On the Subject of Awards
(and how they can help improve your practice)
by Ian Cooke-Tapia
October is, apparently, when I make my best work.
Perhaps it is a fact of the season: as time spent outdoors transitions from gardening and hammocks to a test of one’s ability to function without heat or light, the manic momentum made possible by summer must be channelled into something, anything!, before a wet and bone-cold winter zaps away any creative energy. Perhaps it is something entirely different, but something does happen when greens give way to the reds and oranges of autumn.
October has been, for the last two years, the month when my manic creative energy is suddenly channelled. Mind you, this is in reaction to external forces, and that conversation about self-drive is an entirely different article altogether. These forces and their common denominators have less to do with the real subject of this little essay than with what they themselves have in common; limitations on theme and subject matter; challenges on what style means and what mine is and what it does; the design philosophy of limited time (deadline) as means to either force out the great ideas out of us like a wringed sponge, or to make them out of hammering a meh concept into shape with the hammer of labour. No, I am not talking about client briefs, but rather competitions – Awards! Celebrations of the best *insert sector*’s has to offer, and a little of self-serving back-patting. Coincidentally, it is in October when I decide to participate in these Awards (or at the very least when I remember to).
When a client approaches you with a brief or a contract, it usually means that they’ve found you; you’re a fit, stylistically, monetarily or even personally, for the narrative they have in mind. But unlike these commercial relationships, Awards do not have such an active role in the process of delivering artwork. They do, however, test an artist’s skills in a very different way. Clients want what clients want (or what they think they think they want) and that oft-times isn’t conducive to one’s best work. But knowing that your illustrations and ideas are going to be judged based on their skill, execution and impact against that of a worldwide colleagues and experts? That, right there, is wood to a fire!
For me, this all started around August or September 2016, when I became aware of the Nami Concours, a biennial competition sponsored by Nami Island that “aims to offer opportunities for illustrators to showcase their creative talents and raise the quality and standard of picture book illustration.” I have to say, in the argumentative superiority of hindsight, that it was successful. While very open-ended, the competition’s limitations (illustrations for picture books, visual narrative, textless) made me think how I could start to tell complex stories within a single image, as well as how I could tell them with less colours, less details, less… well, less work. Time was of the essence, of course. Orson Welles once declared: “The Enemy of art is the absence of limitation,” something I have struggle to keep in mind and have to constantly come back to like someone who forgets the lines of a poem they love. Nami Concours was something I wanted to participate in, but the idea eluded me for a while. As I sit here writing these words, I am hard pressed to remember what gave birth to the character of Coyote, that concept that saw his first fully-fledged experience in the failed submission to this competition (their online system glitched and I was locked out). I digress. The result of those months of focused labour has been some of my most successful work; but as of today those illustrations have become the basis for a publishing contract and revenue in the form of prints. The original images, as these things go, are not what I would love to have on the final books, but they exist and I am now using them as a basis for something with more polish. Without the deadline, limits and even hope of winning the awards that the Nami Concours provided, Coyote wouldn’t exist. And, let’s be honest, humanity would be poorer for it.
About a year later, while I was in the depths of an entirely different project, I was contacted by Ana Elizabeth González, the Cultural Attaché to the Consulate of Panama in London. Simply, she had kept me in mind after a meeting a couple of years before and was extending an invitation for me to participate in the VIA Arts Prize. Unlike the Nami Concours, whose limitation was on medium and its focus on artistic excellence, the VIA Arts Prize limited on style and context; Dialogues, to pick from the website, sought “artworks that have some point of communication (or “exchange”/ “correspondence”/ “opposition”) with a specific artwork, or with the oeuvre, of a Latin American, Spanish or Portuguese artist, from any era. Alternatively, artists may establish a “dialogue” with a particular style of art originating in Ibero-American countries.” Not being very versed with Ibero-American visual artists, and not quite wanting to do much research in case that distracted from what I already had (mostly because I already knew what I wanted to do), I latched on to that last sentence where the “dialogue” would allow for flexibility. My submission was an unfinished series of illustrations done in my own ink-on-paper style, heavily influenced by remains glimpsed from pre-Columbian pottery designs from pre-Contact Central American cultures. The series, titled An Incomplete Timeline of Isthmian Identity(ies), spoke of themes of the Columbian Exchange, neocolonization, Native American rights in the face of Latin American nation states, environmentalism and uncertain futures. In hindsight, I should’ve done something a little more in line with the competition theme if I wanted to win; but instead, I dialogued with my own style.
Both of these projects have benefited from not just being made in the first place, but from having had time to rest, simmer and grow in my neglect. While the Awards acted as wood to the fire, the ashes that remained when the flames died out have been used to fertilize the soil of ideas. The way I see it, without the Awards these pieces would just not exist. And without the time since, they wouldn’t be what they are today. In the book The Tao of Writing, Ralph L. Wahlstrom speaks of “doing without doing”, the Tao concept of Wu Wei. He likens it to getting great ideas while in the shower, or how when you’re in a walk things just “come to you”. The interim time since creation has given me fresh eyes and ideas to help these projects improve; with every new sketch, Coyote’s style, linguistic and visual, are both strengthened and limited. The time without doing… it has power. The work I did for VIA Arts Prize, titled has yet to find its place. Maybe it is lacking colour, maybe I just need to push it in front of publishers; and I can decide to take these actions because I took the very scary decision of pitching myself against, not a closed market where I know the strengths and weakensses of my immediate colleagues and can position myself with and against them, but against a global market where quality is years ahead and whose rules I do not yet know. To aim for the stars is to land on the moon, or so they say.
In my search for a role and platform for An Incomplete Timeline of Isthmian Identity(ies) I decided to submit it to the Association of Illustrator’s World Illustration Awards.After all, it is some of my most poignant work, and what is the point of illustration if it sits unwatched in a hard drive? Lately I’ve been trying new ways of getting my illustrative work out into the world, figuring out where it can exist comfortably and uncomfortably. Call it market research, if you will. Again, I decided to give it a try and submitted the project to the Experimental category and hoped for the best. I won’t lie; it was a couple of months where I would be gripped by a certain anxiety whenever I thought about it. I won’t lie: I wanted to win.
Last week the results were announced and I wasn’t one of the shortlisted artists. I am not at all peeved or angry. The quality of work the AOI celebrates is indeed some of the best and I am not there. Not yet, at least. Sometimes it isn’t about the prize, but the race itself. Oh, getting the prize would be so sweet, but years later what is left from these experiences?
Personally and professionally, one has to allow themselves to be pushed harder and farther. In lieu of having a platform, we must find where our work can exist in this world, and, at least to me, Awards are proving to be a source of creativity, upskilling, and a way to get “out there”, during and after the event. After all, I was shortlisted in 2015 for the Reportager Award and got a publishing contract out of it all.
There is great criticism for Awards, especially paid ones. And having worked for an Awards company, I can honestly say that some of them are just marketing ploys that might not get you anything at all unless you definitively get to stand at the podium with a trophy of some type. But the same experience has taught me that for those of us who want very much to win but know, somewhere deep down, that we’re not “there” yet, the value of entering these Awards is multiple-fold; maybe you will win, maybe you’ll be discovered by a great editor and be contracted; perhaps a colleague will keep you in mind and recommend you to someone else; perhaps the advertising coming from the platforms your work appears on will increase your website’s traffic. Thing is, unless we try, we can’t know.
Winning an Award is a journey in and of itself. Let us not forget that, often, it is the side roads that lead to places most interesting.