Wednesday, March 4, 2009

“Up With Art”

“There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it's going to be a butterfly.” - Buckminster Fuller

I was tagged a couple weeks back to be one of the volunteer judges for this year’s annual “Up With Art” exhibition at the Bear Gallery in Alaskaland (or, depending on your sourdough status, the Centennial Center for the Arts located in Pioneer Park). This is a show is put on by the Fairbanks Arts Association and the Fairbanks North Star Borough: all of the district’s schools participate, with each art teacher submitting the best work from their respective classes.
It’s long been the single best art show in the Interior to me, and by far the most interesting and exciting display of talent of the year. In fact, I often like to bitch about how it sometimes seems that the majority of other exhibitions, from BFA/MFA caliber student shows and even established artists in the community, don’t and can’t compare to the quality of material in this show. This speaks to the incredible level of passion, professionalism and guidance from the teachers, who as I’ve mentioned before, somehow manage to deal with all the insanity of our public educational system, low budgets, large classes etc. etc. on top of being prominent and productive artists in their own right – they certainly command all due respect for doing one hell of a job.

So with all those biases fully disclosed, I was really honored to help out and be a part of this gig. My co-juror was Da-ka-xeen Mehner , a good friend and recently anointed Native Arts professor in the UAF art department. All told it took us about three and a half hours to cull through the works and award 46 places. I actually enjoyed the whole process and was really glad we were teamed up together for this, made it much easier to wrangle over sticking points with someone you go a ways back with and also respect as a peer, both as a fellow artist and educator.

The categories ranged from drawing, painting, printmaking, jewelry, mixed media, ceramics (both hand-built & wheel-thrown), sculpture, Native art and photography (both digital & traditional). Within each of those categories, Juror’s Choice awards & place ribbons were given for 1st, 2nd, 3rd plus an Honorable Mention. Only the high-school submissions were considered, with a wide spread of concepts and techniques displayed at many different stages of development diversity of styles. Not only was the quality of the pieces under consideration, we also had to think about originality.

One challenge was not necessarily relaxing standards per say, but scaling back expectations and always keeping in mind this is the work of kids in school. That said, there were some absolutely clear stand-outs, at both extremes, but still the works maintained an overall high level of excellence. After a once-over taking the entire show in on our own , we went through each specific category and picked our personal choices, then buddied up and methodically selected the winners. If a consensus wasn’t reached (maybe for about a third of the pieces was there significant disagreement) then a compromise was pretty easy to arrive at. Both of us added considerable insight to various aspects of consideration as far as details of craftwork within particular media, as we each had a lot to offer with our respective experiences and training. It really got to be a tough call in particular with the drawings, as there were some serious top contenders that merited extended debate between us - three in fact that were all vying for the top slot.

After nailing those down, we then went back and flagged all the 1st place winners again for “2-D” and “3-D” meta-categories, and awarded a “Best of Show” prize for each, which was another hour of intense consideration - not to mention that dominoed back into reshuffling the originating category (as one couldn’t get both a best-of-show and a 1st place award for the same piece).
Probably the biggest speed-bump came in picking between two final contenders in each field, and it was especially of interest to note each pair of finalists had one piece that exemplified traditional, academic standards of high craftsmanship, and the other piece could have been interpreted as being representative of Post-Modernism, as in the concept was the primary factor to consider (versus quality of technique). A great example of this aesthetic divide can be seen in the attached image: the top painting displayed very good use of medium, excellent composition, superb color, value, outstanding attention to detail and texture etc. This was contrasted against the bottom digital photograph, which was a tight zoom of weathered wood affixed with a rusty metal bolt and a title/caption that read “You Imposed a Relationship When I Just Wanted To Be Friends.” Basic, decent photographic technique, but it got a laugh out of me – especially contrasted against the absolute lame-ass tendency on the part of half the artists to go with “untitled.” The same quandary confronted us when choosing between a rather crude platter with a overt political message versus a classical bust for the coveted Best-of-Show in 3-D. In the end, it really helped to realize that at this level there were no “losers” and we were in effect splitting hairs by this point amongst the very best of the show, and arguably, everyone with pieces in the exhibit should be rightfully proud of their work and the accomplishment of recognition. A pretty intense procedure, and a stimulating and inspiring experience. And free sandwiches and juice.

We still have to email in our Juror’s Statements, which I’ll update this post with later on tomorrow, and also make this upcoming First Friday opening to be on hand for the awards presentation (and duck rotten fruit).

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” - Pablo Picasso

Update:
"The annual Up With Art exhibit is always our personal favorite of all the shows in the Interior.
The impressive range of abilities on display in this gallery speak not only to the outstanding efforts of the individual students but also reflect on the the committment of the teachers in our community.
The diversity of media and subject matter, along with the overall quality of work and creative concepts were particularly outstanding this year. This made it equally inspiring to us as artists as well as an intimidating challenge as jurors.
Congratulations to all of the entrants - we especially look forward to seeing even more of your artwork in the future!"

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