Our Critic Enters — and Lives to Tell the Tale of — a Starving Artist Competition

As one character says to another in the 1992 indie film The Living End, "You know what they say: Those who can't do, teach, and those who can't teach get paid 25 cents a word to rip other people's work to shreds." No longer content with doing the latter, I decided to enter an art competition.

Actually, it's a little more complicated than that. It all started when I unearthed my trusty old 35mm camera for a trip to the rural Deep South and set out to photograph found objects. I found such objects in abundance and came back with more than a hundred shots.

With the help of friends, including a couple of professional artists, I edited my images down to a dozen or so that we agreed were especially strong, then had them enlarged. Further emboldened by one of the pros, I settled on the 9th Annual Starving Artist Competition and Exhibit at the Broward County Library for my debut. "Baby's first show," I joked around the office. Besides, enduring what working artists go through on a regular basis in their quest for recognition would make me a more empathetic critic, I reasoned.

The author as artist: Michael Mills' Coaster.
The author as artist: Michael Mills' Coaster.

Details

"The 9th Annual Starving Artist Competition and Exhibit," through September 9 at Gallery 6, Broward County Main Library, 100 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-491-1596 or 954-304-1596.

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Little did I know what I was in for.

First came further winnowing my selections down to four, the limit on the number of entries per person. I know it's a cliché among creative people to characterize their output as their children, but it really was like singling out four kids to go on to finishing school while their siblings languished at home, barefoot and neglected.

It was only later that, in discussions with an artist friend, I realized what I had done. While narrowing a selection of her own work down for a group exhibition, she spoke of choosing works that, collectively, represented her sensibility. Yes, I thought feverishly, that's it! What my sensibility was, exactly, I wouldn't arrive at until later, but I was sure I had one.

Armed with my four finalists, I headed off to the framer, another professional artist I trusted implicitly to help showcase my work to best advantage. The flier encouraged creativity in framing, but with one exception, we opted for a straightforward, even conservative approach, the better to keep the emphasis on the photos themselves.

A few weeks later, I emerged from the frame shop, roughly $350 poorer. For the remaining weeks before the show, they blanketed my dining room table, providing ample opportunity for me to reflect on their aesthetic implications.

I imagine most working artists have long ago passed this point, but for a while, I basked in the thrill of being able to point to something and say, "I made that!" But then I moved on to thinking about that aforementioned expression of sensibility. When we look at the result of a creative endeavor, what does it tell us about the person who made it?

In my case, I picked up on a preoccupation with form, an interest in pattern and texture, even to the point of abstraction. In terms of content, I discovered that I am drawn to old things, particularly objects that have been used and cast aside. If there is a patina of rust or dust or debris, so much the better. It seemed that I had uncovered poignancy in such objects.

All that changed when I saw the works in situ. I stepped off the elevator into Gallery 6 at the Broward Main Library and, no fanfare, found myself surrounded by art. No sign welcoming me to "The 9th Annual Starving Artist Competition and Exhibit," just art, art, and more art — easily at least a hundred pieces in all media. It was overwhelming, and not necessarily in the ways I had anticipated.

My four little photographs — they certainly seemed small now — were stacked vertically in a column on a wall facing outward from the show. The bottom one, my personal favorite, was barely above floor level, so that to see it properly, much less appreciate it, you'd have to squat or even lie down.

As for "breathing room" for individual works — what a quaint concept! In short, the show seemed less curated than assembled. Such was my welcome to the real art world.

I quickly moved on to sizing up the competition. There seemed to be less emphasis on photography than I had expected, which I figured upped the odds of my winning one of the exhibition's 14 prizes. And in general, a lot of the work on display, in all media, struck the critic in me as being a little on the cheesy side.

Then I suddenly realized that this sort of thinking was contrary to what this whole project had been about when I embarked on it. I had set out to experience the full creative process, and on that count, at least, I had succeeded, regardless of whether I won an award or sold even a single photograph. That was what it was all about. Would I do it all again? Absolutely.

 
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