Illuxcon Scholarship Winners Essay

In 2o06, shortly before my 18th birthday, I had a monumental week. With typical teenage audacity, I decided to figure out what I was going to do for the rest of my life.

Within a week.

I spent the week writing lists. Pros/cons. Writing about what I wanted in life. Sitting around thinking. Taking walks.

And eventually came down to a few distinct choices.

  1. Programmer. I could make games for a living. I wasn’t a prodigy, but I was a fairly adept programmer for my age.
  2. Graphic designer. I took design classes at the community college as well and had picked it up extremely quickly. I had even freelanced a little.
  3. Carpenter. My dad builds houses for a living, and it was always an option (and, I suppose, sort of still is) for me to take over the company.
  4. Artist.

Obviously we all know what I picked.

The reason I decided to become an artist has nothing to do with what would make me the most money, or what I was “talented” at, or even what I necessarily always enjoyed the most. It was simply something that, in my gut, I just knew was the right choice. Without anything better to go on, that’s what I relied on.

From this moment, the fear began. I have spent every day since, with some variance, utterly terrified of failing. Of not being good enough. Not making enough money to support myself. Being a horrible, embarrassing failure.

And it was this fear that propelled me to improve.

My first decision was where to go to art school. Incidentally, no one had told me not to go to art school at the time, so I started researching schools. I figured if I was going to do this, I wanted to do it right. So I looked up rankings and after tons and tons of research decided the Rhode Island School of Design was where I wanted to go.

I got in. Barely.

I was wait-listed. But eventually got the call that I had gotten in. Unfortunately, it included no scholarships at all. The entirety of the approximate $35k tuition would rest on my shoulders (not to mention living expenses). This was a financially tough time for my family, so every dime would come entirely from loans.

I wrestled with the choice as long as I possibly could.

And decided not to go. I would, instead, reapply next year after working on my craft and improving my portfolio in hopes of receiving a scholarship.

The first thing I did was sign up for a class at nearby University of Virginia to take figure drawing. I had never done any figure drawing beforehand and felt that lacking in my application.

Alongside this, I also began taking private lessons with a local portrait painter, Henry Wingate. He was trained classically and taught me many of these methods of slow observational drawing.

A year passed and it was time to reapply to RISD. I did a fresh set of their required drawings and sent in a portfolio of new work.

I still remember the day I got the letter from RISD. It was a big envelope.

I had gotten in with a $20k yearly scholarship.

The following months I would scramble to secure the student loans in order to pay the remainder of the costs. My parent’s financial situation, thanks to the housing crisis, was still bleak. So as much as they would have loved to have helped, it was on me (and the good people at JPMorgan Chase).

I made it to RISD. And then I worked. I mean worked. To RISD’s credit, they are wonderous at making their students work hard. My classmates and I put in insane hours working on our craft. If it takes ten thousand hours, then I was getting there as quickly as I could.

The year came to a close. I had made friends and did more art than I could possibly fit in this post. But the financial realities of staying for another two years were coming to the forefront. Tuition was rising and my scholarship was not. To stay would mean ending up with over $100k in debt.

So I left.

I transferred to the Virginia Commonwealth University. I had grown up in VA, so I was able to get in-state tuition. The school accepted me even before I applied. It didn’t have the prestige that RISD had, but I would be able to get a degree and continue my study of art.

During this summer before I went to VCU, something extraordinary happened. You see, I had spent the entirety of my artistic career avoiding landscape art of any kind. I found it painfully boring. I would even go to a museum and walk straight past all of the Hudson River School painters.

But this summer I actually walked outside with my paints. I did my first plein air work of my life. And I loved it. Every minute of it. The heat, the glare of light, the wind blowing around and bugs flying into my paint. Everything about it just felt… right. I had grown up in the woods of Virginia and it felt like a dream come true to get to create art and experience nature at the same time.

So with this fresh outlook on what sort of art I thought I should make, I went to Richmond to attend VCU. I made a new group of friends. And we were all given the assignments of filling up sketchbooks. While I had always had sketchbooks and filled them up from time to time, VCU was obsessed with them. Our professors made sure we were constantly working in them, grading us largely based on the number of pages filled.

Now I will take this opportunity to admit that I am not a very good draftsman. And despite filling a sketchbook or two mostly with line drawings, that didn’t improve all that much. So I started painting in them. I knew I could fill a page a lot faster with a brush than a pencil.

