Grand Rapids ArtPrize revisited

by CLIFF AND NANCY HILL 

Artist Mia Tavonatti and Squire reporter Nancy Hill stand before “Svetlata,” a stained glass mosaic portrait that was awarded second place in the 2010 ArtPrize competition. photo by CLIFF HILL

Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What one person may love, another person may thoroughly dislike. Add 1,713 artists from around the world displaying individual works of art into the mix and the result is the amazing Grand Rapids ArtPrize competition. Building upon last year’s initial launch of the world’s largest art competition, this year’s version was even more amazing and spectacular. ArtPrize dominated the greater Grand Rapids area news for most of September and on into early October in addition to causing a lot of buzz in the national and worldwide news media.

Chosen by 38,501 active voters casting a total of 465,538 votes in two rounds over 15 days, the rankings of the top ten pieces of the 2010 ArtPrize competition were announced last Thursday evening.

Picking up where we left off last year, your reporters spent the prior week seeking out the artists at their respective venues to attempt to get an inside perspective of their individual works of art. Focusing on the top three winners, here’s what we gleaned.

We found the third-place ($50,000) winner Beili Liu, creator of “Lure/Wave,” street-side just as dark was falling one evening outside her ground floor venue in the new still-under-construction UICA on Fulton Street. ArtPrize attendees were separated from Liu’s creation and could only view the ethereal work through the street-side windows because of ongoing construction to the building. Even though the installation was meant to be walked through, it visually struck a cord in enough voters to place third in the prestigious competition.

Throughout ArtPrize, long lines led to the showing of “Cavalry, American Officers, 1921,” a pencil drawing by Chris LaPorte, that took the coveted first-place award in this year’s ArtPrize. photo by CLIFF HILL

Liu’s spellbinding work was beautiful. “It is meant to depict the ancient Chinese legend that tells when children are born, invisible red threads connect them to the ones whom they [we] are fated to be with. Over the years of their lives, they come closer and eventually they find each other, overcoming the distance between, and cultural and social divides,” explained Liu.

Ten to twelve miles of red thread were required to create three to four thousand hand-spiraled coils of red thread discs, each connected one to another by a single thread. Every coil disc is pierced in the center by a sewing needle, which enables the suspension of the discs from the ceiling. If viewers had been allowed entrance to walk through the venue space, the resulting air currents from their movement would cause the discs to rise and fall dramatically. It would have been mesmerizing.

Second-place ($100,000) winner Mia Tavonatti, creator of a stained glass mosaic portrait titled “Svetlata” that was displayed in the atrium of Devos Place, told us, “My very DNA can be found throughout my piece.” Those of us who have worked in stained glass know just what she is referring to. One cannot work with cut pieces of stained glass without inevitably cutting themselves with the razor sharp shards on the edges of the glass.

ArtPrize third-place finisher Beili Liu stands before “Lure/Wave,” a suspended red thread and disc depiction of a Chinese legend that required 1,000 square feet of floor space to display. photo by CLIFF HILL

“Svetlata” was recreated from a photograph taken of the artist herself as she tenaciously clung to rocks in a tidal pool in Hawaii as every seventh wave of a high tide tried to pull her out to sea. The 6×16-foot mosaic portrait was composed of countless thousands of pieces of individually hand-cut glass requiring 2,500 hours to complete. Its breathtaking and shimmering beauty appears from a distance to be an oil portrait.

Tenacity seemed to be part of Tavonatti’s very being as she told us, “I have been here with my mosaic portrait almost every minute of ArtPrize, telling and selling ‘Svetlata.’” Indeed, it paid off.

The coveted first-place ($250,000) prize went to Chris LaPorte, the creator of “Cavalry, American Officers, 1921,” an amazing 2H pencil-on-paper drawing some 30 feet long by 10 feet high.

LaPorte told us, “’Cavalry’ is a portrait of men who must have survived horrific events to preserve what we experience today.”

LaPorte’s pencil drawing recreated a distressed photo of a group of Army cavalry officers taken in 1921 at Camp Grant, Ill., which he found in a Grand Rapids area antique store. The painstaking creation of “Cavalry” took LaPorte eight months to do, finishing just a week before ArtPrize began.

Could you imagine the possibility of this huge flying pig on display in the about-to-be-created green space resulting from the demolition of the WWW tannery? photo by CLIFF HILL

Each face depicted in the drawing is a portrait in its own right. “Cavalry” is a true work of art that cannot be appreciated with just a single viewing. Viewers will be compelled to return to the work (currently on display at the Grand Rapids Art Museum) time and time again to view each and every face depicted in the portrait and only imagine what was seen by the eyes and in the minds of those heroic men.

All 10 finalists, prior to the announcement of the top three winners, expressed the opinion that winning would be wonderful but, more importantly, they treasured the opportunity to show their art to a huge multitude of people. Incidentally, each of the top three have strong Michigan connections. LaPorte is a Michigan native who currently teaches drawing at Aquinas College. Tavonatti was raised in Iron Mountain, Mich. Liu received her master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Michigan.

We can’t end this article without mentioning our conversation with Joachim Jensen, one of the co-creators of the over-the-top whimsical “Steam Pig Experiment.” The huge “Steam Pig” towered above the parking lot in front of the BOB. Hugely popular, especially among children, the sculpture finished ninth in the competition. Jensen, you may recall, was a collaborator in the creation of “Nessie” during last year’s ArtPrize competition.

Jensen told us, “I would love to open a dialogue with Rockford City Manager Michael Young and Wolverine World Wide about the possibility of finding a home for ‘Steam Pig’ in the 11-acre riverside green space that will soon be created with the demolition of the WWW tannery.”

One can only imagine the sweet irony of a colossal flying pig rising above the grounds of a tannery that at one time in its history tanned pigskins! Doesn’t that bring a smile to your face?

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