Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Gold Medal Winner for "King of The Wild Things": Behind the Scenes and How it Feels to Win GOLD

Last month, I was honored to receive two awards for my painting, "King of the Wild Things," at the 31st Annual Oil Painters of America National Juried Exhibition and Convention. Not only was my painting voted to receive "Members' Choice," but it was also given the highest honor: the gold medal! This year's juror was two-time gold medalist Johanna Harmon, who is one of my favorite painters and someone I look up to. And this award... well, it's one I've been chasing for quite a few years. It was one of those boxes I always hoped to check, but very few artists ever get to. 

Needless to say, I've been on cloud nine for the past month.

Lots of you have been asking about this painting -- the inspiration and story behind it, how I created this piece, and of course, what it was like to win a gold medal!

So today I thought I'd share everything I can about "King of the Wild Things" and how this painting came to be.

 "King of the Wild Things," 30x30", oil on linen (private collection). Frame by Masterworks Frames.

I started the painting last fall. It followed closely on the heels of a painting I had done of my daughter, called "A Child Will Lead Them." That idea had been strongly ingrained in my mind's eye for a long time, and so was the idea for "King of the Wild Things." Both images involved children as the central subject, and wild animals to help create a narrative. Both ideas were also based on children's literature. In this case, I was inspired partly by the watercolor paintings of Steve Hanks depicting children in Halloween costumes, but of course the larger idea is borrowed from Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, "Where the Wild Things Are." I felt like the story of young Max, who seeks to exert his independence and create a kingdom of his own, is relatable to all of us.  On a more personal note: my 3-year-old son Everett--the model for this painting--is at a stage where he is doing just that. He pushes every boundary, fights me on every decision, and wants so badly to be his own person, or simply, to do whatever he wants! I love him so, yet this has been one of the hardest chapters of my life as a parent. He was actually kicked out of his preschool this past April, so I've had him home with me all summer. He is a special boy, with a journey of his own that we are navigating together. This painting was my own way of acknowledging the joy and the struggle of raising a son.

In my original concept for the painting, I envisioned him being full length, with a large bear looming behind him. The bear might symbolize both a protector, and the boy's own independent spirit. But after playing around with lots of compositional ideas in Photoshop, I concluded that it would be more personal and intimate of an encounter, if I cropped him halfway, placed him center stage looking directly at the viewer, and made the animals less prominent. They still have a "watchful guardian" quality to them which I enjoy, but you almost don't notice them until you've already spent some time examining the painting. 

I wanted Everett's expression to be a mixture of audacity and vulnerability. I also wanted to show the beauty of letting a child be free in their element. Let them play with sticks, let them get dirty, let them be bored so they can use their imagination. These moments are gone in an instant. For the reference photos of Everett in his "Max" costume, we had driven an hour and a half into the Rocky Mountains last October. We parked the car and I just let him run through the woods. By the end of the photo shoot he was covered in leaves and dirt, and it was PERFECT.

I was fortunate enough to get some excellent reference photos among the mountain aspens, so thankfully I didn't have to change a whole lot in my composition, other than moving a few trees around, and adjusting some values. The bright sky gave Everett some backlighting, and helped create a design that was predominantly dark, but with the sky and Everett's body as the main lights. 

As for the animals... I didn't have any reference photos I could use that I had taken myself. I ended up Googling "wildlife cam photos," and found lots of great--albeit mostly black and white, or fuzzy--shots of animals coming towards the camera. I didn't need them to be perfect; I just needed them to work for the pose and expression I was looking for. In the end I changed all the colors and values to suit the painting and to make them feel like they belonged in the scene. I also "reversed" a couple of them in Photoshop, so that they were positioned exactly how I wanted them.

After the painting was finished last fall, I let it hang in my home for a while. I knew I wanted to save it for something special. With so little time to paint these days, I have had to be smarter and more selective about the number of shows I enter. And as I mentioned in my last post... the deadlines tend to happen all at the same time! I decided to save "King of the Wild Things" for the Oil Painters of America National Exhibition. Sure enough... it got in, and it sold to a collector before they even hung it on the museum walls! 

The exhibition and convention this year was held in Steamboat Springs, CO, just three hours from our home. My family and I spent the week out there and had a wonderful time; I painted in the wet paint competition, and got to see many old friends and acquaintances. I enjoyed giving a portrait demonstration alongside my dear friend Raj Chaudhury. I also got to meet one of my favorite authors, Ross King, who gave a delightful presentation about Monet during the four-day convention. 

The opening reception and awards ceremony were held Friday, June 3. That was when I saw my painting in the museum for the first time, and I was stunned by how prominently they had displayed it, and how perfectly it was lit. The painting looked amazing!

With my painting, and my family, at the opening reception.

Everett was in meltdown mode...

Cecelia felt a bit jealous of all the attention Everett was getting...

OPA is notable for being incredibly generous with the number of awards they give out, and for their top awards being some of the most financially substantial of any American arts organization.  They are also a group that unabashedly aims to give women artists plenty of opportunities to attain board positions, OPA Master status, or to jury shows and win awards in regional and national exhibitions. In fact, the top three winners of this year's competition were all women! You can see the full list of award winners here.

When my name was called to receive "Member's Choice," I remember feeling like I could truly go home happy, because getting voted for by my peers is the highest honor! I did not anticipate any further awards. However, when the very last award was announced and they said my name, I was completely overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. 

As a mom, this year has been an especially challenging season of life to find time and energy for painting, much less for creating works of art that are exceptional. So winning the gold medal felt like the biggest affirmation of my career, and it was even better knowing that my children were involved in the process. I didn't win in spite of them; I won because of them.

Sporting my gold medal, alongside OPA President Suzie Baker, and awards juror Johanna Harmon.

That being said... if you are a fellow artist, I hope in reading this you will be inspired, not discouraged. Let's face it, most of us spend long hours in our studios, out of the public eye, with no real idea whether or not our work will resonate with collectors or awards jurors. But I think that's what makes being an artist so special - you do the work because you have to, you are compelled to -- it's an extension of yourself and your spirit. I want to encourage you, especially if you're an artist mama like me... to keep painting for shows and competitions, and to paint with intention. You never know.  A painting that doesn't get accepted to one show, might win the top award at another. We have to celebrate our successes no matter how big or small, because art is a tough career choice. And a win for an artist is a win for ART and its priceless contribution to a world that is in dire need of beauty.

HUGE THANKS to all of you who voted for me, congratulated me, and celebrated with me. It means more to me than you'll ever know. Thank you!

Below: please enjoy this little clip from the Denver morning local news, which aired July 4, 2022. I'm so thankful for the opportunity to represent Denver artists, artist mothers, and Oil Painters of America! 


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