There's Something About Mary 

From volunteer to queen bee, Mary Mashburn's all about spreading the joy of the arts

Mary Mashburn is every inch the authentic Southern lady, from her pleasant drawl to her impeccable manners to her steel will. An Air Force officer's wife who raised two daughters while following her husband, Wayne, around the country in the '60s and '70s, Mashburn assumed the role of wife and mother with traditional grace and equanimity.

But Mashburn, much to our good fortune, always assumed another, more community-oriented role as she fulfilled her duties as wife and mother. She was, and still is, a tireless volunteer and champion of the arts.

On May 7, Mashburn was honored with the Independence Community Fund's first ever Community Builder Legacy Award, recognizing a lifetime of extraordinary effort and achievements that have drawn community members together, enhancing the quality of life in the Pikes Peak region.

Since 1989, she has overseen the many multi-faceted programs of the Kennedy Center Imagination Celebration (KCIC) in Colorado Springs, bringing affordable performing arts programs to school children and families, training to teachers and art to classrooms across the region. As executive director of Sprinkle Art, Inc., the 501-C3 corporation that administers KCIC, Mashburn heads one of the most wide-ranging arts organizations in the western United States.

Volunteers who have worked for Mashburn, ranging from school moms to corporate executives, will tell you that her infectious enthusiasm and determined personality are keys to the success of the KCIC, and likely they'll agree that there's nothing they wouldn't do for Mary.

They'll also agree that there's nothing Mashburn wouldn't do to achieve her goal of bringing art to all the children of the region. If there's a job to be done, she's there to do it.

To give you an idea of a typical Mary Mashburn day, when this reporter recently called her to set up an interview, this was her response:

"Oh, honey, I'm so excited to get to spend some time with you, to sit down and talk. Now, I can't do it today because Wayne and I just got back from taking a visiting author to breakfast, and this afternoon we have a performance with Jim Jackson at the Citadel and we're putting up the art show there. Then I have meetings all day tomorrow, but I'll call you over the weekend and we'll see what we can line up on Monday."

At 65, Mary Mashburn has more energy than your average five-year-old. She moves and talks constantly, stopping to backtrack, making sure she covers it all. "I'm telling you more than you want to know," she laughs, then tells you more.

Her office, in the Pueblo Bank and Trust building on North Academy, is a colorful jumble of hand-drawn cards from school children and piles of grant applications. The walls are strewn with awards. Costumes mingle with art supplies, donated Pepsi-Colas and KCIC information sheets throughout the crowded work space.

Mary Mashburn glides through it all with humor and endless charm. She calls people "dahlin'" and "sweetheart," and she means it. This is the work she loves and this is the place where she wants to be -- a place of her own making with lots of help from an abundance of friends.

Good at joining things

"I grew up loving the arts," says Mashburn. "That was part of my Southern heritage." She recalls finding a receipt for $5 from a company that sold a portfolio of prints of the "world's greatest paintings" to her mother. That was in the 1940s in Raleigh, North Carolina, where Mary grew up with Gainsborough's "The Blue Boy" hanging over the fireplace in her bedroom.

At 19, she married Wayne Mashburn and "landed in Victoria, Texas, a young lieutenant's wife."

"I was lousy at cooking and keeping house," laughs Mashburn, "but I was good at joining things. I taught Sunday school using puppets, and I was a Girl Scout leader. As a military wife, wherever we lived I would find a way to be part of the arts community. I'd join the local Presbyterian Church, then I'd find an arts organization."

Mashburn volunteered in her kids' schools and usually became a docent in the art museum wherever the family was stationed. When her husband rose to the rank of commander, she arranged field trips to art museums for the other officers' wives.

In the early '70s, the Mashburns returned to North Carolina. At the North Carolina Museum for the Arts, where Mary was a docent, she created the first tactile gallery in the world, making fine art accessible to the blind. A few years later, when the Mashburns settled in Colorado Springs, she replicated that effort, spearheading the creation of the tactile gallery at the Fine Arts Center where she quickly became a volunteer docent and eventually served on the Board of Trustees and as president of the volunteers.

