Julia RhoadsPhoto courtesty of Julia Rhoads

Carving out a living as an artist is a vocation, a calling. Making a living as an artist is incredibly difficult, not only pushing oneself to be inventive and engaging continually, but the fundraising – it’s relentless.

Nevertheless, that’s what Riverside resident Julia Rhoads has been doing for more than a decade. A classically trained dancer, Rhoads left the San Francisco Ballet in order to pursue a degree in history and later earned an MFA degree in performance from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Around the same time, she became the founding artistic director of Lucky Plush Productions, a dance company that creates and performs innovative works that combine elements of dance, drama and comedy, presented in a way that’s both accessible and artistically high-powered.

On May 10 in Santa Monica, Calif., Rhoads’ artistic vision and work received national recognition when she was one of five mid-career artists named a Herb Alpert Award winner.

The awards are given annually to “those who take aesthetic, intellectual and political risks, and challenge worn-out conventions,” according to Alpert, the music legend who created the Herb Alpert Foundation in the 1980s to help fund the arts.

The first Alpert Awards were handed out in 1995, during a time when the U.S. Congress slashed funding for the arts.

Rhoads’ work is certainly forward-looking. Pieces cross boundaries. In addition to dance, there is dialogue, improvisation. Subject matter is contemporary, exploring everything from reality TV to artistic appropriation. The pieces often focus on the relationship between performer and audience, and readily include humor in doing so.

The award comes with a $75,000 cash prize to each of the five artists chosen by a panel of experts in the fields of dance, film/video, music, theater and visual arts. Artists are nominated anonymously.

“It was a gorgeous moment of feeling really validated,” said Rhoads, 42, a mother of three Central School students.

“The real beauty of this award is that it’s unrestricted,” she added. “It’s so important to have these for artists. You’ve proven yourself, and it’s not just about making work, it’s about how to sustain a family and a career.”

Rhoads and Lucky Plush steadily had been gaining notoriety outside of the Chicago area, where the company has performed since the early 2000s. Rhoads herself was nominated for an Alpert Award two years ago but was passed over. She’s also been nominated twice for U.S. Artist Awards. In 2010 Dance Magazine included Rhoads in their “25 to Watch” list and Lucky Plush garnered a National Dance Project Award from the New England Foundation for the Arts, among others.

Lucky Plush has also increased its touring schedule, and now performs nationwide, in addition to Chicago. In 2013, the troupe will perform in South Carolina, Massachusetts, Iowa, Maryland, Vermont, Pennsylvania and New York City.

The Alpert Award brings another layer of national recognition, one Rhoads hopes will bring more attention to Lucky Plush.

“I just think it’s a huge achievement in a major, national way,” Rhoads said. “I’m so lucky to have joined artists who are mainstays in the field.”

Rhoads is also looking to break free of the traditional not-for-profit model of fundraising to keep Lucky Plush alive in the future.

In April, Lucky Plush unveiled Creative Partners, a collaborative venture with the musical ensemble Eighth Blackbird and the Bair Thomas & Company puppet theater, which pools resources to seek high-level funding assistance to grow their audiences.

Creative Partners has already secured a $250,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation and $15,000 from Prince Charitable Trusts.

“The goal is to have our first three years fully funded so we can establish the infrastructure and expand the capacity of the three organizations right off the bat,” said Rhoads. “It’s inherently stable through this fundraising focus.