What is it like to win a big award at a national art show? How would you spend the prize money? What impact would an award have on your career? These questions go through my mind with each competition I enter when I finally get my piece finished, photographed, uploaded, paid for, and submitted.
Since art competitions and competitive shows are a fixture in the art world, I enter often; in a good year when I am focused and paying attention to deadlines I enter about 25 of them. My first priority is always the national art groups to which I belong. Those shows are credibility-building and inspirational; when you walk into a gallery far from home and see your work next to that of one of your idols, it is humbling and energizing all at once. I also enter gallery and museum shows, special shows and monthly online competitions. I believe in having your line cast in many ponds.
Some award-winning artists recently shared their competition experiences with me.
The Gold Medal Award in the Associate/Signature Division at this year’s OPA show was taken home by nationally recognized painter Susan Lyon of North Carolina. This was her first time to enter the show and she said, “I was really kind of dumbstruck when they said my name…there were so many great paintings there…and what a diverse show, it must have been incredibly hard to judge. I didn’t get the vibe at all during the week that people liked my painting, of course my close friends said nice things to me, but I was very intimidated to be there. After receiving the award, I have never felt so much support: I felt very humbled. The prize money was great, but I didn’t do anything specific with it. Much of my income goes to frames.”
Susan went on to say about competitions in general, “I have been in lots of shows and entered many contests and not won anything, so you brace yourself for that outcome. I have built up a tough shell, I try not to get too high when something goes right and not get too down when things don’t pan out; that is how I survive the rollercoaster of this profession. My advice is to enter shows or competitions and then forget about them. Use them as goals but don’t take the results personally. A painting’s true quality or worth is not determined by a prize.”
Derek Penix, from Tulsa, OK, won the OPA Gold Medal Award in the Associate/Signature Division in 2016. His wife, Kitty, helps with the business side of his career and says, “I search and enter Derek in as many competitions as I can. Always only enter your best work and even paint specifically for the competition. When galleries seemed to only want established artists we realized early on that being a part of competitions and winning as many awards as possible was going to give Derek the foundation he needed. They are a great way to get recognition amongst your peers and possibly get on galleries’ radar. Sometimes you win articles which also gives you more exposure.”
Wisconsin artist William Suys OPA won the prestigious $20,000 Dorothy Driehaus Mellin Fellowship for Midwestern Artists this year at the OPA National Show. Bill says, “I am required to apply this money specifically toward my education, understanding and growth as an artist, so it gives me added impetus for making the award have a real and lasting impact. I couldn’t be more thankful. Most awards are very welcome and appreciated but the amounts are not life-changing. Yet, I have been lucky enough to win a couple of major awards that certainly could have a major impact on an artist’s life. For me, these awards allow me to step back and really take note of what is important to me as an artist, and how I want to move forward in my work. We are often caught up in trying to create and deliver a product, but I want what I am doing to have greater personal meaning and these are wonderful opportunities to truly address the depth of my artistic soul. In a way, they become a challenge… forcing me to reach within.”
“Happily, I was there when the Driehaus Mellin Fellowship award was announced, and it was surprising, wonderful and thrilling. On another occasion, I was simply gob smacked when the panel of three judges for a major plein air invitational created a ‘Best Body of Work’ on the spot in recognition of my pieces in a show that featured top painters in the country…now, that was quite a jolt!”
MaryBeth Karaus OPA, who lives in Cincinnati, OH, watched on Facebook livestream as her name was called for the 2018 Driehaus Mellin Fellowship and the Members’ Choice award. She says, “It was very exciting! My family was very proud of me and that felt good. The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation supports the purpose of the OPA which is to preserve and promote representational oil painting. I am so very grateful for their generous and direct support of artists individually. The Member’s Choice meant so much to be recognized by my peers. It meant that my work was achieving new levels…standing out.”
She says, “My focus and heart has been with OPA for the last ten years. I usually enter the National and Eastern Regional every year. I have thought about entering other national competitions, but I don’t want to be spread too thin, although I have entered Art Renewal Center because it is easier since it is online.”
“I think the awards have had a very positive impact on my career…entering really puts your work out there in front of a national audience. I have been asked to judge shows recently and my workshop filled up quickly last year, both as a result of name recognition from the awards. Also, Southwest Art featured a six-page article on me that was a direct result of OPA involvement.”
MaryBeth’s thoughts on competitions — “Well, put on your coat of armor. It can really be a boost or a blow to your sensitive artist ego. After such a great year in 2018, both my paintings were rejected from the OPA National in 2019. Ouch. But sometimes one will never know why and that has to be okay if you are going to take the risk, come out from behind your easel and try. Keep entering!”
Elizabeth Pollie, from Harbor Springs, MI, won the Driehaus Mellin Fellowship in 2016. She says, “Winning an award is naturally always a very “feel good“ moment. With every award, comes a mixture of gratitude, exhilaration, a sense of being affirmed and in my case, always surprise with a decent dose of humility. But I have to say, when I won this award, it really was a very unique experience. Why? Because philanthropy is so central to creating, enhancing and sustaining a rich and diverse culture. So, bring on an extra heap of gratitude and humility.
Elizabeth continues, “When I was a child I practically lived within the walls of the Flint Institute of Arts which has been generously supported by the Mott Foundation and others. I could name my favorite pieces by age ten; it was all key to shaping my future as an artist.
“That is why not only winning this award but also having the opportunity to meet Dorothy and Art Mellin was profoundly meaningful. They are both caring and engaging individuals who have gifted The Oil Painters of America a generous amount of support. I used the award to both help maintain and repair my studio and assist me in my art related travels. There was not a moment in which I did not reflect upon how crucial the role of philanthropy is in changing the lives of artists and supporting both historical and emerging cultural institutions.
“If I were to give any advice to those entering a competition I would say the greatest value comes from giving thought to how you would like to put your work into the public eye. First, satisfy your own level of excellence and then, let it go. You have done your work. If it results in an award enjoy the moment and be gracious. And if the light casts its’ glimmer upon the work of another, be equally gracious. Art in its most pure form is not competitive. The best of it is something intrinsically fascinating, worthwhile and maybe, with time, historically significant. That in and of itself is reward enough.”
As for me, 2016 was a great year, when my painting was awarded a Bronze Medal at OPA; that was incredibly exciting but also receiving the Members’ Choice award that year was as meaningful as an award gets. In 2018 as the American Impressionist Society Show was streaming live, a good friend called and said I had better turn it on, I had won Best of Show. It is a strange and transcendental feeling to know that you were able to convey your emotions about a subject in a painting so that a stranger you’ve never met was touched by it. That is probably the best part of the recognition, the fact that you have made a meaningful connection with another soul.
The prize was $12,000, which did get my attention too. I finally got to answer my own question about how I would spend the prize money; I get to check off an item on my bucket list: a trip to Rajasthan, India. The people’s faces, stacks of jangling bracelets, the texture of the embroidered clothing, gold embellishments, the vibrant colors of the fabric, formed into turbans and saris, are all heart-stopping images for me and I can’t wait to see them in person. My artist’s cup will be overflowing.
After four decades in this art world, I can say that perseverance is key to an art career and to entering competitions. Just like lots of other artists I have submitted to many, many shows and been turned down or won nothing, but dozens of rejections don’t matter when your commitment to excellence pays off. Embrace your creativity, value the journey, and don’t give up.