Al Smith Fellowship, through March 20. The prestigious fellowship is given to a Kentucky artist who has achieved a high level of excellence and creativity in their work. This year the arts council is accepting applications from composers and choreographers who are responsible for creating their own work, not interpreting the work of others.

Bonner, of Wilder, is a choreographer and assistant professor of dance at Northern Kentucky University. She said she’s been dancing all her life.

“I was naturally drawn to it. Everyone said, ‘This is what you’re supposed to do,’” she said.

Gotlib of Louisville has been a composer for 18 years, but has been involved in music since he was a child, starting with piano lessons he received from his mother.

“I grew up around classical music, and in high school I discovered experimental electronic music and 20th century avant garde music,” he said. “It inspired me what a person could do to shape sound.”

Both artists were emphatic that the Al Smith Fellowship changed their careers.

“It was a huge deal for me because that’s the largest single award I’ve ever received for my creative work,” said Gotlib, who received his Al Smith Fellowship in 2015. “It felt great to be recognized for the work I do as a Kentucky artist. At the time I was beginning the work of an immersive sound installation and the funds allowed me to purchase the equipment for that.”

Gotlib said the installation would have proceeded without the unrestricted cash award that comes with the Al Smith Fellowship, but it would not have been up to the quality he wanted.

“The award allowed me to get a little deeper into what I was working on.”

Bonner works mainly in contemporary jazz and musical theater choreography. She said her Al Smith Fellowship, awarded in 2017, came at a key time as she shifted from performance to teaching at the college level.

“I was a brand new professor at NKU, and receiving the award was a validation to my peers. They all looked at me differently after that,” she said. “I knew I was good at my job, but the level of professionalism the fellowship gave me helped open doors.”

For Bonner, receiving the award meant shining a spotlight on choreography as a discipline worthy of serious consideration. She encourages other choreographers to apply in order to keep that positive momentum going.

“Dance is the art form that is sometimes least understood. It can be nebulous and abstract,” she said. “This support allows work to be presented and lets all of us learn about an art form we don’t know so much about. It can be eye opening and life changing.”

The arts council is hosting two webinars, Feb. 26 at 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., to answer questions prospective applicants may have about the process. The webinars are free, but registration is required.

For more information on the Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship, visit the arts council website or contact Tamara Coffey, arts council organization support and individual artist director, at tamara.coffey@ky.gov or 502-892-3121.

The Kentucky Arts Council, the state arts agency, fosters environments for Kentuckians to value, participate in and benefit from the arts. Kentucky Arts Council funding is provided by the Kentucky General Assembly and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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