S&AM Awards display unconventional art

BY RILEY UBBEN | APRIL 21, 2011 7:20 AM

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New York artist and University of Iowa alum Sam Gassman makes sure that his annual Smithing and Arts Materials Awards push the envelope beyond what art competitions are supposed to be. That is, just far enough to keep out of trouble.

“We could push it a lot more, but I don’t want to have the prize shut down every year by the regents,” he said. “We don’t want to be so clever that we put ourselves out of business, but we want to push the palette, and play with some of the more taboo subjects, and hope that people will see them fresh ways.”

The entries for the competition’s 11th year will be on display and open to the public at 7:30 p.m. today in the atrium of the Studio Arts Building. Artists of all media will be considered, and the first- and second-place winners will receive prizes of $1,000 and $500, respectively. Admission is free.

Gassman picks the top entries with the help of art aficionado Simonette Hakim and a guest judge, who changes every year. This year’s third judge is New York decorative-arts designer Federico de Vera, but the judges don’t necessarily have to be active members of the art world.

“One year we had the circus-maximus theme, and we had the bearded lady of Coney Island, Jennifer Miller, [as a judge],” Gassman said. “Her perspective gave a really interesting bend to it. She talked about the filth under the bleachers, the smashed popcorn, and the stench of the animals. Aspects of student work just came totally alive. That’s why it’s cool to have non-artists looking at the art, too.”

Past judges have been a porn star, a belly dancer, a psychiatrist, a plastic surgeon, or anyone else that Gassman felt fit the theme, which is portrayed in a poster created each year by him and another graphic designer.

This year’s poster depicts a shadow of an arm with the word “outline” repeated around the outside of the picture. Gassman encourages simple and loose interpretations, so, as always, interpretations will vary greatly.

UI M.F.A. student Carrie Metheney saw the hand in the poster and thought of sign language.

“I’ve taken the whole alphabet in sign language and drawn it out on [a computer program] and then plasma cut it [out of aluminum],” she said. “So it’s kind of this huge flower, sculptural piece made out of hands.”

Del Jackson, another participant and M.F.A. student, is taking a less literal approach. Noticing the lonely aesthetic of the poster, he chose to have his entry examine suicide.

“The poster is kind of dark and shadowy,” he said. “I looked at it and thought of someone sitting in the room alone, and that got me thinking of people committing suicide.”

His piece is a medicine cabinet that he rigged with Plexiglas and lights to reveal medicine bottles on the inside.

Not all entries are three-dimensional. For last year’s competition, UI alum Amber O’Harrow entered a sketch that took a unique approach to the theme and the process of drawing.

“My first degree was in fiber work, so I just decided to start ‘knitting’ with my drawing and just knitted the whole page,” she said. “The theme that year was ‘Killing Time.’ I thought that kind of went well with it, because I was just sitting there doing squiggles.”

Gassman and the judges liked her “knitted drawing” enough to award her the second-place prize.

O’Harrow believes the encouragement that the Smithing Awards provides was crucial for her as a student and still is for up-and-coming artists at the UI.

“When you’re working as a student, you’re just sort of doing all this stuff, and you don’t know what other people think of it,” she said. “It was really nice to get that positive feedback.”

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