From fine arts to filmmaking, our small town has what it takes to produce the next generation of artistic icons. Get your autographs now, because these young and artsy Ocalans are destined to be the next big thing.
A Terrific Trio
Stephen Jo, 17 / Kevin Jo, 15 / Grace Jo, 12
The notes of “B Rosette” are bouncing off adorned walls and falling from the sky-high ceilings of the Jo residence’s airy foyer. The essence of an orchestra sweeps through the room, although a glance around the space will reveal that the sounds are coming only from the passionate resonance of a cello complemented by the soulful melodies of two violins. The amazing part? This musical montage is being played by three children, all under the age of 18.
Stephen, 17, is on cello. Kevin, 15, and Grace, 12, are on violins. The song was transcribed for the young musicians by their mother, Marie Jo, a concert pianist and music professor at the College of Central Florida.
“Some of our earliest memories are of playing the piano with our mom,” Kevin says, a freshman at Vanguard High who is involved with the school’s scholastic IB program.
And rightfully so. All three children began learning music by playing the piano at a young age, the lessons courtesy of mom. As the siblings have aged, each of the children have found their own niche with different instruments.
“The piano is like the foundation,” Marie says. “It’s a lot like learning a language. Once you pick up one language, it’s easy to pick up others.”
Aside from their effortless performances, the true beauty of their music goes beyond the talent surging through their instruments—it comes from the intent of their concerts. The Jo Family Trio is passionate about performing for several charitable organizations throughout the year, especially during the holidays. Local nursing homes, hospitals and Interfaith fundraisers are among some of their usual gigs. In fact, the group will release a 15-song CD this month titled Give Thanks, with the first 1,000 copies being donated to local charities to use for fundraising efforts.
They have also played as members of the Ocala Youth Symphony. Grace, a 7th grader at Grace School, began playing with the group at age 8. Stephen holds the first cellist position, and last year after auditioning, Kevin received the title as the youngest Concert Master to lead the symphony.
“Each of us brings a different set of talents,” Kevin says. “When we are playing together, it’s a bonding experience.”
His older brother agrees.
“This is what we grew up with, and this is what we enjoy,” Stephen says, a senior at Vanguard High who is also involved with the IB program. “Sometimes, though, it can be a competition.”
A playful competition, of course. The Jo family plays for sheer enjoyment, and the siblings know the importance of being there for one another.
“I plan to pass it down to my family as well,” Stephen says. “Music is always going to be a part of our lives.”
Life’s A Stage
Fernando Chonqui, 21
Fernando Chonqui knew little English before moving here from Ecuador to pursue the arts. He took a one-month intensive language course before the move and spent hours watching American movies and TV to practice the language.
Then, he moved to Miami, where, he says, “No one spoke English anyway.” Fernando decided to make the move to Ocala to live with an aunt.
In 2006, when he first visited his aunt, the High School Musical craze was at its peak. When he returned to Ecuador, his friend printed the movie script for fun. What started out as reciting lines from their favorite characters ended up being an adaptation of the script into a full-fledged production at their own high school.
They threw the performance together in just four weeks with a make-shift stage and homemade curtains. It went so well that Fernando and his friends teamed up with the music teacher to put on more productions.
It was around that time that he realized what he needed to do.
“When I decided to do performing arts, I knew I had to get out of Ecuador,” he says. “It’s so sad in Ecuador how unimportant the arts are.”
Despite the initial culture shock, he considers it a blessing to have gotten out of his comfort zone.
“I’m really happy here,” he says. “I always knew I wanted to come to college in the States. I would love to get a degree in business and then be able to build a school in Ecuador for the arts.”
Although the theater scene was nearly non-existent in Ecuador, Fernando found a way to excel in his craft. He performed community theater and worked for Punto Magico, a local entertainment company, where he started as an intern and eventually began choreographing and performing Disney skits in Spanish for local children’s organizations.
Fernando loves choreography but isn’t necessarily pursuing that career at this point. He admits, though, that he lives for the thrill of being on stage.
“It’s weird because I am kind of shy,” Fernando says. “But, on stage, I love that feeling of being someone else. I love being an entertainer, making voices, becoming different characters and changing accents.”
