“Call an artist…they will get things done and it’s going to be done with finesse and heart.”
As the Associate Director of ArtPlay, the community education initiative of UAB’s Alys Stephens Center, J. Heath Mixon oversees the creation of classes, summer camps, a year-long musical theatre workshop, and the Words Are Our World vocabulary initiative. He is also an actor, director, and songwriter who has worked with children and youth for more than twenty years, experiences that all serve him well as a key member of the ASC team.
Tell us a bit about your tenure with the Alys Stephens Center and ArtPlay. What brought you to the organization and what does your role entail?
I have a degree in public relations and was working in the economic development sector as a project manager. I was happy enough, but knew it wasn’t my true calling. I had worked with kids since I was sixteen and knew I needed to get back into something along those lines. There was an opening at the Alys Stephens Center’s box office, and I took a risk and left that job to work at a performing arts center. It was a smart move. When the ArtPlay education initiative expanded, there was need for an associate, and it was a natural fit for me. I’ve been with the Alys Stephens almost ten years now, with eight of those at ArtPlay.
My role allows me to oversee classes, summer camps and a musical theatre intensive. I also work with the McWane Science Center on a vocabulary building program in Norwood and Woodlawn for Pre-K kids, funded by PNC Bank. You’ll often see me in costume as Vocabby.
As an actor, do you find that any of the skills you utilize onstage are useful in your day-to-day at ArtPlay?
I tell people on the daily that they should take acting classes. It aids in confidence building. It helps with public speaking. I’m a complete and total introvert, and many people don’t believe that because they’ve seen me perform. One of my first roles in a children’s show was the Cowardly Lion at the ASC. I’m more like him than people know!
ArtPlay has offered an impressive range of creative opportunities for Birmingham residents since it opened in 2011. What have been some of your favorites? What are some offerings that our readers might not be aware of?
I love the acting classes for sure. We are offering calligraphy for adults in the fall. I have always been a fan of handwritten pieces of art, and I love how text comes to life. Our teaching artist for that class is amazing. I love that we offer knitting. Our memoir class has produced some beautiful work. I’m also a big proponent of piano lessons! I could go on and on and on.
I would be remiss not to mention our musical theatre intensive. I’m a complete and total musical theatre nerd. Working with Theatre UAB has been a dream this year. We took a group of 29 to NYC, some of them for the first time. It’s really cool to help students realize their dreams and give them opportunities they may not have otherwise.
To be honest, I’m a big fan of anything that builds community….something that you can come into and meet friends for life. ArtPlay’s classes have been that for so many people…a community.
We offer classes for all ages…it’s never too late or too early to start a new adventure.
ArtPlay’s base of operations is a restored Queen Anne Victorian home in Five Points South. How do you think this space informs the experience and enhances your mission?
I’ve yet to have anyone come into the ArtPlay house and not be overwhelmed. It truly is a treasure. Jane Stephens Comer put her heart and soul into the renovations of this place, and it is really a magnificent space. No matter the age, people that come to ArtPlay are changed and the environment surely aids in their creative journey. We come complete with a yellow brick road in the back of the house, and it’s like I visit Oz every day.
In addition to your programming on site, ArtPlay is also out and about in the community in many different ways. Can you tell us more about this element of your work?
ArtPlay is everywhere, and you might not know it. We are in Woodlawn at the YWCA Family Resource Center in the fall and spring with free classes for families in the community. We are in independent and assisted living homes with our teaching artists. We are in the schools. We bring schools to see world-renowned performers at the Alys Stephens Center. We also partner with the wonderful McWane Science Center for a program that builds vocabularies for Pre-K students and their guardians. We are busy but the family at the Alys Stephens Center believes in the mission, and we are reaching the broadest base of people we can. I work with the coolest peeps.
What do you see as some of the Birmingham creative community’s particular strengths?
I honestly wish that Birmingham’s creative community would take over the city! I’m serious — the creative folks in Birmingham are strong, smart, and visionary. We are doing things that are changing lives and changing the face of Birmingham. Call an artist…they will get things done and it’s going to be done with finesse and heart.
What would you like to see more of as the city continues to grow and evolve?
I’d love to see more events that bring people together. The Alys Stephens Center is doing a good job of it with Local and IndiaFest. The arts community does it well with Artwalk. Not everyone can afford a ticket, but there are so many things to embrace in the city that are free and open to the public.
I’d love to see people step out of their comfort zone and try something new, whether it be a new restaurant, a new concert of someone they’ve never heard before, or a new small business off the beaten path. Be a champ and take those risks! One of those risks landed me this incredible job!
Photo Credit: Felicia Ashbaugh