Art Beat: Pens to Lens simply a great idea

Art Beat: Pens to Lens simply a great idea

One recent event I was sorry to miss (for a profound reason) was the Pens to Lens gala May 29 at the Art Theater in downtown Champaign, when children whose screenplays had been made into movies by local filmmakers walked the red carpet into the movie house.

There they saw on a big screen what their imaginations had wrought.

Imagine how exciting that would have been for them. And what memories as well as motivations they will take with them.

Madelyn Childress, 11, saw her "Fluffystein!", co-written with Next Generation classmates Maya Kesan and Taqia Heryadi, turned into a short by director Thomas Nicol, the subject of today's Studio Visit on this page.

More than a week later, Madeyln had this to say about the experience: "Wow, that made me very feel very special."

In its first year, Pens to Lens is special, too. And perhaps unique.

"I'd never heard of anything like it before," said Nina Paley, an internationally known award-winning filmmaker who in the past year moved from New York back to her hometown of Urbana.

She did not make a short for Pens to Lens but was brought in at the last minute to judge the screenplays not transformed into cinema. (The fledgling contest drew more than 120 submissions from K-12 students.)

Paley also watched the eight Pens to Lens shorts at the gala. Aside from a couple of duds, she said, their quality was "really, really good." She was particularly impressed with the way Andrew Stengele directed "Into the Mine," written by Blake Primmer and Logan Lindsey of St. Joseph Middle School.

"What do you do with a script like that?" Paley asked. "What was great was the interpretations by the filmmakers. They could have been interpreted in any number of ways. When you take a screenplay written by an 8-year-old, it's up to the filmmaker to make something watchable."

Pens to Lens was the brainstorm of local actor William Kephart, who appears in at least one of the movies: "The Devil Uses Purell," written by Ella Greer of Stratton Elementary, Champaign, and directed by Joe Taylor.

In a recent Facebook post, Kephart downplayed Pens to Lens having been his idea, saying other members of the C-U Film Society and Champaign Movie Makers grabbed onto the concept and ran with it.

Members of the Champaign Movie Makers directed and produced the short films, giving of their own time and money.

In at least one case, that would have been a few thousand bucks: Shatterglass Studios of Champaign hired professional child actresses from the Chicago area for "Even and Odd," written by Iona Sofia Hopping, a student at South Side Elementary, Champaign.

Shatterglass also brought in two cattle dogs to appear in the short. Allison Ruwe of Argenta trained the excellent canine actors.

"Our crew were blown away with how good they were on set and said they were the best trained dogs they had ever seen on set," said Brett Hays, producer at Shatterglass, an award-winning new media development and film and video production company.

Eventually, all the Pens to Lens shorts will be posted online, where I was able to see them this week via a private link.

The Champaign Movie Makers and C-U Film Society organized and presented Pens to Lens, and the Champaign-Urbana Design Organization got into the act, too: Its members created movie posters for the shorts plus 50 more screenplays that weren't adapted into films.

A great idea!

Homage to Michael

The reason I didn't attend the Pens to Lens gala: My older brother, Michael, died unexpectedly the night before,

One of the last — if not the final — conversations we had was about a novel we had recently read: Jennifer Haigh's "Baker Towers," about a coal mining community in Pennsylvania settled by European immigrants.

My brother and I grew up in Westville, a similar community. "Baker Towers" covers our generation as well as that of my parents, and my brother and I agreed Haigh nails it. She really evokes the atmosphere we knew while coming up in Westville.

Of course, I am shaken, saddened, flummoxed and upset by my only brother's death. It gives me a bit of solace, though, to have shared with him "Baker Towers" and the power of literature.

Hot bluegrass

Town Mountain, a hot young bluegrass band from Asheville, N.C., made new fansMonday night at The Iron Post in Urbana.

The band burned up the place and later went over to the Urbana Hootenanny at the Rose Bowl Tavern. Because it's a country bar, Town Mountain played seven or eight country songs there.

Road warriors, the five Town Mountain players are traveling around in a van to play at bluegrass festivals as well as other venues, almost nightly.

Their latest album, "Leave the Bottle," landed on some best-of lists; I was so impressed Monday night with the band's musicianship that I shelled out $15 for the CD.

Town Mountain plays traditional and original bluegrass. Each member is extremely dexterous and talented on his instrument.

After the Post gig, I asked mandolin player Phil Barker if he or any of his band mates are classically trained. He said fiddler Bobby Britt grew up playing classical music and is now a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Post owner Paul Wirth is working with Town Mountain's promoter to bring other hot bands here, among them Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen — a local musician said the bands does jazzy bluegrass. Dirty Kitchen will be at the Post on July 11.

WEFT death

WEFT community radio lost another longtime air-shifter this past week: John Coleman Sr., who as "Uncle John" presented bluegrass and country music Saturday evenings.

He joined WEFT in 1997 and also served on its board of directors. The 85-year-old died June 1.

Cope Cumpston, a former member of the WEFT board of directors, called him a wonderful man who lived with a houseful of parrots in Mahomet — all of his shows have parrots squawking in the background, she said. He also had dogs and cats, according to his obituary.

"A volunteer engineer at WEFT, Mr. Coleman kept the transmitter going through all weather for many years," Cumpston said. "He went out there in snow and ice."

She also called Mr. Coleman a great writer and storyteller.

He had grown up on a farm in Sidney without electricity and didn't live with it until after he moved away and married, she said.

In 1972, he founded Coleman Electrical Service of Mansfield; his sons later became partners in the business. After retiring, Mr. Coleman became active and served on the board of the Mahomet Boys & Girls Club.

Cumpston and Robin Arbiter recorded Mr. Coleman talking about his past and will edit the recording soon. WEFT plans a tribute show to Mr. Coleman from 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday with the Middletown String Band playing live. The community radio station is at 90.1 FM on your dial.

Memorial contributions for Mr. Coleman may be made to the Mahomet Boys & Girls Club, the Champaign County Humane Society or WEFT Radio.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at

Topics (3):Books, Film, Music