I judged an art show in my home state of New Jersey this past weekend. It proved to be a stressful, but fully enjoyable experience. The current organizers of my county Library Outdoor Art Show decided to revive the event from it's 26 year hiatus. Back in 1986, I was a struggling artist in the beginning of a career with no real game plan. I was sending résumés, entering shows, approaching galleries and waiting for the phone to ring. The CLOAS was an opportunity to show my work and make a dollar or two in sales… I didn't sell anything.
At the end of the 1986 show, the organizers and judges were announcing the prize winners in painting, printmaking and drawing; handing them a check and a colored ribbon to remember the event. I watched the last ribbon go to a smiling guy with a straw gardener's hat and I planned to pack up my work and head home.
The judge then announced, "And finally, the last prize goes to Best in Show, which doesn't have any prize money attached, but your name will be engraved into the trophy that is housed in the library display case. The winner is Paul Zdepski for 'Ex-Thriftshop and Cat'."
I was floored - I never had that kind of recognition, and for the first time, I felt that what I was doing had validity. No money, but peace of mind can't be bought.
Jump forward to early Spring, 2012 when an email pops into my inbox stating the show was going to resume, and since my name was last on the trophy, they'd like to have me judge the show.
This year's show had 60 artists with eight feet of space to hang the work of 10 year-olds in the student class, amateur and professionals competing in three categories. Artists were judged in "Oil and Acrylic", "Watercolor and Pastel", and "Printmaking Graphics and Drawing". I had three hours to study the work and award nine blue ribbons, eighteen honorable mentions, plus this year's Best in Show.
The show officially started at 11:00 am and judging ended at 2:00pm. At 11:01 I decided to do a walk through of the show without my clipboard or hang tag - just to get a feel for the work. The artists were very enthusiastic about the show, and were chatting with me about their work. I had to feign ignorance to keep my cover, but had some nice chats about what they do. I finished my loop of the show and headed back to the organizers pavilion for the clipboard and judges hang-tag.
So it began.
The students were first - With the three categories to judge, I was pleased to be able to award ribbons to most of the participants. Even the 10 year-old received a ribbon for his drawing of Hugh Laurie (really good!). I had a chance to talk with high school age kids and parents hoping to enter art school.
The amateur category proved to be as strong as the professional group. The work was varied and deep. I was struck by the skill exhibited by practitioners of realism hanging next to equally strong students of Sumi ink. I rounded one corner to see a display of watercolor paintings and an artist sketching on a plein air easel. I was drawn to a piece that wasn't numbered or entered into the show. I asked why, and the artist pointed to a weaker piece and said she thought that was the best one. I explained the difference between the two pieces - value, contrast, color depth and freshness. She reluctantly added a number to the piece in question. Forty minutes later, she nearly fell off her painting stool was she was handed a blue ribbon for the painting down on the bottom with a penciled in number.
The professionals were certainly that - pros in the field. Here we had student's in well recognized art schools competing with old guard artists from the local scene. The breadth was immense. I found a comic book artist from Marvel competing along side of easel painter worthy of a NY gallery. Again, the categories allowed me to award ribbons to each of them in their specific realm of expertise. The cartoonist, Darren Auck won an Honorable Mention for his "Walnutman" as a piece of 3-D illustration in Printmaking Graphics and Drawing.
The most awkward category to judge was the Graphics and Printmaking category for the professionals. I settled upon a study of a supine male figure in charcoal as the blue ribbon winner, but as I looked up I saw a painting by the same artist that was clearly the best in show.
Only one prize per person.
So - I was then back to finding a Blue ribbon for "Printmaking Graphics and Drawing" - I stalked back down the row to find a large study in conté pencil on toned paper of a dried sunflower and its stalk in contour and cross-contour. It was a strong study and worthy of the blue, in lieu of the reclining nude.
Back to the Organizers pavilion to pick-up the ribbons, checks and organizers to award the prizes.
It was quarter to 2, and I was right on time. The prizes were handed out as we walked through the show, from space to space;
"Honorable Mention for artist 29, piece number 5."
"Blue Ribbon, artists 53, piece number 6. Congratulations! Well deserved!"
On it went.
I rounded that same corner with the penciled in piece, with the artist falling off the stool when I hoped to award the blue ribbon to the Sunflower drawing… There was nothing there.
The artist had packed up and left - Poor self esteem had gotten the best of her. She felt the pros on either side of her were too good to compete with, and she packed her pieces and left. The organizers were firm - no piece, no prize. The rules stated the work needed to remain from start to finish. I felt sorry for her. She let that nagging little devil on her shoulder whisper in her ear about how awful her work was. I emailed her the next day and told her how wonderful her piece was, and I was sorry she missed the ribbon and I wanted her to know she earned it.
Her reply: "Lesson learned…"
The Best in Show winner was a Junior year student from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia, by the name of Jacob Looney. He doesn't have a website, or email address on his card… or even a first name on it! Just the word "LOONEY" and a phone number. I hope he goes far, and certainly see he has the potential to soar. I plan on following his career, and suggest you keep an eye opened for his work.
The day ended with individual artists approaching me with requests for portfolio reviews. I tried to spend as much time on each person's work as possible while fielding hugs and handshakes from family and friends that came to visit the show. I had a very good time talking with a few young professionals that were just trying to break into the field. They posed tough questions and took my criticism gracefully.
Being the only judge was a tough job, but it was much more streamlined than judging a show with a troika of artists - which I've done a number of times in the past. One opinion only deals with the internal debate.
I judged the show on this rubric: Ignoring style, subject matter and experience; does the piece achieve a level of execution worthy of admiration, confidence in handling the medium and intrigue the viewer. The results were that pieces were chosen that were expressionistic, abstractions, realistic and surreal. There wasn't a set "ideal" represented - "GOOD WORK" was my mantra.
Thank you to the organizers to allow me to participate in this role. It's one I take very seriously and hope I executed fairly.