‘Beast’ director Sandy Spieler wins McKnight art prize

Sandy Spieler, artistic director of  In The Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre and founder of the annual May Day Parade has won the McKnight Foundation’s prestigious Distinguished Artist Award for 2014.

Sandy Spieler, center, artistic director of In the Heart of the Beast, leads the theater’s annual May Day parade Sunday, May 5, 2013 in Minneapolis. Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

The award comes with $50,000, and is given to an artist who has made significant contributions to the quality of Minnesota’s cultural life over the course of their career.

One of the five judges for the award, Walker Art Center Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither, said artists are chosen based on the quality of their work, their commitment to Minnesota, and their impact on the community.

Spieler’s work has helped to transform the Powderhorn neighborhood in Minneapolis over the past four decades. She’s been committed to making sure her work makes a difference in peoples lives and in the world.

The committee felt that this was a wonderful recognition for someone who doesn’t normally put themselves forward to grab the spotlight, who really deserves this kind of recognition for the day to day hard work and energy she’s put into the Twin Cities.

Spieler has developed a national reputation for her work, and has taught numerous other artists her particular brand of mask-making and community engagement, Bither added.

She really marries a sophisticated and highly compelling visual aesthetic to theatrical works that explore social questions relevant to the times we live in. And in doing so she’s elevated the art form of puppetry — not just her own work, but the fantastic spin-off artists and companies who’ve gone off in their own distinctive and idiosyncratic ways to really create the Twin Cities as one of those handful of cities that are known for the quality and diversity of its puppet theater work.

While Spieler remains based in Minneapolis, she often tours the work created at In The Heart of the Beast around the state, across the country, and internationally. Spieler’s work is known for both its commitment to the environment, and to economic justice.

“I personally love the work she’s done around water in recent years,” said Bither. “Before other people  realized what a critical and vulnerable resource it is, she did a whole cycle of works around explorations of water, who owns it, is it a right or a privelege – questions around the centrality of water to our lives and the health of the planet.”

In addition to the cash award, Spieler will be recognized with a celebration and a publication honoring her work.

Spieler was the subject of an MPR profile last year as part of our “Art Heroes” series. You can read more about her work here.