Besides drawing my friends, sometimes family, and often strangers, I filled up my sketchbooks with studies of landscapes (from life, the masters, and photos). I knew if I wanted to make good landscapes, I’d need to study them a lot.

But still, as any good artist does, I continued to work on my figurative skills. But during this time I noticed an odd sort of trend. People tended to say much nicer things about my landscapes than my figures. Particularly odd considering less than a year prior I had been adamantly opposed to doing landscapes at all.

But this wasn’t enough. I knew that even though I was learning and improving, I needed to work on my own as well. I needed to pursue the things I eventually wanted to be paid to do. So in my evenings, after I was done with classes and homework — VCU, thankfully, had a considerably lighter homework load than RISD — I would do imaginative sketches of landscapes. Ranging from 30 minutes to 2 hours, you might have even called them “speed paintings” back in the day. But they were tools for me to learn how to develop an entire scene, color palette, and mood in a very short amount of time.

This was one of the most important exercises I have ever done. This is where I took the years of study and began really applying them.

People responded to them. A lot. But still, I knew that I had to do more if I was going to get paid to do this. Everything I did was unfinished.

I am an obnoxiously impatient person and I had a hard time working on a piece to completion. I would get sick of something and just want to move on to the next piece. Which is often what I did. So I was sitting on a pile of unfinished work and my junior year was coming to a close.

I buckled down and forced myself to finish just one piece.

I had done it. And I was proud. I had produced a piece that, despite all of the flaws I now see in it, is at a fairly professional level. The lighting is good, the composition is solid, the space and atmosphere is believable, and I had forced myself to take enough time that most things are decently rendered.

So during the remainder of my semester and into the summer, I worked on finishing my first portfolio of work.

This is the point everything tipped.

I had spent all of these years working to acquire a base of skills in art and at this point, I had done just that. I was far from being perfect, but I knew I had attained a professional level. And all before my senior year in school.

It felt amazing.

Pat Wilshire, beaming with delight at the crowds enjoying the Artists’ Showcase event at IX 2014

Well, I’m home from the front lines, back from the “trenches” filled with Imaginative Realism – and the reunion was an unqualified success!  I say “reunion” because IlluXCon (IX for short) feels just like that, attracting the same fans, collectors and artists, year after year.  With just enough “newbies” in all categories to make the convention feel new.  Pat and Jeannie Wilshire manage to put together a show that attracts a wide range of art lovers and art creators.

The main convention, which this year ran from Sept 17-21, is run somewhat like the World Fantasy Con – with limits placed on the number of tickets sold for the full convention, and with all the artists juried in (around 50, plus the Salon and Showcase).  And the same people have tended to return, if they can, year after year.  At the same time, it’s the sort of environment where (because of the small numbers of attendees involved) everyone gets to know each other (if they didn’t already know each other, through social media) pretty quickly.  Plus there are special events for aspiring artists (portfolio reviews by well-known art directors), “boot camp” sessions for students wanting to enter the commercial or gallery world, and “how-to” demonstrations by artists who are expert at explaining how they produce their fantastic imagery.

The core attendees are limited to about 250-300, and they started arriving Wednesday – by the show’s opening that night there were already red dots springing up across the main display areas.  Single day tickets for Saturday and/or Sunday also were available through pre-orders and at the door, with discounts available for members of the Allentown Art Museum. At the Museum’s request, single-day ticket sales were limited to 500 per day.  This of course added to the crowds, but not enough to overwhelm the facility.

The weekend “salon” was just as entertaining as the main show, and gave artists a two-day opportunity to connect with art lovers

Of course, each year there are artists attending for the first time, just like there are artists who skip a year or two…and the same goes for collectors and fans.  But the general ratio remains the same, about 4 to 1 – prospective buyers to prospective sellers and the quality of art is very high.  And importantly, the high percentage of discriminating buyers . . . encourages the artists to only bring in their very best.

For weeks before the show, artists were deliberating and agonizing over what to display there.  The line-up of artists in the main rooms (2nd floor of the Allentown Art Museum) is scary good.  About 50 artists are squeezed in there . . . cheek-to-jowl, but not minding the squeeze at all.  Saturday and Sunday the lower level of the Museum is cleared for another 20-30 artists who can only make it for the “Salon” – and there was a lot of talent there!  This year, the outer hall was also filled with a lovely retrospective of Jeffrey Jones’ artwork, courtesy of Robert Wiener – publisher of Donald M. Grant books, and collector extraordinaire.   Friday and Saturday nights, after the convention closes its doors at 5 PM, there is an additional opportunity to view art at the Holiday Inn, where the Artist’s Showcase event takes place . . . free of charge.

