An Auspicious Anniversary

The Oklahoma Arts Institute's Inaugural Hall of Fame Induction marks the organization’s 40th anniversary.

by Jessica Valentine

Yolanda Kondonassis used to sit on her bunk at Oklahoma Arts Institute, tucked into an especially beautiful bit of Lake Altus-Lugert shoreline, and spiritedly dissect Barry Manilow lyrics with her fellow summer camp companions. The year was 1977, early in the life of the summer arts school. The talented girls from Norman never imagined herself becoming one of the world’s most recorded classic harpists and a soloist with the likes of the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, and Hong Kong Philharmonic—nor heading the esteemed Cleveland Institute of Music and Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

Kondonassis is one of four honorees at the recent Oklahoma Arts Institute Inaugural Hall of Fame Induction, which marked the organization’s 40th anniversary. The harpist’s cohort also impresses: actor and filmmaker Tim Blake Nelson (Lincoln, The Incredible Hulk, O Brother, Where Art Thou); NYC-based fashion and commercial photographer and filmmaker Troy Word; and classical pianist and composer Timothy Long.

OSAI is a two-week summer arts academy in the mountains of Lone Wolf, Oklahoma for Oklahoma's most artistically gifted high school students. Each year, 270 high school students from all over Oklahoma are selected to attend through a statewide competitive audition process.

“Our goal is to identify Oklahoma's most talented high school students, get them all in one place at one time, and offer them the opportunity to study their art form on a collegiate level,” said Julie Cohen, president and CEO of Oklahoma Arts Institute.

Students attend OSAI in a plethora of disciplines, from acting and dance, to voice, music, writing, and fine arts. Courses are often taught by world-renowned experts in their respective fields.

“Learning emotional integrity” isn’t a phrase often thrown around by high school students, yet Patricia Liu, a recent 2016 graduate of OSAI, said that’s what she took away from her creative writing retreat at Quartz Mountain. Her instructor, poet Richard Blanco, is perhaps best know for being selected by President Obama in 2012 to read at the Inauguration. But he’s a published writer. Liu said his teaching left a mark after she was instructed to write about her feelings on the Syrian refugee crisis.

“It enabled everyone in class to speak out about things that they really wanted to talk about and communicate to the world through poetry,” Liu says. “He really wanted us to portray our emotional integrity and authenticity through our writing. I would never be able to convey the emotional experiences that [I do now] if it weren’t for Quartz.”

Though Liu doesn’t graduate high school until May of 2017, she says the emotional honesty she gained through her poetry building is something she wouldn’t have otherwise cultivated on her own. Before OAI, there wasn’t necessarily an established location for students to come together in one spot from across the state to study intensively in the performing, visual and literary arts. Eventually, arts advocates and parents rallied to change that, and now Quartz Mountain hosts students every June.

Of course, not every attendee goes out into the world with a career in their OSAI discipline, but the results can be surprising. For example, Megan Mullally attended as a mime student. The Pioneer Woman host and cooking blogger, Ree Drummond attended for ballet.

Kondonassis said her experience helped to mold her career: “The Oklahoma Arts Institute serves a tremendous function in Oklahoma by training, cultivating and recognizing young, talented Oklahomans at a critical stage in their development. I firmly believe that the earlier one starts to understand what it takes to be a professional in their field, the clearer their path will be. It's good to make all the dumb, rookie mistakes when you're really young so you're not tripped up later when the stakes are higher.”

In a state in which education, especially the arts, suffers at a rate unequivocal to the breadth of talent, success stories spanning 40 years is significant, as as the mission. Says Quartz Mountain President Julie Cohen, “We now have four decades of alumni, and we wanted to begin sharing their success stories with the world.”

photos courtesy of Quartz Mountain