Recently, Fernando began performing with the Ocala Civic Theatre.
“I definitely see New York in the future,” he says smiling as he gazes up at what could be imaginary skyscrapers. “I would like to get an AA (degree) in Florida first, then maybe move to New York or perform for Disney Hong Kong or Japan. A third language could come in handy.”
Through The Lens
Janet Eppig, 22
For years, Janet had been hearing her father’s stories about the woman she was named after. Her grandmother, he said, took her camera everywhere she went. And his mother’s passion became his, and his passion became Janet’s—an insatiable love for capturing everyday moments had trickled through the family’s veins. And although she never met her grandmother, Janet feels deeply connected by their like interests.
Photography is everything to her.
“I just hang out with people and wish that I had my camera because, to me, everything is a picture.”
She was excited to show off the finally finished tattoo on her back: her camera, a Rebel XT EOS 35mm inked in black on her ivory skin and reminiscent of a black and white photo. She says her dad warned that she better never switch majors. To which she replied, “I never will.”
After taking her first class with Jack Calbeck, a photography teacher at Lecanto High School and the College of Central Florida, she had a newborn confidence in her craft.
“I thought I was the best photographer to bless this Earth,” she says with a false air of snootiness. Then she continues, “I was God-awful!”
Now, she says, she is definitely her own worst critic.
“I’ll ask all my friends what they think of a picture, and 90 percent of the time they love it, but I’m like, ‘No look, it’s too blown out over here or it’s too dark over here.’”
She laughs, adding that now she has learned that less is more.
Janet’s photography career is already taking off! She became the official photographer for the Orlando-based band Julian and The Heartthrobs after writing a piece on them for The Patriot Press where she worked as news and photo editor. She also did photos for a well-known Canadian band You Vs. Me, who wanted her to come with them on tour in Canada. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the finances at the time. While she enjoys band photography, she would love to make a living photographing for National Geographic.
“I would love to travel and capture culture through photography,” she says. “I’m not huge into landscapes. I get bored. But photographing people keeps me on my toes. I like candid, raw photos.”
Her passion has manifested itself beyond her work. She also collects vintage cameras, finding them in antique shops or collecting them from family members or people who don’t want them anymore.
She would like to have one from every year as far back as she can go. Her oldest is from 1813, a Kodak Autographic Brownie.
“It’s my favorite one,” she says. “I love how old it is, and I love to think of all the people who had it before. That’s a lot of memories.”
Ayla Johnson, 18
Every little girl who ever wanted to be a ballerina remembers her first recital. Although it was almost 15 years ago, Ayla Johnson will never forget the sparkly pink dress she wore as she tapped around on stage to “Going to the Chapel.”
“Those were the good ol’ days,” she says. “But I never get sick of it. I may get sick of the places that I’ve danced, but I never get sick of the dancing.”
Ayla currently dances at the Performing Arts Conservatory: a studio that she doesn’t see herself tiring of anytime soon.
“What I love about PAC is that they’re so positive,” Ayla says. “You’re dancing because you want to, not for other reasons or because you feel like you have to.”
Ayla has been at PAC since they opened and is teaching jazz to 5 and 6 year olds at the studio this year. Currently a senior at Forest High, Ayla is also dual enrolled at CF where she is taking a modern dance class and participate in the Patriot Dance Ensemble.
Ayla plans to stay at CF after she graduates high school and get involved in the dance program there, but she has bigger plans for her future.
In July, she is going on a mission trip to Africa. Her involvement in her ministry work is very important to her. “It’s everything,” she says.
“Whenever I dance I have to remember that this is my passion and my God-given talent. Whenever I feel like I’m getting burnt out, I take a break. It would be, like, a sin if I just stopped doing it.”
The trip will feed her desire to do what is important to her and will help fulfill another goal: to visit 50 countries by the age of 50. So far, she has been to 13. Her dream job would be to sign a contract with a cruise line to combine her love for dance and travel.
Another opportunity came Ayla’s way when she recently attended Florida State University’s summer dance camp. The director of the program approached Ayla about dancing abroad. The offer to study dance in Spain and Paris was a no-brainer.
In order to prepare for her Spanish experience, she is taking Flamenco lessons, one of the few dance genres she has not yet conquered.
