Saturday, December 13, 2014

perspective: about juried shows, contests & competition

This photo received an award in the 1991 Photo Review National Photography Competition
After seeing the reactions to the QuiltCon notifications this week, particularly the ones sorting out feelings after not getting in to the show, I wanted to offer some perspective on juried shows, contests and competitions.

The first time I entered an art contest was in 1976. I was 10. It was the "Smile America" Dental Health Week Poster Contest, and I won a ribbon. The thing was, the ribbon was only an Honorable Mention. Not what I had in mind. Trying to wrap my brain around the terrible injustice while concealing my disappointment, the unfiltered reaction was to find fault with the other entries and the judges. You could say it was the first time I was unhappy with judging in an art contest, but I might call it the beginning of a mostly unfulfilling ride on the validation merry-go-round, which ended with an epiphany.

one of my photos from high school, Peddie School, NJ Chapel during Vespers
Over the years, I continued to participate in art contests, such as the 1984 Scholastic Arts competition in high school, where I received a regional Gold Key Award and an Eastman Kodak award. By college, I had graduated to juried shows and was an old pro at concealing disappointment if things didn't work out as well I hoped, but there was enough success to keep me going for a while.

"work from the heart rather than letting 
the whole thing get into your head"

One of the highlights was winning one of the top cash awards in a juried show at the Hudson River Museum in New York, for a photo of hanging laundry taken in our neighbor's backyard in New Jersey. The photo was also selected for "American Photography 6", an annual coffee table book published by Rizzoli around the same time. It was one of just a few images to occupy a double-page spread.

The Johnson's Laundry, Moorestown, NJ, 1984
Hudson River Museum Open Award for Photography, 1989
Another highlight was the Photo Review National Photography Competition in the early 1990s. I entered a few times, got in twice, and got an award in 1991. All of the selected works were published in The Photo Review, and top prizewinners were always placed in the beginning pages. The juror who gave me the award was Peter MacGill of the Pace MacGill Galleries in New York, and the photo was a color print of some graffiti discovered on a rock wall at the side of the road in Maine (pictured at top).

Farview's Gold Dust (Dusty), Moorestown, New Jersey, 1989
selected for the 1990 Photo Review National Photography Competition
Toward the end of my period of entering hundreds of photography contests and juried art shows, the idea of competing with art felt unfulfilling, narcissistic, and I was trying to please the judges. I did please the judges, but I didn't please myself, so I got off the merry-go-round some time in the middle to late 1990s.

(far right) "Look at me, I'm a winner!!" (NOT!!)
During my semi-retirement from juried shows, I hopped on to another validation merry-go-round and swam competitively in masters swimming events, ending up with a large box full of awards. The awards couldn't be less useful to me today.

How many of my blog readers knew I was a US Masters Swimming National Champion, FINA Masters Swimming World Champion, US Masters Swimming Long Distance All-Star, and the first and only person in the history of US Masters Swimming to compete in all 12 national championship events in the same year? How many of my friends know I won the Newsletter of the Year award? You probably didn't know, because it doesn't matter to me anymore.

Usually I flat-out refuse to talk about any of it, but one of the good things about that experience was it squelched my urge to compete and gave me a completely new perspective about what healthy competition really was. It wasn't what I saw in that arena, nor was it what I saw with juried shows.

In 2008 I retired from swimming competition after competing in 21 national pool championships and more than a dozen long distance championships. The retirement was not the Phelpsian kind, when you come back the next time around to get on the validation-go-round again. I was really done with it, but not knowing what to do with the remnants of a defeated competitive spirit, I entered a few juried photography shows, mostly local, starting around 2009.

"And wouldn't you know, I received an award!" I said, rolling my eyes. It was in a juried show at Lightbox Photographic in Astoria, Oregon and was a second place for a photographic work called Zauberspiegel. So, there I was, riding that other validation-go-round...but it was different this time around. The ride wasn't as fun as it used to be. It wasn't much fun at all. It seemed silly. All I wanted to do was share the work, it didn't need it to be judged against other people's creations, and I certainly didn't need to be singled-out. "How awkward," I thought.

