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Adventurous pedal steel guitarist wins top Baker Artist Award, $40,000 prize

Adventurous pedal steel guitarist wins top Baker Artist Award, $40,000 prize
2017 Baker Artists Awardees, from left: Theo Anthony, Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson, Sara Dittrich, Susan Alcorn, Naoko Maeshiba, David Marion. Alcorn was awarded the top Mary Sawyers Imboden Prize. (Maryland Public Television)

An adventurous Baltimore musician was awarded one of the region's largest arts prizes Thursday night as the top winner of the 2017 Baker Artist Awards.

Susan Alcorn, who has taken the pedal steel guitar far beyond its traditional country western environment, was awarded the $30,000 Mary Sawyers Imboden Prize, as well as the $10,000 Mary Sawyers Baker Prize that each of the six winners received.

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"I was in Houston, Texas, in a hair salon with the salon owner's dog in my lap when the phone rang," Alcorn said. "I saw the call was from Baltimore, but didn't recognize the number and wondered if I should answer it."

Alcorn decided to pick up and learned of her selection from David London, program and marketing manager of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance.

"When he told me I won the big thing, the $40,000," Alcorn said, "I told him, 'I need to stand up so I can sit down.' And then I couldn't sit down all day. Income-wise, this is more money than I usually make in a year with my music."

The Baker Artists Awards, now in their ninth year, were established by the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund. The 2017 winners, announced Thursday night on Maryland Public Television, were selected by an anonymous jury.

The winnowing process began after more than 900 Baltimore-area artists, representing a range of genres, created and uploaded Baker Artist portfolios online. In February, 31 entrants were selected as finalists. Of that group, six winners were selected.

Prize amounts have varied over the years. Last year, the Mary Sawyers Imboden Prize was introduced and came with a $50,000 award; it was won by visual artist Joyce C. Scott. That year, there also was a $20,000 Mary Sawyers Baker Prize, as well as three $5,000 grants.

The 2017 prize structure gives one finalist per discipline — visual, literary, film/video, performance, interdisciplinary, music — a $10,000 Mary Sawyers Baker Prize; one artist from within those six awardees receives the $30,000 Imboden Prize. The $40,000 total for the top honor remains one of the largest single artist awards in the region. (The Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize is $25,000.)

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The other Baker Prize winners for 2017 are filmmaker and photographer Theo Anthony (film/video); author Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson (literary arts); genre-crossing artist Sara Dittrich (interdisciplinary arts); dancer, choreographer and director Naoko Maeshiba (performance art); and sculptor David Marion (visual art).

The Cleveland-born Alcorn, who was a Baker Award finalist last year, moved a decade ago from Houston to Baltimore, where, in addition to her musical career, she taught English as a second language in city schools before taking early retirement.

Now in her early 60s, the largely self-taught musician has played pedal steel guitar for about 40 years, starting out in country and western swing bands. She soon explored ways to use the instrument — a version of steel guitar that sits on a stand and is played using pedals and knee levers, as well as hands on the strings — in other musical genres, including jazz, folk and classical.

"Susan Alcorn was adjudicated by peers in the field and identified as extraordinarily talented," said Jeannie Howe, executive director of the Baltimore Cultural Alliance, said that Alcorn. "The Baker Fund is delighted to support her."

In Baltimore, Alcorn has been featured at the High Zero Festival, a showcase for improvised and experimental music. Her performances, solo and small ensemble, have taken her to several other American cities, as well as counties in Europe and South America.

Alcorn has collaborated with such contemporary music pioneers as the late Pauline Oliveros. She has transcribed works by Bach, Wagner and eminent 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen for the pedal steel guitar.

"The instrument has only been around since the early 1950s," Alcorn said. "But it's capable of anything, in the right hands."

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As for spending the $40,000 Baker award, Alcorn sounds a cautious note.

"Money can fly," she said. "But one thing I've thought about — I have a home recording studio and I'd like to upgrade some of my musical equipment."

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