Every year the Illinois Watercolor Society invites artists across the country to enter their juried exhibition. Simply entering this show is no guarantee that you'll be accepted--it's a hundreds-will-enter-60-will-win kind of contest. This spring, as I got set to mail the appropriate forms and fees to the IWS for this competition, I kissed the self-addressed-stamped-envelope that would come back to me in about a month, hopefully with good news.
Each artist can enter two paintings for this show, which are sent to the juror as jpegs, and he or she accepts one or the other or neither. I thought Abandoned Knowledge and Dale's Super 400 had a chance, even though this year's juror, Robert Lee Mejer, is an abstract expressionist. The jurors are different each year, so it's impossible to know what kinds of paintings will please them. You just have to go with what you feel is your best work. If you and the juror share a similar aesthetic, don't expect that person to be impressed with you. Judging art is so subjective, and as an art teacher sending student work to contests year after year and now as an artist entering my own paintings in shows like this, I've learned to keep my expectations extremely low. If I don't get accepted for a show, it's no big deal. If I do get accepted, it's no big deal.
But I got accepted for this show and it was a totally big deal!
Mr. Mejer selected Abandoned Knowledge, which I FedEx-ed up to The Next Picture Show art gallery in Dixon, Illinois. Dixon is just down the road from Oregon, the small town where I taught art for eleven years. Last year I was part of this IWS show, and I described the weirdness of seeing my former home and school here.
The show opened on Saturday with a watercolor demonstration by the incredible Robert Krajecki followed by an awards presentation. My parents met Jeff and me there. Since we live on opposite sides of the state, I rarely get to see them, so we had a nice reunion with plenty of time to chat. It was also nice to see some locals I remembered from my teaching days and IWS head honcho Tony Armendariz. Last year I gave him some chocolate chip cookies to thank him for doing me a favor, and this year I felt the need to make him some more. Over the past year I have found a new recipe that has me making the best chocolate chip cookies I have ever tasted, and you just can't keep that kind of thing under wraps.
So there's my painting on the gallery's long wall next to the woman in blue.
And there's the best-looking man in the room.
Above is the other end of the long wall.
And here is a chunk of the short wall.
Janet Doll, another painter with work in the show, sat next to Jeff and me while Robert Krajecki created a watercolor landscape in about thirty minutes. Janet is just about the sweetest person imaginable, and she reminded me of any number of beloved teachers I've known. We started chatting about technique and things like the current "in" watercolor shade, which I've indicated below:
It's a blue-green that's too green to be turquoise. Janet claims she's been seeing it everywhere this year, but she doesn't know the exact name of the color or who makes it, and I was thinking, "It is so awesome to talk shop with somebody else who paints."
Janet won one of the three "Award of Excellence" ribbons for her painting The Collector (scroll down), and I received one of the three honorable mentions, and I was told that the juror thought my work was one of the best "from the get-go." I was so happy! IWS favorite Ken Call--he seems to win a lot of awards, and deservedly so--won Best of Show for A Late Night, below.
After the show, Jeff and I loaded up my parents' car with eight paintings in anticipation of a one-woman show I'll be having at Culver-Stockton College at the end of the summer. Mom and Dad live a lot closer to Culver, which is in northeast Missouri, so this summer is going to be all about us getting as many paintings as we can over to their house before the show. They'll store the paintings and help Jeff and me haul them to the C-S gallery in late August. Because of their glass or plexiglass, framed watercolors can be fragile and difficult to transport. You can't just stack a dozen on top of each other like you can with, say, acrylic paintings, so this is going to be a major operation.
As we were transferring the paintings from our car to theirs, Janet Doll came over and admired my work, saying, "Why didn't THAT get in?" to my Dale painting. So that was gratifying and awfully kind of her, and I hope I see Janet again next year, if I'm accepted for that show.
Earlier in the day, during the always-boring drive up to northern Illinois, I amused Jeff by reading various Yelp restaurant reviews for Peru, Illinois. To celebrate our anniversary, we had booked a hotel room in Peru, where we would spend the night before exploring Starved Rock state park the next morning. Everybody on Yelp was raving about Ripp's Tavern, home of "possibly the best fried chicken I have ever had," according to one reviewer. It sounded like a mom-and-pop kind of place, and it served chicken and only chicken to an endless stream of customers, with french fries or fried mushrooms as sides. Feeling adventurous, we decided to give it a try for supper.
Ripp's was a small place with two main rooms for customers: the bar and the seating area for the restaurant. As we stood in line for a half hour in the bar, we were able to watch teenagers working the tiny kitchen's fryer through a window at the far end of the seating area. Waitresses emerged periodically with paper plates loaded with chicken (either light or dark meat), fries, and mushrooms, which were good but not life-changing.
The place also offered "crispies," i.e. lost nuggets of fried chicken breading. The lighting was a little on the dim side with unflattering bluish undertones thanks to the various Miller Lite and Chicago Cubs neon signs. A haze of grease filled the air. Our chicken arrived flaming hot about fifteen minutes later, sans utensils. Everyone in the place was forced to use their hands, a primitive set-up that made a certain amount of sense.
Note the piece of white bread placed underneath the chicken to soak up vital chicken juices.
The fries were merely okay, so I gave the chicken my full attention, starting with the wing. I removed one of the wing bones and used it as a utensil to protect my fingers as I pulled the breast meat apart. The breading was almost tempura-like, very light and crunchy, but kind of one-note in terms of flavor. The chicken was tender, juicy, and not a bit tough, which made me think that maybe Ripp's partially cooks the chicken before frying it. Whatever they are doing, it's a real achievement, but we couldn't help feeling that for the 45+-minute wait, this chicken had to be stellar, and it just wasn't quite there. By the end of our meal, we were wiped out. I felt that grease had infiltrated every part of my body. It's the kind of fried chicken that makes you want to take a shower with some unforgiving soap.
Look at us, all tired, greasy, and in love.
We got up early the next morning to hike at nearby geological oddity Starved Rock state park. For once the weather was on my side: partly cloudy, not humid, 72 degrees. We climbed formidable stairways to enjoy views of the Illinois River like this one.
Then we went way, way down to investigate Wildcat Canyon, which boasts a waterfall, a rare sight in Illinois.
We were pleased with the waterfall...
...and other formations and plant life.
After about three miles of uphill and downhill hiking, we were ready to tackle the two-hour drive home. For the most part the cats handled our absence like champs.
And that was our anniversary weekend of art, chicken, and nature. If you're in the Dixon area during the month of June, you should definitely check out the IWS exhibition at The Next Picture Show (it's on 1st Street).
Update: You can see all of the IWS winners here.