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Jeff Van Hanken

TU film, music alumna gets a big break at Red Clay Studios

Madison Kenya (BA ’21)

It is no secret that Oklahoma’s film scene is gradually expanding into something incredible. In turn, doors are opening for students and alumni to become part of the magic of the film industry.

Madison Kenya, for instance, graduated from The University of Tulsa with her bachelor’s degree in both music and film studies in 2021. Now, Kenya is the executive assistant for the CEO and founder of Red Clay Studios, Cassidy Lunnen. The film, television and commercial production company opened its doors in 2021 right here in Tulsa.

There are many hidden perks to living in a thriving yet smaller city. The arts scene has blossomed in recent years, bringing people from all over the map to express their unique creativity in impactful ways. As a result, making meaningful connections has become easier than some might expect. However, to make these connections, one must be driven by a desire to succeed. Kenya fits the bill perfectly.

While Kenya was finishing up her degree, she found herself applying for highly competitive Los Angeles-based internships but often had trouble getting past the application process for many of them. However, her part-time pet-sitting job soon provided more than some extra cash. “One of my clients happened to know and put me in touch with Cassidy,” Kenya stated. The pair met at a coffee shop for an informal interview and by the end of the conversation, not only did Kenya have an internship at Red Clay Studios, but she was also going to travel to Los Angeles to work on a Marvel commercial for Disney Theme Parks.

Executive duty

Crew coffee run

After interning at Red Clay Studios for a few months, Kenya was offered a full-time staff position as operations coordinator in August 2021 and became Cassidy’s executive assistant in January 2022. Though her responsibilities vary widely, each and every one of them is incredibly important to the productivity of the film studio.

Kenya recruits and supervises new interns; reviews casting tapes and makes recommendations; codes credit card statements and manages daily office operations; organizes script, editorial, sound, color and music notes; mails documents and hard drives; and creates agendas for Oklahoma Motion Picture Alliance (OKMPA) board meetings. She also books travel, grabs lunch and coffee for Lunnen and the crew and schedules meetings.

“The amazing thing about my job is that I get to see the full scope of production, including development, production, post-production and delivery,” Kenya said. So far, her experience has given her confidence. Being surrounded by encouraging company has certainly helped: “I’ve been embraced by many of the creators and artists I’ve had the pleasure of working with.”

Kenya has also learned valuable lessons at Red Clay Studios. Her advice to those thinking about finding a career in film is solid: “A strong work ethic is key to striving in this industry. Additionally, the industry is based on respect. It is something you must earn and give. Lastly, you should socialize even when you don’t want to. You never know what connections you might make or whom you might meet.”

Projects of pride

Kenya as a background performer on the set of “The Kiss List”

The first project Kenya ever worked on was Avengers: Quantum Encounter, a dinner show that plays on the Disney Cruise Line. The production featured an amazing cast including big names such as Anthony Mackie, Brie Larson and Paul Rudd. “It was really exciting to see everything come together. And, being my first project, it will always have a special place in my heart,” she said.

Kenya’s most fulfilling project was the BMX Gala Fundraiser Specs, for which Red Clay Studios made two different shorts highlighting the BMX Foundation’s STEM educational programming. “We were able to film and interview kids in the RISE program, which is a mentorship and education program serving underprivileged youth in Tulsa,” Kenya stated. Red Clay Studios donated their time and resources to create the shorts, which were used to aid in fundraising for the foundation’s programs. “This was one of the most inspiring projects I’ve worked on so far,” she said.

As far as favorite projects go, Kenya reported that her time on the set of Sick Girl, an upcoming film starring the Vampire Diaries sweetheart Nina Dobrev, was incredibly rewarding and fun. “The film is a great concept with witty dialogue, beautiful production design and cinematography and a very talented cast,” said Kenya, who advises readers to watch for the release of the film later this year.

There are several works currently in development at Red Clay Studios that Kenya is eager to explore. There is the possibility of a second season for the series A Thousand Tomorrows, which premiered Feb. 24 on Pure Flix and was filmed mostly in the Tulsa area. “Right now, we’re leaning into inspirational stories and have some great things on the horizon,” Kenya said.

Where it all began

Left to right: Kenya, Lunnen and film producer Emily Mathason

Kenya’s post-graduate success is due in part to the profound education she received from her TU professors and their enlightening courses. She also reports that the university gave her a wonderful foundation for film: “I was introduced to new creative concepts, and I gained a greater understanding of all of the facets of the industry.”

Additionally, Kenya expressed her gratitude to those who helped make her TU experience so great: “I would like to thank Professors Kim Childs and Richard Wagner for making rehearsals so fun and engaging,” she said, “and I would also like to thank Professors Judith Raiford and Diane Bucchianeri for teaching me to find new approaches to learning. Lastly, I would like to thank Professors Joseph Rivers, Jennifer Jones and Jeff Van Hanken for instilling in me the importance of story in film.”

In hindsight, Kenya finds herself highly appreciative of TU’s learning environment: “The atmosphere at TU is one that lends itself to growth and exploration.”

