Meet the Four Artists Who Won $1,000 MasterMind Awards

What do origami, giant squid, petri dishes, and a laundromat have in common? If you guessed the first New Times Broward/Palm Beach MasterMind Awards, you'd be right. Our paper recently held a contest to recognize movers and shakers in the local arts community. Thanks to a sponsor, the Amplitude Academy of Musical Arts (a new music school in Boca Raton), that translated into $1,000 each for four lucky denizens of the Broward/Palm Beach art scene: Francene Levinson, Skot Olsen, Victoria Skinner, and Kara Walker-Tomé.

The competition, which will take place annually, attracted more than 150 entries. A panel of judges, myself included, convened over Peruvian food to select the four winners from more than three dozen finalists. It was a daunting task, but the four were chosen on the first ballot, using a weighted vote system that ensured a strong consensus. Those winners were announced Saturday night at the multimedia event Artopia, also sponsored by New Times.

Here's a look at the four artists and their work:

• Francene Levinson's earliest audience was her mother, whose kitchen doubled as the aspiring artist's first display space. With her mom's encouragement, Levinson went on to study at Brooklyn College, where she received her B.A. in fine art and a master's in art education. That's also where she was taught by such big-name artists as Philip Pearlstein and Ad Reinhardt, whom she says "significantly influenced my love of color, form, and design."

The Boca Raton-based Levinson was also a teacher herself for more than a decade. She has long been interested in origami, the Japanese art of folding paper, and along the way she discovered its Chinese counterpart, zhe zhi, which is the source of her most recent creations. She also sculpts in stone and plaster, but it was her elaborate works in paper that captivated the judges.

According to Levinson's website, francenelevinson.com, her paper sculptures are made up of as many as 3,500 individual paper "units," each of which is fashioned from a small rectangular piece of recycled paper that has been folded nine times before it is glued to other units. Imagine an elegant vase that turns out to be made not of glass or ceramic but of these tiny paper units and you'll have an idea of Levinson's labor-intensive work.

• The only painter among the competition's winners is Sunrise-based Skot Olsen, who has been knocking around South Florida since 1997. Like Levinson, he traces the origins of his art to his childhood, when he developed a lifelong interest in the marine world that informs his work to this day. He says his first "real" painting was of a sailboat, and he toyed with the idea of becoming a marine biologist before turning to art.

Although Olsen considers himself "attached" to the so-called "lowbrow art movement," he admits that his work rarely draws on the themes common to such art. "The subjects of most of my work are the sea, religion, and the human condition," he says on his website, skotolsen.com. "Often, all three are mixed into the same composition." His portrait of Saint Architeuthis, which imagines the patron saint of doomed sailors as a miter-wearing giant squid, is typical.

Olsen usually works in series as opposed to standalone paintings. One series might deal with steamboats in the Florida history of the 1800s; another might focus on plants with psychotropic qualities. The artist acknowledges Walt Disney as an influence, especially Fantasia and Pinocchio, as well as East Indian art. I also detect the influence of the hallucinogenic surrealism associated with Dali.

• A list of the interests of the mixed-media artist Victoria Skinner includes entropy, neurobiology, radiographs, anatomy, animal life and nature, art history, and pattern and texture. Not surprisingly, she confesses on her website, vskinner.com, "I enjoy blurring boundaries; between human and animal, organic and mechanical, science and art, imagination and knowledge."

The Lake Worth-based Skinner has an MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art and has taught at the college level in Florida and Pennsylvania. She is also a recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the State of Florida, and the South Florida Cultural Consortium for Visual & Media Artists.

Some of Skinner's recent, hard-to-describe work involves petri dishes, digitally manipulated imagery, and cyanotype process, a 19th-century method of processing photographs.

• Think of Kara Walker-Tomé as a sort of art-world agent provocateur. Rather than create art herself, she stirs up artists by providing unusual venues in which they can practice their art, which often takes the form of installations or performances.

For "Housework" (2003), for instance, Walker-Tomé, who previously worked for the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art and the Armory Art Center, took over an empty house and invited ten artists to create site-specific art for it. An annual event, "Washbowl Performance," transforms a working laundromat into a site for after-hours performances. And the upcoming "10 x 10," now in its third year, bills itself as the only exhibition that takes place in a self-storage facility.

The Lake Worth-based Walker-Tomé worried that nominating herself for a Master­Mind Award might seem egocentric but says, "I obviously came around to the idea!" After all, she rationalized, she's "the only person consistently creating these shows as an independent organizer and producer." The judges agreed. Her projects are documented at artsitepictures.shutterfly.com.

 
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