She organized fundraisers for the FAC and helped orchestrate the first "Merry Christmas, Colorado Springs," precursor to the Festival of Trees and Lights, an annual holiday celebration.

"Wayne made thousands of gallons of punch for the children of Colorado Springs, right about the time of Jamestown and Jim Jones," she remembers with a devilish smile.

Eventually, Mashburn organized a city-wide Association of Volunteers for the Arts, bringing together all the women's organizations in town to try to more efficiently staff with volunteers the community's chronically short-handed arts organizations.

At that time, under the supervision of Joyce Robinson, the Fine Arts Center had been staging a week of performances for kids each spring. In 1986, that effort was rewarded with Colorado Springs' designation as a Kennedy Center Imagination Celebration site, one of only six in the country. (The other sites were Dallas, Fort Worth, Salt Lake City, Seattle and Orange County, California. The program operates under the auspices of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.)

In 1989, Mashburn became the local director of KCIC, headquartered until just two years ago at the Pikes Peak Library District. In 2000, the Imagination Celebration began operating under the Sprinkle Art, Inc. umbrella, and has since moved to the Pueblo Bank and Trust building on North Academy Boulevard, space that was donated by Wendy's Hamburgers.

Sipping from the hydrant

Trying to explain the work of the Kennedy Center Imagination Celebration of Colorado Springs is like trying to get a handle on the federal budget. Or as a friend of Mashburn's so eloquently put it, "It's like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hydrant."

Astonishingly, it's all organized by a full-time staff of three, including Mashburn, Beth Fox-Kret and Jane Bennett, and parent volunteer Connie Brocato-Geston.

Fundamentally, to meet the standards of the Kennedy Center and to maintain official Imagination Celebration site status, the program must produce a mix of art events, professional development opportunities for teachers, shows celebrating young people's achievements in the arts, and participatory arts activities for students in classrooms.

Locally, each site creates unique partnerships with the school districts and with other arts and cultural organizations in the community. Collectively, the national sites directly serve more than 500,000 young people each year.

In the Pikes Peak region, that translates to working partnerships with 43 schools from 10 El Paso County school districts, one private school and two schools from outside Colorado Springs. In 2002, so far, KCIC has brought three major traveling productions to the Pikes Peak Center and has bused thousands of school children in for performances.

Imagination Celebration supports a youth composing contest each year and regularly supports both the Colorado Springs Youth Symphony and Children's Chorale programs. In April, KCIC staged an original performance, "Colorado Connections," based on an outreach program linking rural southern Colorado communities to the Springs. KCIC encourages young people in the performing arts through a partnership with Colorado Springs Conservatory and by bringing performers to schools.

Right now, the Crayola, Binney & Smith Dream-Makers art exhibit, Drawing on Character, an exhibit of original art by Colorado Springs students, is hanging at the Citadel Mall. Currently the staff is planning a four-day teacher institute on arts and education to be held in Colorado Springs this summer.

And that doesn't even begin to tell the story.

Sprinkling the magic

A great deal of Mashburn's time is spent raising money -- some from corporations, some from private foundations, some from state and national grants, and some from an annual New Year's Eve fund-raising silent auction.

In one year, KCIC racks up some 70,000 volunteer hours with as many as 3,500 volunteers -- all of whose hours must be tracked. When traveling shows come to town, their lodging must be arranged, usually by in-kind donations with local hotels, all of which requires a delicate personal touch.

And word of KCIC's work must continually be spread throughout the community -- a task Mashburn adores.

When she talks about the work, it sounds personal. "We watched the show, then we all had dinner at my house," you might hear her say. Or, "She stayed with us for a month. I just fell in love with her." Or of a corporate sponsor, "He touched my heart."

To Mashburn, KCIC is about providing access to the arts for the region's children, but it is about far more than that. "We have the unique opportunity," she says, "to show parents, teachers and administrators how important the arts are, how they can change a kid's life."

