Monday, March 09, 2009

SI Student Scholarship jurying, pt.1

I was invited to participate as a juror for the 2009 Society of Illustrators' Student Scholarship and Exhibition. It's a fantastic competition, with 5,596 entries from 1,795 participants from 80 schools this year. Prizes vary, from $250 up to $5000, and are cash prizes, which means you can use them for any sort of expenses you want as you continue or finish your education. Supplies, rent, food--or even a respite from your part-time job at the copy shop or art supply store so you can focus on your art--all of these are valid applications for the prize money. Fantastic. I wish I'd known about this competition when I was in school--my school participated this year, and I can only assume it did back in the day. However, I was a drawing major, not an illustration major, and since school administrators are the ones who submit work on behalf of their students, I did not learn about it.

Which is the first point I want to make: if you are in an illustration program somewhere and haven't heard about this, and you think you might have a chance for next year, contact your department administrators and ask them to get involved. If they don't know about it, contact the Society of Illustrators and they'll be happy to contact your school to get them clued in.

First round judging was a couple weeks back. Jurying 5,500+ pieces is a daunting process, and for those who enter the competition blind and wondering, perhaps it will be helpful knowing how jurying works. The Society accepts submissions digitally through their website. Submissions were broken up into a little over 1,100 per day. 25 jurors were broken into groups of 5 each day to view that day's batch, and the panel is different each day. Work seems to be randomized, so multiple entries by single artists never seemed to appear one after another, and often seemed broken up across various days.

Now the fun/crazy part. The jury gathers on the third floor of the Society (which I hadn't seen before), which is the library. There are 3 large, comfy couches arranged in a 'U' shape before a large screen, onto which are projected the submissions, one after another, about 5-6 seconds per image. Each juror is armed with a button (like in Jeopardy!) with which they can register their yes vote. There is no time for discussion during this phase of the jurying, it's simply everyone voting individually. Behind us, the votes are tallied per image--we can't see how each image did, and the person tallying cannot tell who voted for what. Votes are entered into the system, the next image is presented, someone calls out, "vote!" and we do. And on and on.

It works out basically like this: a unanimous yes vote (5), and you pass round 1 instantly. It also worked out that 4-vote images basically all passed round 1. But, you have to understand that only about 3% of the total images proceed to the second round, and only 25% of the students selected for round 2 will actually receive cash awards. It's pretty brutal. I worried, going in, that 5 seconds per image was going to be impossible. It turned out, and my fellow jurors agreed, that 5 seconds was absolutely plenty; often, it was more than was needed.

The reason is this: though this is all student work, quality work is INCREDIBLY good. I was blown away by the quality of what was truly excellent, the pieces that invariably got 4-5 votes. What was good was so good that it required no discussion, and 5 jurors from quite different artistic sensibilities and backgrounds easily agreed. In this sense, talent was truly objectively recognized. When at the end we saw a brief review of what had been chosen, there were no pieces that I strongly felt should've gone through, but which did not. Neither were there any pieces that I strongly thought should not have gotten through that did. Everyone on my day's panel agreed with this assessment.

That said, part of what made the good so apparent was that the bottom of the barrel was...well, there's no way to say it, but it was really poor. Again, these folks are students and presumably they are in school to learn how to make great art. So I can only hope that they regroup, work hard for another year, improve, and try again. And then there was the big, squishy middle--students with some talent, who are still working through all that needs working out on the path of becoming professional illustrators, stuff I've had to work through myself. I saw many mistakes that I have made, many familiar awkward aspects from my own history.

But like I said, the talent among the finalists was phenomenal. There were many students who were doing truly professional work already, and it will be a privilege to award some of them with scholarship money to encourage their growth as illustrators. Since mine was the final day, we were able to get a sneak peek and see all the images that had made it to round 2. It was a quick look, but it looked like our fellow jurors' choices were equally satisfying.

Art is presented anonymously, and the name of the school is not displayed either (lest anyone favor an Alma Mater). These could be seen afterwards, however, which was interesting. Work of all sorts of styles progressed, in all sorts of mediums. I saw no evidence of medium/stylistic prejudice among the jurors, only a prejudice for skill, quality drawing (even if used in non-traditional ways), great ideas, and clear readability. So, if you did not get through this year, I hope that this does two things 1.)Quells any grumbling you might have that the jurying was somehow unfair, and 2.)Encourages you to strive to greater heights. I was proud to be part of the process, particularly because it seemed very fair, and at least my panel of co-jurors were all knowledgeable and insightful when we did talk, mainly between sessions and during lunch. 2008's winners are on view on the Society website, to give an indication of the quality of the final winners under a different jury.

So competitive was the field, that I sat back afterward and thought about my own student work--of all that I did, how many individual pieces of mine would I, now, have even pressed my own button for? The answer, quite honestly: 1. That's it.

Round 2 followed a few weeks later, with students mailing-in chosen original art (or prints of digital work). The hard work started there--deciding between excellent work for the awarding of scholarship money. More on that next time. Thanks to Scott Bakal for providing exact statistics for this post!