MIFA awards: Gina Sisbarro honored as artist of year, scholarships earned

Lance Shearer

MIFA keeps pushing the envelope. Showing how broad the definition of “artist” can be, this year’s selection for the Marco Island Foundation for the Arts artist of the year is the second in a row, or perhaps the third, who does not fit the traditional usage of the word.

During a luncheon Saturday in the fellowship hall of the Wesley United Methodist Church, MIFA president Karen Swanker and treasurer Carolyn Burger presented the Artist of the Year award to Gina Sisbarro, primarily for her years of work as a theatrical impresario and director. Swanker and Burger are both painters, more in the tradition of visual artists one might expect to see receiving the award, but last year’s Artist of the Year was Austin Bell, curator of the Marco Island Historical Museum, who made a point of saying he did not think of himself as an artist.

Artist of the Year Gina Sisbarro with Austin Bell of the Marco Island Historical Society, last year's winner.  MIFA, the Marco Island Foundation for the Arts, awarded their Artist of the Year designation and student scholarships on Saturday during a luncheon at Wesley United Methodist Church.

One year prior to that, the prize went to musician JRobert. This was the fifth Artist of the Year award; the first two did go to painters, Malenda Trick and Tara O’Neill.

Sisbarro is a multi-talented creator, having not only directed young thespians in dozens of shows over the years, but also produced the plays, written three herself, and penned two books as well. She also originated, owns and runs Marco Murder and Mayhem, taking people on “fright-seeing tours” of the island under the nom de ghoul “Martha Horror.”

Dozens of friends and well-wishers showed to see Sisbarro honored, but she made a point of pointing out a few special guests. In the age-old theatrical tradition of “papering the house,” about a dozen young people who had participated in Sisbarro’s stage shows were on hand to cheer her on. Several of them attested to the role she had played in shaping their lives, taking the mic after her award was presented.

At least one of those, Columbia College Chicago student Joseph Byrne, was also a recipient of one of five scholarships the organization presented to students with an artistic bent, to encourage them to continue their studies in the arts. Byrne, an actor and vocalist, sang “You Raise Me Up,” as arranged by Josh Groban, for the group.

Another scholarship recipient, FGCU student Logan Fischer, also performed for the luncheon, playing a Franz Strauss nocturne as a French horn solo. As Logan played, he thrust his fist into the bell of his horn, presumably to keep the volume at a sustainable level for the audience.

Carolyn Burger presents a scholarship to winner Logan Fischer, joining Joseph Byrne, Anastasia Baran and Brenda Perez. MIFA, the Marco Island Foundation for the Arts, awarded their Artist of the Year designation and student scholarships on Saturday during a luncheon at Wesley United Methodist Church.

He was receiving his MIFA scholarship for the second straight year, and Byrne received his for the fourth year, as the organization stresses that they want to support their recipients throughout their college career.

Additional scholarship recipients included Brenda Perez and Anastasia Baran, whose artwork was on display in an adjacent room, and Brianna Monroe, who was unable to attend.

When it came time for her to accept her award, Sisbarro was prepared.

“They said I have 10 minutes, and I’m going to take it,” she said. She thanked her husband Philip Penzo, “my greatest supporter,” and her two step daughters, “who have to go to the plays whether they like it or not.” She thanked what she called “three generations” of kids who acted in her shows, although the first generation is hardly old enough to be the grandparents of the third, current group.

Sisbarro recalled serving as a mentor to her young actors, saying “the boys get advice whether they want it or not,” and asking one in the audience as an aside, “you’re still not dating that girl, right?”

A video montage of old shows, with the strains of “On Broadway” playing behind it, showed the shows put on by the Sisbarro Acting Academy in its various iterations, including “Goldilocks on Trial,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Cinderella Wore Combat Boots,” “Jacob Marley,” and “West Side Story.”

Swanker also presented an award to Allie Ellis. To learn more about MIFA, or support its efforts, call 239-389-0280 or go online to www.marcoarts.org. MIFA is a 501(c)(3) registered charity.