"Aquarium" 2012
One of the images displayed at Lightbox was a photographic work called "Aquarium", composed of many elements. It is about a vivid dream during a summer heatwave, when I was floating through the universe. When the piece was on display, it was unlike anything else in the show, but did it stand out or was it out of place? Maybe both. The next year I entered it in the Photo Review National Photography Competition, my first time since 1991, and "Aquarium" didn't make the final cut.

Although I was familiar with the Photo Review contest in the 1990s, I had no idea what had been included since then. Photography had progressed since 1991, hadn't it? I tried to push the envelope, but the judge wasn't having it that day. "Meh, no biggie," I thought.

It was some consolation to appear in a web gallery of favorite also-rans, but the work was better than that in my opinion. The thing was, it just didn't fit in, and I also appreciated that. Most of the photos in the Photo Review National Photography Competition are brutally realistic, hard, and not manipulated. "Aquarium" was far too fanciful and was completely created in Photoshop.

"House of Wonky" 2012, Viewer's Choice in Sisters, Oregon
Small Wonders Challenge
Then came quilts. I made my first quilt in 2012 after more than 20 years of collecting, and of course, I had to test the new theory about entering contests; the theory that they weren't what drove me. It was folly. Whatever the outcome, it wouldn't diminish me or the work. How would it feel to get back on that validation-go-round, I wondered. Would it be any different with quilts? And would it be any different with work made to please me and not the judges?

I made a little quilt called "House of Wonky". The quilt was about that feeling of having to figure things out from an isolated place. I entered it in the Small Wonders Challenge in Sisters because Mom would be visiting from Maine and I wanted to surprise her. It was open, all entries were accepted, but there were also prizes.

Since my goal was to get a rise out of Mom, there was nothing more at stake. Other people would get the prizes, I thought, and hopefully that would make them happy. My prize was the look on Mom's face when she discovered the quilt. The fact that I also received the blue ribbon for viewer's choice made the whole thing even more hilarious. Mom knew nothing of my quiltmaking activities before that moment. She is almost impossible to surprise, but I got her that time.

"Wild Eyed Susans" 2013, Honorable Mention, Small Innovative
Pacific West Quilt Show
In 2013, I made a quilt called "Wild Eyed Susans" for a guild challenge with the Northwest Quilters. The goal was to have something I made in the show for the very first time, and that was it. Later that year I entered it in the Pacific West Quilt show. I really had no business entering the show, but wanted to share the work with more people.

It was fun to get in. That, for me, was like winning a big prize. There was also an honorable mention ribbon...memorable...but it was not at all the defining moment of the quilt or my experience with it. Don't get me wrong, I was honored! It's just that juried shows, acceptance and awards really were not what drove me anymore. They were more like funny things that happened along the way.

The epiphany was: work from the heart rather than letting the whole thing get into your head.

just happy to be there
So, that is some of my perspective on juried shows, contests and competition. Been there, done that, wrote the book on it. As unfulfilling as much of it was, it brought me to where I am now. I don't take juried shows too seriously, even though I may want to enter one from time to time. For me, a juried show is a fun, if not silly thing to do. After all, art is subjective, and the whole idea of judging it is preposterous. And in case you were wondering, I did not enter the QuiltCon contest. A wise friend told me it didn't look good to get juried into a show where you're teaching, and with my luck, I would've gotten in and people would've been pissed about it. Maybe next time if I'm not teaching...and just for fun, nothing serious.

