Financial independence is key for an artist to enjoy creative freedom. For this reason, the importance of grants, fellowships and other types of financial support cannot be underestimated. These programs allow artists to focus on creative work without the need to make money through some other occupation, enlivening our cultural environment with new and innovative artworks and contributing to the economic and educational life of our communities.
Recognizing this need, the Ohio Arts Council (OAC) has provided grants to individual artists for more than 25 years. The organization celebrates this contribution to Ohio's artistic heritage with Celebration of Creativity: OAC Fellowships 1980-2005, on view at the Weston Art Gallery through Jan. 13. What a perfect time for a celebration, too -- after six years of budget cuts, the OAC received an 11.1 percent budget increase for its 2008/2009 fiscal year.
The exhibition features 18 past recipients of the OAC's Individual Excellence award. The competition for these $5,000 to $10,000 grants is fierce, with only about 8 percent of applicants receiving funding. Applicants must be Ohio residents for at least one year prior to the application deadline and remain in the state for the duration of the grant. A panel of distinguished artists and arts professionals evaluates the entries for artistic vision, stylistic or conceptual innovation, craftsmanship and expertise and creative use of the artist's chosen medium.
The Weston show has winnowed down the pool even more, with three curators selecting works from southern, central and northern Ohio.
Only after reading the exhibition catalogue did I realize that six of the most interesting and innovative works in the show were selected by the Weston's own director, Dennis Harrington, a testament to the quality of art being made in the Cincinnati area and to Harrington's discerning eye.
Painter Brian Joiner (Cincinnati) reinvents his work constantly. His recent works in the exhibition layer mixed media within resin and invite a closer look. "Islands under the Sea" offers amorphous surfaces of pigment, collage and swirls of color that resemble polished slices of granite.
Ana England's (Felicity) "Nebulae" mimic small paintings until further inspection reveals their true medium of raku-fired ceramic. Milky forms emerge from the darkness, bringing to mind the astronomical phenomenon in the title. Cole Carothers' (Milford) paintings toy with the traditional genre of still life, showing the interior of the artist's studio with its bottles of solvents, used paint tubes and brushes. In "Big," a small self-portrait appears in the glass of an old-fashioned view camera, recalling the tiny reflected self-portraits so often found in 17th-century Dutch still lifes.
The subjects in Dennis Savage's (South Bloomingville) beautifully photographed portraits of people from Appalachia engage the viewer with unflinching gazes, their presence paralleled by organic props native to the regional landscape. The strong, slender form of the girl in "Caroline with Lotus" is echoed by the graceful curve of the lotus flower, just as the thin, sagging flesh of the aging man in "Al with Hornet's Nest" resonates with the papery, drooping surface of the nest he holds.
Ron Kroutel (Athens) creates painted paradoxes of natural and man-made landscape. "Yellow House/Mound" features an isolated, empty-looking suburban house. A silhouetted gnarly tree limb looms above, and a green mound -- perhaps natural, perhaps the remnants of a construction site -- stands on the horizon.
Todd Reynolds' (Portsmouth) large painting "The Sweet Smells and Stink of Summer" makes a striking impression from across the gallery. Painted in a thick, limited palette of reds, oranges and golds, the surreal scene combines a central figure holding a big fish before a background of war vignettes.
Curated by Kay Koeninger, assistant professor of art at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, and Kitty McManus Zurko, director and curator of the College of Wooster Art Museum, the central and northern regions offer standouts as well.
Kate Budd's (Akron) delicately sculpted wax forms evoke the strange creatures from David Lynch films of the 1980s. Simultaneously peaceful and disturbing, the tiny figure in "Pupa" lies on its side, nothing but a smooth, white, translucent blob with legs asleep atop a meticulously crafted poplar pillar.
Most of the artists have received one or two OAC awards. The record-holders in the exhibition -- both with a whopping five past grant awards -- reside in Columbus. James Friedman's surprising, large-format "Interior Design" photographs reveal the beauty within the tightly engineered interiors of golf balls. With their concentric rings of purple, green, red and white, they resemble abstract paintings in the vein of Jasper Johns' targets. Alan Crockett's commanding painting "Tableau" revels in the process of drawing and painting, with loose brushstrokes that suggest the beginnings of layered forms, creating a sense of space out of abstract, gestural shapes.
Competitive as these grants are, they are an incredible opportunity for serious artists, both emerging and established. So, get cracking, Ohio artists -- you've got eight months to prepare. The next deadline for OAC Individual Excellence grant applications is Sept. 1, 2008. Grade: B+
CELEBRATION OF CREATIVITY is on view at Weston Art Gallery through Jan. 13. Get details and find nearby restaurants and bars here.