As an example, Mashburn points to a thank-you letter she received recently from a kindergartner who had gone with his Bristol Elementary School class to see the KCIC production, Lily's Purple Plastic Purse. The children drew pictures, saying what they liked about the story. A crude drawing of two characters in the story was followed by these words, recorded by a classroom volunteer: "I wish ___ and ___ were my friends, because I don't have any ..."

Mashburn gasps at the implications -- the months, even years of unease this child might have been spared because an arts experience allowed him to open up and state his most secret fear. The function and value of art in life, she argues, cannot be underestimated.

"We're also about making people's dreams come true," said Mashburn, explaining the number of times KCIC has supported an artist's vision. When local artist Mary Helsaple, now on the board of Sprinkle Art, Inc., expressed her desire to build an interactive rain forest exhibit for children, KCIC and Mashburn helped make it happen. That exhibit, first built at the Fine Arts Center, is now on display at the Sangre de Cristo children's museum in Pueblo.

When famed Thomas Jefferson impersonator Clay Jenkinson expressed a desire to produce a play based on the love letters of Jefferson and painter Maria Conway, Mashburn and KCIC helped make it happen.

When Mashburn first heard the spoken word poetry and performance art of local poet Stacy Dyson, she made Dyson the "poet laureate of KCIC." This year, a Colorado Council for the Arts grant awarded to KCIC helped send Dyson to schools in rural southern Colorado, to help spread the "magic" Mashburn saw in her.

And perhaps most telling about Mary Mashburn's unique formula for success is the remarkable retention rate of KCIC and its many participating artists, volunteers, schools, students and sponsors. The list continues to grow year after year, and the level of enthusiasm never seems to subside -- come hell or high water, terrorist attacks or economic collapse.

"Once you've worked with us," said Mashburn, "we don't let you go."

Upcoming Imagination Celebration Events:

Colorado Springs Youth Symphony Orchestra Concert at the Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Ave., 633-3901. Two concerts featuring over 400 young musicians from throughout the Pikes Peak region on Sun., May 12, 2 and 4 p.m.

Pikes Peak Young Composers Competition Concert at the Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St., 635-1561. Performance of winning and honorable mention pieces by student composers participating in a KCIC sponsored competition. Sat., May 18, 3-5 p.m.

First Saturdays at the Manitou Art Theatre, next to the Business of Art Center, 515 Manitou Ave., 685-1861. June 1 Tales and Tunes of the West, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.; July 6 Music for Kids with Eric West and his collection of over 20 musical instruments, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.; August 3 Doc Murdock, original vaudeville sketches with Brent Warren, magician, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Beauty and the Beast at the Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St., 634-5583. Repeat performances of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Children's Theatre production. Tuesday, June 11 through Saturday, June 15 at 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m..

Pikes Peak Young Composers Competition Summer Festival in Packard Hall, Colorado College, 635-1561. Educational workshops, rehearsals and performance opportunities for children and teenagers. Call for tuition and accommodation information. July 18-21.

Weaving What We Are, Summer Teacher Institute at the Penrose House, El Pomar Center, 1661 Mesa Ave. Interactive and hands-on workshops for K-12 teachers with emphasis on environment and culture as the foundation for developing children's character and sense of belonging. Call 597-3344. Limited number of scholarships available. June 17-21.

1986: Under the supervision of Joyce Robinson, a series of spring performances for children becomes a Kennedy Center Imagination Celebration (KCIC) national site

Mary Mashburn and the KCIC Timeline

1989: Sponsored and housed by the Pikes Peak Library District, Mary Mashburn becomes director of KCIC Colorado Springs

1993: KCIC Colorado Springs is awarded the Kennedy Center Award for Excellence for "long-term commitment to providing the highest quality educational experience in the performing and visual arts" and the "ability to galvanize broad-based community support."

1994: Mashburn is given the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts

1995: KCIC receives the El Pomar Award for Special Projects

1996, '97 and'99: KCIC receives El Pomar Trustee Awards

1999: Mashburn receives the El Pomar Russell T. Tutt Award for Excellence in Leadership

2002: Mashburn is awarded the Independence Community Fund's first Community Builder Legacy Award for lifetime achievement.

  • From volunteer to queen bee, Mary Mashburn's all about spreading the joy of the arts


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