85+ artists filled the ballroom in a well-attended “free” public event that attracted fans of all ages

At the Showcase, the work of 85 additional artists are on display in the hotel’s 10,000 square foot ballroom – fresh takes on fantasy, great skills, good prices = more sales for more artists and more opportunities for sharp-eyed collectors to discover new talent.

I didn’t arrive until Thursday Morning, just in time for my first of two “guest lecture” gigs – this first one, directed to collectors.  I was somehow not surprised to find I knew just about everyone in the room – perhaps 2-3 collectors I didn’t recognize out of 30-40!   Glynn and Suzanne Crain came in from San Antonio, Doug and Deb Ellis from Chicago (and Windy City Pulp and Paper Con), John Davis and his wife Kim from Texas, plus a slew of Canadians, Murray and Marianne Moore, Pat and Irina Robinson, Peter Griffin, others . . . and lotsa collectors from the East – the Olsons, Lizottes, Zipsers, Durnans (1st timers!), Dashoffs, Johnsons, Ray Tolomeo, Greg Spatz, Robert Wiener, Naomi Fisher, and more. Too many to list them all.

Steve Youll and Mark Harrison pause for a photo in the main art show

Like some sort of crazy game of musical chairs, we would all meet, greet, re-meet, re-greet each other over the span of four days . . .  .It was weird, and yet entirely expected . . . because somehow we’ve been managing to do this for years.  The days whiz by, interspersed by breakfast dates, dinner dates, and then . . . the Brew Works (around the corner from the Holiday Inn) or the hotel bar.  The Brew Works even went so far as to create an official “IlluXCon ale” for the event  🙂

F to B, left side: Jane Frank, Irina Ivashova, Chris Moore, Jim Burns, Wayne Haag. F to B, right side: Pete Griffin, Pat Robinson, friend of Pat’s, Robert Wiener, Mark Harrison

What wasn’t expected, were the artists who showed up “just to say hello”   Somehow Carl Lundgren got wind of the convention and came in from Detroit to check it out!  somebody else called Steve Youll and talked him and Jamie Warren Youll into making a visit, too.  Mike and Audrey Whelan made an appearance – he explained that he’s “taking a year off from cons to do some painting”.   But it was nice of him to stop in!

Mike Whelan and wife Audrey (Price) were just visiting but I stopped them long enough to pose with “yours truly” –

Chris Moore, Mark Harrison (first time at Illuxcon) and Jim Burns flew in from England for the event and all were pleased by the response to their art.  Amazingly, Wayne Haag decided to make the trek from Australia – his first time at IX – and I have to say, I’m very glad he did.  Wonderful art!  Other artists (in no special order), that have returned year after year – Boris and Julie, Dave Seeley, Donato, Jeff Easley, Bob Eggleton, Armand Cabrera, Steve Hickman, Marc Fishman, Gary LIppincott, Omar and Sheila Rayyan, Mark Zug, Vincent Villafranca and Tom Kuebler…just to mention a few.  There are really too many to mention.

Omar and Sheila Rayyan, posing at their “special corner” at IX. Both, incredibly talented artists . . .

I was so happy to see Don Maitz again, and sorry that Steve Crisp couldn’t make it, as he had planned.  Chris Moore, this year, decided to make the trip into an occasion for him to tour the U.S. from New Orleans to Allentown, with Memphis and Nashville in between.  He and his three sons had a blast….Stopping at my house Tuesday to pick up some paintings and “crash” overnight before heading up to the convention.

Things I brought home for me: an adorable (privately commissioned) scorpion in bronze by Villafranca, a “Must have” ‘mousetrap” business card holder by Rich Klink, and the IX7 souvenir program book….I managed to resist the tee shirt, but now I wish I hadn’t . . .

I was sad to say “goodbye” on Sunday, but glad to have Jim and Mark’s help in packing up – and now I know how much art my car really can hold: 16 paintings (most framed, and including two in a wooden crate), plus my suitcase and a couple of goodies for myself.

 

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