State of the Community Dinner: McCann Award

Fries win award for boosting art in the community

By: Gloria Young, Reporter
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A couple whose artistic vision has made a lasting impact on Auburn’s landscape and the community will be honored with the Vernon Gould McCann Award at the State of the Community Dinner on Sept. 7.

“Katy and Brian have been involved in our (Auburn’s) Arts community for more than 25 years,” Auburn Vice Mayor and McCann Award selection committee member Cheryl Maki said in an email. “It is because of them, and others like them, that Auburn has become an arts destination. They have not only helped our town thrive culturally but economically as well. Their love of Auburn is representative of exactly what the McCann award is all about. Vernon McCann would be proud!”

The Fries have lived in Auburn since 1994. Brian grew up in Sacramento and Katy is from Grass Valley.

“We came to Auburn to solve a health crises for my mom and also for the schools for our kids,” Katy said. “We chose our house because we liked it and it was big enough for two families.”

Nine months later Katy’s mother succumbed to cancer.

“She died with all these regrets — all the things she wished she had done,” Katy said. “ She was 52. I was 30. I took that really seriously. Instead of going back to my elementary school teaching job, I took a year to find my footing. Arts called to me.”

Her initial undertaking was Kid Arts in the basement of what is now the General Gomez Arts and Events Center in downtown Auburn.

“We did drawing, painting, sculpture and worked with wood, glass, beads — lots of mixed media as well as typical fine arts,” she said.

In the final years of the program, she added a class for adults with special needs through the Placer School for Adults.

She closed the program because of personal health issues. When her health improved,  she went back to school and got a master’s degree in special education. For the past 12 years she has taught special education at Placer High. This year she has moved to teaching ceramics.

“I brought in the arts as much as possible,” she said.

She has also nurtured her own artistic talents in painting, jewelry making, weaving and ceramics.

Then, three years ago, she and Brian turned their attention to murals as a way to combine two things important to them — arts and community. They’ve completed three so far.

The largest is the 800-square-foot “Sierra to the Sea,” located on a retaining wall at the Auburn School Park Preserve.

“It is predominately tiles handmade by over 1,000 children in our community,” Katy said.

She worked with Rock Creek Elementary School students, the Boys & Girls Club of Placer County and students in her special education classes to create the tiles.  

“(The tiles are) mostly textural,” she said. “The kids would get a piece of clay and work it up. … Highly kinetic kids would pound things into the clay. Some others did a cohesive picture that had a story line. Some pressed in their names, others their ages, others a thank-you. It was whatever they wanted to use.”

The Fries fired and glazed the tiles and spearheaded the installation.

Auburn architect Michael Kent Murphy came up with the design for the mural, as well as for the second mural — the river rock creation across from Central Square in downtown, Katy said.

The third mural, located at the Armed Forces Pavilion, honors local military veterans.

“We did tile-making with the veterans at the garden,” Katy said. “Veterans pressed their name and area of service into their tiles.”

She also contacted the Auburn VFW post and asked for names and area of service for the veterans registered there.

“I got about 400 names,” she said. “So I created the tiles and pressed their names and service.

There are 500 names (in total). That was completed in mid summer this year.”

One of the things the couple has appreciated most about creating the murals is the community interaction.

“We’ve have hundred of people who helped us design ‘Sierra to the Sea’,” she said. “All comers were welcome. … That was great to empower people to feel like they could create and they had a tiny investment of their time. I think that’s where Brian and I are strong. We give people a chance to try something they haven’t tried before because we’ve done the groundwork.”

The Fries’ membership on the Arts Commission was a launching pad for their latest endeavor — creating a pollinator garden at the City Hall parking lot.

Over the summer, they weeded and planted phases one and two on the hillside, putting in plants to attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

“We will attract Monarch, Dogface and Swallowtail — three butterflies that are historically native to our area,” Katy said. “We are trying to bring in their food sources and keep the pollinators alive as much as we can in middle of town.”

And the duo is very active in the Arts Commission’s Music Around Town.”

Their community projects are a team effort. Katy brings the artistic flair and know-how while Brian contributes the technical skills.

“He has always been a photographer and did a lot of drafting,” Katy said. “He has a lot of technical drawing skills.”

As she looks ahead, she is eyeing several projects she’d like to tackle.

“As a member of the Arts Commission, anything within city limits that we could do improvements on interests me,” she said. “It helps with tourism and just makes things nicer.”

Receiving the McCann Award has motivated the couple even more.

“What blew me away was when we looked up the past winners,” she said. “These are people I have respected and held in high regard during my time in Auburn — people I knew of or knew that I really feel have had a huge impact on Auburn. To be ranked with that group of people is kind of intimidating and awe inspiring.”

Brian agrees.

“I see Auburn as an extension of my home. As we have worked on the School Park Community Garden, Auburn Arts Commission and the volunteer art installations around downtown, I get excited about doing more to enhance our city’s environment,” he said in an email. “I love Auburn. When I see a corner that needs attention, I see what I can do to help. A big project that is coming up over the next few years is the rehabilitation of the historic Carnegie Library, and an establishment of arts programs that benefit all of Auburn. I have a lot of enthusiasm to see that project into success. I am most proud of the social media community that has grown around the Auburn Arts Commission’s ‘Music Around Town’ series. We have grown audiences and attention to the program this summer to the benefit of the musicians, and the local and visiting music lovers.”

The McCann Award is named in honor of longtime Auburn Journal business manager “Mac” McCann who personified volunteerism and community service.