Best Of 2023

Best Season for Orlando's Art Scene (No, Hear Us Out): 2022-2023
Emily Martinez, "1-800-Eternity" installation at FAVO | photo by Mauricio "Crummy Gummy" Murillo

Despite the Basquiat-shaped elephant in the room still trampling Orlando's reputation, the visual arts have regained their pre-pandemic momentum. There are dynamite shows from every contender in town: Rollins Museum of Art, Snap!, Mennello Museum of American Art, Hollerbach's ArtHaus, CityArts, the Maitland Art Center, FAVO Arts Village, Flying Horse Editions — even OMA, despite the ongoing De Groft affair. It was a banner year that seamlessly blended local artists with national/international talents. Highlights: the fever pitch opening of Snap's 2022 Florida Showcase, Rollins' exciting new acquisitions from artists like Candida Hofer and José Clemente Orozco, the all-star team home run of the Corridor Project's Billboard Show, contemporary heavyweight Ryan McGinness' collaboration with Flying Horse, Emily Martinez's inspired takeover of the So What space at FAVO, the dazzling patterns of Anila Quayyum Agha at Mennello and many more.

Best Rat-a-tat: Kait Sardin, aka @kaitrock
Screenshot via @Kaitrock on Instagram

It may seem that there are no two more diametrically opposed dance forms than hip-hop and Irish dancing, the straight up-and-down, no upper-body movement jigging somewhat bastardized by Riverdance. (If we were to make an Epic Handshake meme for the two, though, the center would say "Make Some Noise!") But after studying Irish dance from the age of 7, Orlando dancer (and pharmacist by day) Kait Sardin finally found a way to meld her fandom of Beyoncé with her love of hard-shoe and treble reels. She choreographed an Irish-dance version of the dance from Bey's "Formation" video, and she hasn't looked back since. As a Black woman in the lily-white world of dance — particularly Irish dance — Kaitrock admits that she has experienced racism, but she tries not to dwell on it. What can we say? If you don't love Kaitrock, you don't love life.;

@kaitrock I'm so excited😭😭 #irishdance #renaissance #fypシ ♬ It's Getting Hot - NLE Choppa
Best Freestyle Rap Improv: Free Daps
image via Free Daps on Facebook

This fresh-faced and eager bunch of fellows could be the best — and nicest! — thing to happen to freestyle rap since B-Rabbit extolled the virtues of Mom's spaghetti. Their melding of lightning-quick rhymes with more traditional improv games makes their regular visits to SAK Comedy Lab (an oasis of hometown support on their seemingly endless slate of national appearances) a can't-miss. Breathtakingly smart, fast and funny, they're also multicultural without making it a thing. What's not to love, yo?

@artistsoncouches x @gabriele_herzog
screenshot via Instagram/@artistsoncouches
@artistsoncouches x @gabriele_herzog

We are huge AOC fans — well, yes, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, but right now we mean Artists on Couches. This project of Orlando-based artist Kelly Joy Ladd has totally caught fire (a term we use with caution since she primarily works in cut paper and textiles) since launching in 2020. Deceptively simple, the Instagram-based project opens worlds to the viewer, connecting artists to art lovers, other artists, and the cosmos. Artists from all over the world answer a question from Ladd, which she records and transcribes, and send along photos of their work and of themselves — on a couch. Ladd's questions elicit answers that range from prosaic process-based details to the ineffable experience of any artist's practice, fumbling toward the divine. Those questions, by the way, serve well as prompts for morning pages (à la Julia Cameron's classic The Artist's Way) for anyone creative, inspiring as they do a vital inward vision.

