Naked White Walls 

Idaho's annual awards for the creative among us

Lately my walls have been mad at me. "We're too bare!" they shout every time I walk in the door. One end table is also irate, as it's ornamented with a mere telephone and mug of pens.

I can now give my house what it yearns for: artwork, as Idaho artists are doing very interesting things these days. Thanks to the Idaho Commission on the Arts, seven artists statewide received fellowships May 9 to venerate their aesthetic endeavors and bring them to the attention of art aficionados-and owners of nagging white walls.

The Idaho Commission on the Arts is the official state agency for the support and development of the arts in Idaho. For the past 30 years, the commission has been promoting artistic excellence, education in the arts, access to the arts and community investment in the arts. The State of Idaho and National Endowment for the Arts fund the Commission and its programs; one of its program being an annual fellowship contest to recognize and reward skilled artisanship among creative Idahoans. Since 1985, the intention of these awards has been to promote public awareness-also known as boosting their careers. So three cheers for the winners who each receive $3,500.

The prize (which at one point was $5,000) is based on the state's budget, according to Barbara Robinson, commission artist services director. The budget was dramatically cut in 1996 and now is given to seven winners, when financially possible.

This year, three panelists first took a crack at the applications-a hearty pile of 44. They recommended 11 artists to the commission, comprised of 13 governor-appointed commissioners, who then approved the recommendations. Scores are based on the quality of art (85 percent) and on the applicant's art history, resume and community involvement (15 percent).

Earning a collective total of $24,500 and the opportunity to exhibit their work at various museums around the state, the winners this year are Eve-Marie Bergren, Boise, for book arts; Jim Budde, Boise, for ceramics; Scott E. Evans, Pocatello, for mixed media; Charles Gill, Boise, for painting; Grant Olsen, Boise, for mixed media; Lori Piccolo, Pocatello, for metalsmith arts; and Peter Vincent, Moscow, for photography.

There are four honorable mentions, who do not receive any prize outside the credit of being noted in their field: Rita Hutchens, Sandpoint; Jonathan Puls, Nampa; Lawrence Smart, McCall; and Stephanie Wilde, Boise.

Eve-Marie Bergren won the award for a book she created with another clever mind, Jan Marson, involving Bergren's 3-year-old child. Contractions is a collection of bound prints and watercolors, one image for each month of her pregnancy.

"Part of my question as an artist is how to be an artist and a mother," Bergren says. "It seems like a real conflict."

Like everyone else, her major concerns are time and money. But unlike most, Bergren now enjoys less worries because of the grant, a welcome relief.

"When I was pregnant I couldn't do anything, so I wrote a book," she explains. "It took two-and-a-half years to make this book happen. Literally it cost me as much money as I'm getting. It's really a labor of love-something I won't sell, something I'll display."

The title of the piece is as interesting as the concept; it's a double entendre. Or triple entendre? The word "contractions" represents various aspects of her pregnancy.

"There are many different layers," Bergren says of the title. "Contractions like 'I'm scared,' my labor contractions, the grammatical contractions-which in the book are actually done in green, the rest of the book is in black ink."

When I tell Bergren she's pretty much blown all other moms' baby books out of the water, she responds that the book is a hard thing to share. "It's really personal," she says wistfully. "But that's what I guess makes art powerful."

The unique aspect of this award is its lack of strings attached to the prize. Unlike other grants for which the winner must produce more art, this is just an award. Bergren says it will help pay for her child's daycare (ultimately giving her more time to work).

Another fellowship winner Grant Olsen says he will go to the dentist and use the money for a project as well. Olsen's department is mixed media, which he points out is the cheaters way of verbally encompassing all the mediums he employs. "Generally, I make work that involves a number of printing methods, painting methods, a number of different tools," Olsen says.

Typically his work functions as a series. "The way I was most strongly influenced as a kid was by comics," he says. "Each individual part of the series is like a comic unto itself, like a panel unto itself. When you put one next to another, they interact with each other."

For the fellowship application, Olsen presented two projects, one was a piece included in the Triennial exhibit not long ago, the other was a series of 16 four-foot panels based on the 1938 yearbook from University of Idaho southern branch. He titled it "Dear Betty" and bolted it to the back of the Record Exchange for three months in 2002.

The panel of judges must have liked his selection of methods. They commented, "The comic aspect is fresh with a high art-low art going on. It's a little all over the place-but in a good way."

That this award is such a stupendous honor to the artists who receive it is a given, but Robinson noted an angle of additional merit for Idaho: Not all states give money directly to artists. New Mexico, for example, (think Georgia O'Keefe, who we all know could have used a little pocket change) is legislatively prohibited from giving money directly to artists, according to Robinson.

"It's important Idaho has retained the ability to award individual artists," she said. "Even when times were tough, Idaho stuck it out and continued the program."

And thank goodness. Just look at everyone who benefits down the line: artists, artists' kids, landlords, local galleries, dentists and daycare owners-even my bare white walls.

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