Today I do not feel unhappy about that Honorable Mention ribbon from the "Smile America" contest back in 1976. Actually, it's pretty cool, and green is my favorite color. The blue ribbon winner, which I can still picture, really was more deserving, and admitting it didn't cause me to keel over. If you entered QuiltCon, didn't get in, and you're feeling bewildered, unhappy and unfulfilled, I hope my perspective helps. Everything will be OK. Perhaps the experience will even lead to the same epiphany I had. Juried shows aren't the end-all-be-all. You are, because you know how to make quilts. Also, remember to do the work to please you, and don't just say that you are. Really do it. You will always be fulfilled.


  1. Thanks for your perspective. I'm looking forward to being in Austin in February, but just missed a great priced airline ticket.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story.

  3. You are one talented guy Bill. I think I knew this when I first met's that charming smile too! Alas, I am one of the rejected from QuiltCon but hey, at least I gave it a try...Looking forward to seeing you in February...

    1. Good attitude, re; QuiltCon. I think people can learn from your approach and perspective. It wasn't the end of the world, just a weird thing that happened along the way.

  4. For me, "show and tell" at my monthly guild meetings is so much more rewarding. These people know me and give me honest and valuable feedback. I really don't care what a bunch of strangers think of my work. On the other hand, if I was trying to make a living as acquitted, I might view the need to enter and win contests differently.

  5. Replies
    1. Gotcha. :) And I agree about how valuable it is to be part of a local group and get feedback there, etc. Posting pictures online is another way. A lot of folks who make the best living in quilting do not participate in shows, or started out participating but did not continue with it.

      For me, a juried show is kind of like a gathering, a reason to go see a show, meet people, etc. After all my experience with juried shows, I can say it is very rare for anything more to amount from them, even if you win an award. I never got to meet the people who gave me awards for my work, so it's not like it was a networking thing. It was more of a validation thing.

  6. Wow, I am mesmerized by your photographs! I'm glad you shared those with us and hope to see more...please?

    I agree that motivations need always to be understood when setting oneself up for external judgement. My day-job (and all the training for it) is pubic in nature and all actions are periodically evaluated by various audiences. This sort of constantly-critiqued lifestyle is what drove me to learn an expressive art form: quilting. It's pure irony that I now enter my quilts into juried shows.

    1. Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed the photos. I posted old work from high school through college a while back. Here is one of the links:

      These days, I'll enter a juried show if I feel like I've got something I'd like to share, and often it will be a little outside the box. It's one way to test the waters if you're working with a new idea. My evolved goal in submitting work is to gather more information and feedback to fuel future work. Same thing can be done more quickly on social media, but there's something about being in an exhibit space with people circulating around, responding to the work. Not that we should hover by our quilts or anything, but being there is different than posting something online.

  7. Great perspective for any competitor. I quilt for myself to please myself. I don't always follow the "rules", so I seldom enter juried shows. It's nice to get the validation when you do win, but winning is not always the point.

    1. Winning was rarely the point of the great works of art throughout history, so you've hit on something important.

  8. I'm with you about quilting for yourself--do what pleases you! Every quilt I make has a story that unfolds during the creative process. I have tried entering my work in juried shows. Sometimes it is accepted and sometimes not. Occasionally, it even wins an award which is a wahoooo moment. Sometimes the judges comments are helpful; but, most of the time, I find the comments subjective and open to interpretation. The real reason I enter is to share my work. I like to go to quilt shows to be inspired and wowed and moved. Maybe someone viewing my work will be inspired and wowed and moved too! :) Great column!

  9. Wow - great stuff! I look forward to meeting you at QuiltCon and taking one of the tours :-)

  10. This hits home for me. I have dabbled with surface design for a while. I list my designs on Spoonflower and for a long time regularly entered the design challenges there. I found myself not so interested after years of doing it. A good placement only sometimes leads to sales. A design can sell even though it didn't place well. I make quilts, too, but don't have plans to enter any into a show. I came across the link to this in a comment on Juried entries for Quiltcon.

  11. I plan to share a link with some design friends.

  12. Great post, love all your photos! I avoided the whole QuiltCon thing this year and didn't even enter. Working a little self care instead.