Do you want to be a part of Oklahoma’s film renaissance? Check out TU’s Department of Film Studies to get started on the career of a lifetime.

Art and its impacts

By: Mark Brewin

Can art change your life?

How can art change your life?

Most of us know the answer to the first question is supposed to be “yes.” As for the answer to the second, well, it’s complicated. A truly memorable artistic experience is so subjective, so unique, that it is often hard to describe or to explain.

This might not seem like a problem, except that artists, and those hoping to promote the cause of the arts in the modern world, are increasingly finding it necessary to make a case for the relevance of what they do. That, in turn, often translates into a demand that art’s effects on us be clearly spelled out and carefully measured.

It is something that my colleague Jeff Van Hanken found out about six years ago.

A man wearing a beige blazer and an open-collar light-blue shirt
Jeff Van Hanken

An independent filmmaker and the Wellspring Associate Professor of Film Studies at The University of Tulsa, Van Hanken had the idea of using a visual art project to help ease the divide, both physical and cultural, that exists between Tulsa’s north side and its downtown neighborhoods. Van Hanken proposed using video technology to transform an underpass below Interstate Highway 244, which currently cuts through the middle of the city, separating North Tulsa from the rapidly developing Greenwood business area and nearby Arts District. Van Hanken’s way of describing this now is that he wanted “to make the [244] bridge disappear.”

The nonprofit arts group that was thinking of funding Van Hanken’s proposal was enthusiastic about the project itself: out of 1,300 proposals submitted to the group that year, his was one of a very small group of finalists. Eventually, however, he was told there was not enough information in the project proposal about its impact on the surrounding community. In other words, it wasn’t that an impact was not expected — the whole point of the project, essentially, was to change the community dynamic within the city’s public spaces — but that there was not a clear way to measure that impact.

Disappointed by the final decision not to fund the proposal, Van Hanken nevertheless found himself intrigued by the new language that was being used to think about art. “I knew that there was a movement toward being able to demonstrate the impact of a project on a specific indicator, and I could just feel that was growing.” He decided that he needed to know more about this.

CHAMP and the Greenwood Art Project

Logo stating Center for Health, Arts and Measurement Practices

It was out of this experience that CHAMP — the Center for Health, Arts, and Measurement Practices — was born. A research effort currently based at TU and co-directed by Van Hanken and myself, CHAMP brings together scholars, artists and arts administrators from across the country to explore how to make a rigorous and persuasive case to an often skeptical public that art still matters. Participants also develop and implement methodologies that can be enlisted in that cause.

a group of eight people seated around a meeting table
A meeting of the CHAMP team and members of Bloomberg Philanthropies, GAP and BOP in Aug. 2019 during the early stages of the evaluation process.

CHAMP’s current work, conducted under the auspices of Bloomberg Philanthropies and London-based BOP Consulting, centers on the evaluation of the Greenwood Art Project (GAP). Part of a community-wide effort to commemorate the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, GAP is led by Rick Lowe, a Houston-based artist and MacArthur Award recipient. It will involve more than 20 projects spaced out over the course of the year. Taken together, these various exhibits both look back to the tragic events of 1921 but also look forward to the future of Greenwood and Tulsa’s Black community.

Currently, CHAMP’s evaluation effort consists of four components:

  • A content analysis of local media coverage of GAP and the neighborhood
  • Interviews with local businesspeople
  • Qualitative and quantitative surveys of Tulsa residents
  • Periodic observations of how Tulsans use their public and cultural spaces.
young woman with long hair and glasses wearing a green top and standing outdoors
Stasha Cole

Stasha Cole (BA ’21), a joint English and Russian Studies major who is also part of the Kendall College of Arts and Sciences’ Honors Program, has been part of the evaluation team since late spring of last year. Cole is a native Tulsan but says she almost never heard about the Massacre growing up. While attending Booker T. Washington High School, which sits near the site of the Massacre and actually served as a refuge for some of residents during the rampage, she remembers “a single day, in my freshman year,” when the event was discussed.

Besides learning more about what happened on that fateful late-spring evening in 1921, Cole thinks her work on the project has also made her more attuned to the coverage of people of color in the modern media. “I’m starting to notice bias in media portrayals in everyday life,” she remarked. It is this sort of bias that the GAP project could begin to address.

The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre centennial is an important moment in the history of Tulsa — an opportunity for the city to come to terms, in an honest way, with its difficult racial past. At CHAMP, we believe GAP could be a key element in making that shift happen. This is why CHAMP’s involvement in the evaluation is so exciting for both the students and faculty involved: there is a real opportunity here to make the case for art’s potentially transformative role in our lives.

man with short hair and a loose-fitting black sweater over a green t-shirtChapman Associate Professor of Media Studies Mark Brewin is co-director of the Center for Health, Arts, and Measurement Practices (CHAMP). He is fascinated by the intersection of postmodern or late-modern culture, politics and media technologies, as well as the role of the body as medium for political and public communication. Brewin can often be found in the summers at ONEOK Field, conducting informal participant research into the role of minor league baseball and soccer as conduits for civic identity.