Melissa Merli: C-U native, now 9, acts in Sundance winner

Melissa Merli: C-U native, now 9, acts in Sundance winner

Former Champaign County Board Chairwoman Patricia Avery has reason to be proud.

Her 9-year-old granddaughter, Ariana Neal, has a role in "Fruitvale Station," a movie that opened Friday in select theaters and is scheduled to open nationwide July 26.

In it, Ariana portrays Tatiana, or "T," daughter of the lead character, Oscar Grant, played by Michael B. Jordan.

At the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, "Fruitvale Station" won the grand jury prize for dramatic feature and the audience award for U.S. dramatic film.

Released by The Weinstein Co., the movie also is getting good reviews from the nation's top critics, judging from the its entry on the movie website, Rotten Tomatoes.

"Fruitvale Station," written and directed by Ryan Coogler, follows the true story of Grant, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident who wakes up Dec. 31, 2008, and feels something in the air.

The summary at Rotten Tomatoes reads:

"Not sure what it is, he takes it as a sign to get a head start on his resolutions: being a better son to his mother (Octavia Spencer), whose birthday falls on New Year's Eve, being a better partner to his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), who he hasn't been completely honest with as of late, and being a better father to Tatiana (Ariana Neal), their beautiful 4-year-old daughter.

"Crossing paths with friends, family and strangers, Oscar starts out well, but as the day goes on he realizes that change is not going to come easily. His resolve takes a tragic turn, however, when BART officers shoot him in cold blood at the Fruitvale subway stop on New Year's Day. Oscar's life and tragic death would shake the Bay Area — and the entire nation — to its very core."

Ariana recently wrapped up filming another movie: "Papa Noel," starring Mary Tyler Moore and Ed Asner. Avery said that likely will be shown on Showtime, the cable network.

Ariana also appeared in a movie starring Spencer and acclaimed actor Forest Whitaker. He took a shine to Ariana and recommended her for the role of Tatiana, Avery said.

Ariana and her parents, Aaron and Anna (Clark) Neal, lived with Avery and her husband, Michael Neal, in Champaign until Ariana was 4.

Ariana and her parents and little brother, Aaron Jr., 2, now live in McDonough, Ga. She got her start by singing in talent contests.

Ariana and family were to be here this weekend visiting relatives, among them grandmother Rhea Clark of Champaign. Ariana's other grandfather, Greg Clark, lives in Lancaster, S.C.

And then Ariana will get back to her busy career.

Photo museum

Early in my career I worked as a full-time newspaper photographer, and I know how difficult it is to take creative photographs at festivals and similar events.

So I was impressed by the intimate photographs Joseph Sterling took in the 1980s at the Taste of Chicago, on display at the Urbana Museum of Photography.

He achieved interesting angles; he must have rolled around in a chair — he seems to have gotten down to or below the level of his subjects.

They seemed not to have noticed him. Maybe they were too engrossed in what they were doing at the time.

"Many of the images evoke palpable sensory experiences, from the sticky hands and faces of children enjoying watermelon, to the anticipation of savory, barbecued meat," museum curator Lisa Janes wrote. "Others offer more thoughtful considerations, such as the physical manifestations of overindulgence, or the dignity of a child tethered to a safety leash."

Sterling, who died in 2010 at age 74, is perhaps best known for his photographs of American adolescents in the '50s and '60s.

Though he's not as well known as other street photographers or those with whom he studied at the Illinois Institute of Technology, his work is in numerous private and public collections, including those at the Museum of Modern Art, the George Eastman House and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Sterling's "Taste of Chicago" is a limited-edition series that has been shown once before: in 2012 at Alibi Fine Art in Chicago. The photos are on loan to the Urbana museum from Sterling's widow and Adam Holtzman, the director of Alibi Fine Art.

If you haven't visited the Urbana museum, you might want to check it out, as well as the Sterling photos. It's in a funky old space with plaster walls, above Mirabelle bakery in downtown Urbana.

"Lyosha" Svinarski, a painter and photographer, opened the non-profit museum in May 2012. Recently he posted at a plea for donations to help keep it going.

The museum, which emphasizes analog photography as an art form, offers classes for children and adults as well as workshops on pinhole cameras, tintypes, darkroom processing and other subjects.

And besides exhibiting work by contemporary, regional and international photographers, the museum shows photographs of Urbana in its early days.

It's has managed to operate the past two years mainly on a personal loan from Svinarski and his income.

"My major concerns are rent and utilities for the year, as well as the costs for a non-profit status," he wrote at "Roughly $15,000 is needed for us to grow into where we need to be."

As of Thursday, $175 had been pledged; certain levels of pledges will result in gifts for the givers. To pledge, go to

Svinarski said he plans to keep the museum going, no matter what.

"I have to keep rolling," he said. "So far so good, but when I start thinking about what might happen in six months I get paranoia."

The Sterling show will be on view through Saturday. Admission is free; hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. The museum is at 122A W. Main St., on the second floor.

Another great show

While we're on the subject of photography, I highly recommend "Abelardo Morell: The Universe Next Door," through Sept. 2 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The artistry and technical mastery of the Cuban-born American photographer's large-format prints, most of them black-and-white silver gelatins, blew me away.

He achieves an impressively rich tonal range. His prints are simply among the best silver gelatins I've seen. (Newer color photographs that have never been shown before also are part of the show.)

In the more than 100 works, Morrel explores mainly everyday objects — in breathtaking ways. He had begun taking the large-format photos around his home after the birth of his son in 1986.

"As a professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, he experimented with optics in his teaching and initiated a series in which he turned an entire room into a camera obscura, photographing the projection of the outside world juxtaposed onto the surfaces of the room's interior," according to the Art Institute.

Morell also experimented with photograms, still-life tableaux, stop-motion studies and most recently the tent camera — a kind of portable camera obscura that throws the image of a landscape upon the ground.

The stunning results of his experiments are on view in this show.

History lesson

Dang, I hate mistakes, like the one I made last week in this column.

I assumed the Champaign County Historical Museum in the old Cattle Bank at First Street and University Avenue in Champaign was connected to the Champaign County Historical Society.

But the two entities are not associated.

"The historical society meets once a month at the Urbana Free Library," museum board member Anita Quattrone emailed me after reading my column last Sunday. "They have guest speakers, whereas we are a full-fledged museum. The museum hours are 12 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday or by appointment (356-1010)."

She said the misconception regarding an association between the Champaign County Historical Museum and Champaign County Historical Society is longstanding.

"We run into this problem all the time and no one seems to listen when we correct it," she continued. "Even the park district had us listed as the society. Ironic still, the museum started the Taste of Champaign-Urbana many years ago."

New gig

Trumpeter Nick Schroeder, who toured with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, landed a job as coordinator of the Jazz Program at Hutchinson Community College in central Kansas. He starts the gig next month.

While studying for a doctoral of musical arts degree at the University of Illinois, Schroeder taught band at Normal Community and Centennial high schools and Heartland College and performed with the UI Concert Jazz Band and played or subbed in several local bands.

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

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