Sunday, March 26, 2023
Saturday, March 11, 2023
the inside scoop
Part of my job is to prepare students for life after graduation and one of the big topics is how to deal with rejection from juried shows. Luckily, it's a topic I know a little about. I've had a little over 20 years worth of rejections and I know how to curse a juror efficiently when I get rejected.
Of course I'm kidding. A little. I'm not gonna lie, it's always a bummer. You can tell from the first line of the email when the gallery person who has the job of informing you starts buttering you up. "We had so many strong entries this year...", yeah, yeah, just get on with it. Tell me I suck so I can go sulk for a while.
And of course I don't suck. Neither do you. The juried show just needs to be understood for what it is. A flawed, subjective selection of personal favorites.
If you're a good student or a smart person, you know that you should always consider the source. Asking an artist about a juried show may not always give you an objective view. However, this particular artist (me) has also served as a juror for these types of shows. In fact, I had the honor of doing so earlier this week and while it's fresh on my mind, let me pull the curtain back for you a bit.
My specific job this time was to choose awards for the different categories of the SCAEA Western Region Youth Art Month Exhibit at the SC Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities. The K-12 art teachers from the western part of our state selected three of their best student works to represent the elementary, middle and high school levels. All I had to do was view the work and choose 1st and 2nd place in each category. Easy peasy.
I walked into the gallery and took a moment to just sort of take it all in. I walked through just glancing at the work, paying attention to things that caught my eye right away. I didn't look at the age level or medium, I just noticed when something made an impression. This is the first part of the subjective process. Obviously the things that caught my eye were either exceptionally done or they appealed to my personal taste. Since this is a behind the scenes thing, I'll share one with you. There was a mixed media drawing that looked like it was elementary level. There were two creatures in black silhouette with stark white skeletons drawn inside. I love a skeleton. This had my attention. I wanted it in my house.
On my first serious walk around the room, I looked at each work of art and read the title card to get the information about media and age level. On this pass, I didn't write anything down, I just paid attention to what stood out. After this first serious look, I did another round and started writing down descriptors of potential selections. The skeleton animals was high on my list. I noted it was done by a 2nd grader. This meant it was the elementary level which went up to 5th grade. I started to worry that some of the 5th grade work would edge my skeletons out.
It's important to note that I was on my first real day of spring break. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful spring day. I had plans to meet a friend for lunch directly after judging the show. I had a good run when I woke up and an excellent coffee. It was a good day. This matters. I would bet that artwork that was darker in mood wouldn't fair so well on a day like this. I was in a mood to see bright, happy work and there was plenty in this exhibit. Skeletons are happy to me.
I had some lists now. Way more works of art listed than I had awards to give. This is when it got tough. Now, if you're a visual art person, this next part will seem familiar and if you're not, it will probably bore you to tears. This is when stuff got real. I started to look at each work on my list as if we were in a critique. I considered the elements and principles of design. I considered craftsmanship. I considered the difficulty of each media represented. Each judgement was placed in my imaginary scale and work by work, my list started getting smaller. This one used line more confidently than the other one. Look at the character of that line. That's really difficult to do. That one is unbalanced. This one doesn't quite look finished. They rushed that part. The list shortened. This was the most objective part of my judging.
My little skeletons were still on my list. It was a list of three at the elementary level. I could only give two awards. Those three went back under the microscope. The good and bad part of having trained as a K-12 teacher and still being familiar with so many of the projects and lessons is that I could look at these and tell what the lesson probably was. My little skeletons looked like a Basquiat lesson. They had a next door neighbor from the same teacher and same school and this one had a big Basquiat crown on its head. Definitely the Basquiat lesson and now I loved it more. Who teaches Basquiat to elementary kids? That's awesome.
But there was this alligator. And it was done by a 1st grader and it was amazing and surprising and beautifully done. Ugh. And I couldn't not give some kind of award to the really strong 5th grader's self portrait. This sucks. My skeleton guys were going to be bumped. And getting 3rd place when there's no 3rd place award is the same as nothing. 1st and 2nd will get an award and their names will be said out loud and their schools will be honored and my little skeleton dude will just get his artwork handed back to him.
And that's what it's like being a juror.
I was able to set my personal preferences aside, mostly, and reserve the awards for the strongest, most effective compositions that demonstrated a mastery of materials. In doing so, I knew that the artists who were on my list for a short time but didn't make the top two would get nothing. But what kind of juror would I be if I couldn't maintain my artistic integrity? So I did the hard thing. Skeleton dude didn't get an award. (This same story repeats at each grade level with some really strong works of art not getting an award.)
However, skeleton dude's teacher got an email. I spent a little time on the computer one morning this week and sent out several emails to teachers who had students that fell just behind 2nd place. I wanted to at least tell the teachers I thought the work was strong and hopefully they'll pass along some kind words to the students. I am fully aware that this is the equivalent of "We had so many strong entries this year..." but standing on this side of that statement, it feels a little more necessary.
With experiences like these on the other side of the fence, am I able to show any extra grace to jurors when I get that rejection email? Not. A. Chance. Still hurts to get rejected. I'll still probably say something mean under my breath before I completely forget about it in a few days.