The Thoughts of A Sculpture Judge

created for Best of Artists and Artisans web site
By Bridgette Mongeon © 2008

Seven Houston, Texas-area high school students were selected as grand-prize winners in the eighth annual Culture Shapers Visual Arts competition, winning $5,000 each. With more than 1,370 entries, the competition awarded $83,000 to 71 students at a January 31 ceremony held at Westfield High School. In addition to the grand-prize winners, dozens of other finalists received cash prizes ranging from $250 to $2,500.

The competition’s seven categories include Drawing, Electronic Media, Film, Mixed Media, Painting, Photography and Sculpture. Many of the students entered and placed in multiple categories.

I am one of the three sculptors that judge annually for the Culture Shapers Art contest.  The sculpture category contains a variety of sculpture–clay, wire, welded bronze, glass, jewelry, and fabric, basically anything 3D that does not fit into the other categories. The two other judges that accompany me in the sculpture category are Richard Fielden and Ben Woitena.  It is a good mix of judges, because our styles and background in sculpting are all quite different.  When I come across a piece in the competition that is created in a different medium than what I am familiar with, such as carved alabaster or a welded abstract, I fall back on the expertise of these two men.  I am not; however, bashful about sharing my own opinion and fighting for the pieces that I love.    

It is important to have more than one judge and to have time to communicate with each other about the pieces. Often one judge may notice something about a piece that another will not. This is easy to do when you are looking at so many pieces of art.  I am always reminded of the Esther Ruiz piece in 2003.  Upon first glance it was easy to walk by this entry.  I refer to it as “Baby in a box,” but the title is “Unbecoming Becoming”. Upon the initial viewing, you would think that this piece was nothing, but upon close investigating there was much more to this sculpture than met the eye.  The other judges were glad that I pointed it out.

Judging for many years, I am still surprised at how subjective the process is.  I try to express this to the students.  Just because your piece did not make it into this show, does not mean it would not place in another show. It really depends on the judges and their likes and dislikes.  I even overheard one judge state that they mark the student’s work lower if they have misspellings on their entry forms. I was appalled at this statement. We are not judging their spelling but their creative process, and as an artist and writer who struggled with spelling, I know these two are not the same.

There are, of course, pieces that you see where you know that the students did not push themselves as far as they could.  Creating has that false point of abandonment. It gets difficult and often you must wrestle with it. But if you say, “I give up,” it shows in the work. It is said that artwork is never finished, only abandoned, but this “good” abandonment comes after a great deal of wrestling. Those who could not stay with the fight in their own creative process never make the cut to the finals.

This year there were no arguments between the judges when it came to the grand prize in the sculpture category. You can tell that Hung Pahm with the piece “Verbal Struggle” really wrestled to the final “good” abandonment.  It was the artist’s description that made me think about this piece of art. The piece by Pahm was created after moving to America and reflects the struggle of not being able to speak the language.  This is apparent in the sewn lips, but it had not occurred to me that it not only affects the speaking but the hearing, and this was cleverly displayed by this artist’s omission of ears!  

These descriptions are so important to me as a judge. They give the piece meaning. My eyes glass over when I read a description that states, “I created this artwork because the teacher made us create in clay.” It is honest, but it lends nothing to the emotion of the piece. And I must say, I judge on emotion.

You can sense the uncertainty of the future in many of the young artists.  Their own inner struggle with growing up, leaving home, and becoming what they should be. This is apparent in the 2nd Place winner’s piece by Anda Brown, “I am only Human.”  Close observation shows the rocks have statements such as “great expectations, measure up, have it all, ugly.” The head turns on a base, amidst the wall of thoughts.

Often there are pieces that I become emotionally involved with. That was the case with  “All that’s left,” by Merlene Robertson. I would have placed this piece much higher; however, there are other judges.  Subjectivity is apparent when I explain my reasons, “My daughter recently graduated college and left home.”  This sculpture depicts the empty nest.  Certainly it is my own emotion that swayed my judging of this piece, but it was the artist’s work that brought that emotion to the surface, and that, in my opinion, should be accredited to the artist. Of course I love to look at the art in other categories.  There was one painting on painting section of the Culture Shapers website that I thought was spectacular, and I could not wait to see it in person. In fact, it was one of the reasons I looked forward to the awards night. It was Ahra Cho’s Self- Portrait. I was very disappointed because it only received honorable mention and it was not displayed at the awards ceremony. 

I cannot look at the finalist on the sculpting section of the Culture Shaper website without noticing that Teacher Bob Mosier from The John Cooper School had four students in the finals and two students in honorable mention, along with Terri Fotz-Fox from Clear Creek High School who was the teacher behind this years first and second place winners.   My hat goes off to all teachers who invest their time into coaxing out the creativity and encouraging the wrestling to continue until the final “good” abandonment of the student’s artwork.

Onward with our own creative wrestling! Remembering that the opinion of artwork is subjective, and our job is to push ourselves past wanting to give up and striving onward until the final “good” abandonment of our sculpted work.Here are a few of my favorites from other categories.

Here are a few of my favorites from other categories.

4th Place: Painting
Lauren Laumbach

4th Place Drawing
“Abba, Father”
Autumn Farrell

8th Place Drawing
Abby Cho

Honorable mention
“Colors of an Enlightened World”
Meng Chen

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