Competition for FSU’s dance program is fierce. She’s heard they usually only accept between 30 and 60 dancers out of the hundreds who audition, but Ayla is no stranger to competition and is even less a stranger to winning.
At her most recent competition, she earned the title of “Ms. Powerhouse.”
Ayla already knows she can’t stop dancing, but to ensure a stable income, she plans to get involved in the medical field.
“Dance is my passion, but I feel nursing is my calling,” she says. “I don’t want to give up one or the other. I don’t think I could go without dance. If I did, I wouldn’t be complete.
Life In Motion
Erick Zarate, 23 / Ben Klopfenstein, 23 Michele Klopfenstein, 22
Sitting in the designated production room of a two-story rental in historic downtown, the members of Half Stache Studios are surrounded by sound boards, computer monitors, speakers and cameras.
Laughing hysterically, they recall the day “when Erick’s face hit the pavement,” according to Michele Klopfenstein, one of the group’s photographers.
Her brother, and the company’s video engineer, Ben elaborates over the giggling.
“In October of last year, we were in New York for four days,” Ben says. “Erick partied a little too hard and face-planted on the sidewalk.”
The fall literally scraped half of Erick’s ‘stache from his face, and at that moment, the production group was named.
While in New York, the group also met local rapper Joey BM, who was selling CDs on the street. They later ended up landing the job of shooting his music video in Orlando.
“We like shooting music videos,” Ben says. “They’re smaller and manageable. And more fun because they pay.”
Michele and Erick have shot local weddings, and Ben has directed an independent feature film and is currently working on two scripts—one for television and another for film.
“I like that we do a lot of different stuff,” Michele says. “We kind of do it all, and we have some things up our sleeves.”
Their most recent project, The Gathering, is a short documentary on the annual congregation of the Rainbow People.
The group agrees that this has been their most interesting project so far, and their conversation trailed off into a brainstorm session of “We could start with this… then go back to shots of this…”
Everyone in the group is impassioned about their role in each and every project, and all have reached a point where they realize that they have found their career path.
For Ben it started young, his sister says.
“He’s been making movies since he was a child.” Glaring at him, she adds “He always killed me off in them, though.”
Michele found her love around the age of 14. She took a photography class in 7th grade and “got hooked.”
And Erick had the realization when he turned down a full ride to Savannah College of Art & Design and decided to pursue photography instead.
“I decided to just go for it,” Erick says. “And I blew all my money on cameras.”
“I’m happy,” he says. “I’m following my passion.”
An Artist’s Life
Ashley Ramos, 15
There was no choice for Ashley but to spend her summers tagging along to mom’s art classes. But, it was those years that helped Ashley realize that her true passion lies in art. Although always an art lover with a dream of becoming an artist, as a teenager, she just recently discovered that she’s good at it, too.
“Now that I’m growing up, I can put my twist on it,” Ashley says. “I can put more meaning into my work.”
Now, she attends her mom’s art classes by choice.
“She’s ‘our apprentice,’” says her mother, Sheila Ramos.
Over the summer, Ashley made regular appearances at Sheila’s art classes at Hobby Lobby to help the younger students hone in on their craft.
This year, Ashley began taking part in the Marion County Center for the Arts program at West Port as a freshman.
“There’s more pressure to stay on top of your game and maintain a high GPA,” Ashley says. “You have to rush, but you also have to really open your mind and think ‘How am I gonna put this together?’”
But her game plan is simple: Stay active.
“When I stay busy, I’m more on top of my work,” she says. “I’m not a quiet person. I have to keep going.”
Ashley’s Energizer Bunny mentality has been going—and going—for as long as she can remember. She was one of the youngest artists to be featured in 24 Hours in the Life of Ocala, a book of local photography taken within 24 hours in the city. But more recently, one of her acrylic pieces, a recreation of a Monet painting, was featured in a European art tour headed by Anita Anderson, a local artist.
Ashley loves the idea that her work is being seen, especially around the globe, but like every artist, she keeps a little to herself.
“I want you to see, but then I don’t,” she says. “I get nervous, but then I also like to show off.”
Whether around the world or just in the comfort of her journal, Ashley says, “Art is going to be with me for the rest of my life.”