Best Drinking of the Kool-Aid: Andrew Spear ‘Kool-Aid Man’ mural at The Hideaway
photo via

When an (ahem!) distracted motorist drove right through the front wall of beloved local dive bar the Hideaway last Christmas, pillars of the community rushed to help the business recover. But none did so with such wit and artistic panache as Orlando-based muralist Andrew Spear, whose paintings of the likes of Prince and Tom Petty already adorned the building's side and rear walls. As soon as the front had been repaired, Spear decorated it with a tongue-in-cheek image of the Kool-Aid Man bursting through the bricks in his inimitable style. And to reinforce that the snark was meant purely with love, Spear then put the image on T-shirts that were sold to help defray the costs of rebuilding and treating the injured. Philanthropy's here, oh yeah!;

Best Way to Taste History: Savor Tooth Tiger

Graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Allyson Schurig blends her love of history and her skill for cooking at Savor Tooth Tiger, a charming video series in which she cooks foods of the era while relating the historical context of the recipes — all while dressed in period garb. On the website, you'll find the recipes from the videos. Start with her "Marie Antoinette & Cake" episode, in which she bakes a chocolate and orange blossom layer cake inspired by the doomed princess' favorite morning beverage while sporting a pink silk panniered gown and powdered updo; stick around for "Monticello Mac & Cheese," in which she busts the myth that Thomas Jefferson invented the classic American favorite and gives chef James Hemings the credit he deserves. Put some respect on that name!

State Rep. Anna V. Eskamani
courtesy photo
State Rep. Anna V. Eskamani

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said there are no second acts in American lives; fortunately, he said nothing about side hustles (as far as we know). Witness the example of versatility being set by State Representative Anna Eskamani, the respected and tireless champion of District 42, who last year branched out into acting by taking part in theater impresaria Jaimz Dillman's production of The Vagina Monologues. Rep. Eskamani's perfectly credible and well-received contribution to this prototypical womyn's piece allowed her to demystify body politics while harkening back to her days as the senior director of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida. Now, with two separate runs of the show under her belt, she may have built herself a whole new career. At last, a politician who's happy to be in the pocket of Big Labia!

Miss Sammy
Photo by David Lawrence
Miss Sammy

At a time when our governor and his lickspittle Legislature are trying to push the LGBTQIA+ community back into the closet — or worse yet, into prison — the survivors of some of Orlando's finest fallen queens are nurturing new talent in their name. The Singhaus Scholarship for the Performing Arts provides support and assistance to LGBTQ theater artists, not only to honor the late Sam Singhaus (drag's iconic Miss Sammy), but also in the name of his sister-in-law, Marcie, and his brother, Steve. Meanwhile, the Doug Ba'aser Comedic Actors Memorial Fund subsidizes one performer per year at the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, with priority consideration given to emerging drag stars. Saying goodbye to legendary laugh machine Ba'aser and all three Singhauses within a few short years was especially hard to endure, given that it coincided with the "Don't Say Gay" jihad. With these high-profile encouragements to carry their example forward, there's hope that those we lost will have the last laugh.

One of many sculptures on the grounds of the Mennello Museum
sculpture by Alice Aycock, photo via Adobe
One of many sculptures on the grounds of the Mennello Museum

Among Orlando's many incredible cultural offerings, the Mennello Museum of American Art is a small gem. An architecturally impressive expansion is in the works under dedicated director Shannon Fitzgerald, but we have to admit we will miss the tiny galleries and the innovative way Mennello staff turns limitations into strengths.

Most people would be hard-pressed to rack up the accomplishments as an independent writer, director and producer that Clark Levi has amassed at the tender age of 24. There must have been some free lines of code in his LinkedIn profile, though, because he's additionally accepted the roles of development assistant at the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival and producer of Beth Marshall Presents' Play in a Day (inheriting the latter position from Marshall herself, who recently relocated to Colorado). That's a lot of responsibility for somebody who'd still be a full six years away from being sent to Carousel if we were all living in Logan's Run. (We aren't — we think.) If anybody can make it all work, it's Levi, whose zeal for the theatrical arts is matched by his sophisticated communicative skills and his willingness to take a stand. The smart money says he rises to whatever challenge the creative community throws at him.