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'Large Cobbler' - Jason Thomas
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'F-4 Phantom' - Xia Sompit
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'Krispy Kreme' - Katherine Linn
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'Lookout Moutain Bunnies' - Valerie Fleming
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The stars of AVA's 4 Bridges Arts Festival are the artists. But just as movie stars have producers, directors and screenwriters (not to mention a small army of little-known helpers from stunt coordinators and composers to key grips and best boys), the artists of 4 Bridges owe their place in the festival to some behind-the-scenes talents.
In one hectic weekend last December, three jurors examined 2,600 images of art from 650 artists. Each artist submitted four images of their work and one shot of an exhibit booth from a previous festival. After two days of viewing, voting, discussing and sometimes advocating for their personal preferences, the jury reached a verdict and the festival’s final lineup of 170 artists was set.
According to Laura Linz, AVA’s new 4 Bridges director, the flavor of the festival is determined by the judges’ choices. And with new judges every year, 4 Bridges is never the same.
“No three people would ever pick the same show,” she said. “The flavor of the show begins with the jury selection before they ever even sit down. Their whole background is going to affect it.”
This year’s judges include a journalist, an artist and a museum director.
Sylvie Fortin is an independent curator, art historian, critic and editor, who has worked internationally since 1991. She is editor-in-chief of Art Papers, a highly regarded magazine published in Atlanta. “She is right there with what is going on. That is her job, to be aware of the trends and styles,” said Linz.
Amy Pleasant is a painter based in Birmingham. She has had solo and group shows in galleries around the country, and her work is in several museum collections. As a working artist, “she has to keep herself growing or she won’t have a job. She is constantly absorbing the world around her,” said Linz.
Daniel Stetson became the director of the Hunter Museum almost a year ago after leading the Polk Museum in Lakeland, Fla., for 15 years. “Even though he works for a museum and those pieces have been around a long time, he’s got to reinvent them all the time. If he doesn’t keep them fresh no one is going to come see them,” said Linz.
These unique and varied backgrounds are key to the ultimate character of this year’s 4 Bridges festival, Linz said. “The three of them coming together couldn’t help but create a really new and fresh show,” she said.
“There is a large number of people who never go to a museum but will go to an event like a festival,” said Sylvie Fortin. “We have a strong responsibility to present the highest quality of work, so people might feel empowered to buy some affordable but really great work.”
Fortin was not aiming at creating a specific effect in her selections, as she would in curating an exhibition.
“A festival is a very different thing,” she explained. “It wasn’t so much about putting our stamp on it as it was about teasing out the best work, presenting as broad a range of practices as possible. Contemporary art is more diverse than any time in history so it’s very important to share that diversity with the public.”
Choosing from the 650 artists who applied to show their work at 4 Bridges, Fortin said she was drawn to “the works that I could tell did not have any kind of compromise and that deal with contemporary issues ... that’s what excellent work is today. It’s not doing stuff that was done 50 years ago. It talks about what it is to be in the world today.”
“All three of us had the same kind of vision,” said Birmingham-based artist Amy Pleasant. “I had to look at it like a gigantic exhibition of a lot of artists from a lot of places. Because they come from so many different disciplines, it’s about creating the strongest body of work you can find from the applicants.”
At the same time, 4 Bridges is unlike an exhibition in that there is no overarching theme.
“Each artist is there to present their own individual work regardless of who they are next to,” said Pleasant. “It really is about the unique strength of the individual’s work. To me, that’s the strength of any artist: their own unique language. I think people like to come to festivals and find something totally unexpected.”
Pleasant said she was looking for the strongest work in terms of technique and invention.
“To me those are the two most important things,” she said. “I want to see an artist whose work is really strong but also unique and innovative.”
“We were pretty aligned,” said the Hunter Musuem’s Dan Stetson. “There were subtleties, maybe, of different tastes, but in the search for quality and to make a broad show I think we all got along really well as jurors.”
Quality is a hard thing to describe, but Stetson offered his own definition in terms of art.
“It can be the sense of construction in that it was well assembled, whether it’s a painting, a construction, a sculpture, a ceramic piece. I know that’s one thing we all were looking for. We were looking at the things themselves and how they were made,” he said.
“Artists are the first judges, in a way,” he added. “They picked everything we were looking at. Whatever they show you is all you have. It’s up to them how good the work is. They’re trying to show you representative examples, not their whole body of work.”
170 Artists, One Show
After the jurors made their selections, there is still much more to be done.
“The big picture, once the jurors make their selections, is shaped by which artists end up accepting and by the layout and structure of the show,” said festival director Linz, who takes a lot of time and energy to create the layout of 4 Bridges.
“It is all calculated,” she said. “That’s a little festival secret. When you come to a festival you don’t necessarily think about it, but the artists have been strategically placed.”
Each artist who applies to 4 Bridges is required to submit a booth shot, as well as images of their art.
“That is so important, because somebody may make good work but they haven’t figured out how to present it well yet,” said Pleasant. “And the last thing you want in a festival is to feel like it falls apart in certain places. You want the whole experience to be really strong and tight and professional.”
“We talk about composition in a work of art, certain rules of balance and repetition,” said Linz. “The booth is that on a grander scale, and the festival is that on an even bigger scale. It all builds up to the full experience.”
Between the judging and the festival weekend, Linz considers artist’s location requests, gives returning artists first crack at their familiar slots, and takes into account how artistic neighbors might complement or conflict.
Taste the Flavor
The final result? Before the festival begins, it’s hard to say exactly what the flavor is. It’s like cooking an exotic delicacy. You can choose the best ingredients, but until the dish is on the table, you can’t really be sure how it will taste. None of the judges volunteered a characterization of 4 Bridges’ flavor, but some intriguing traits emerged.
“One of the things I was struck by is a lot of the multi-media artists who are here, people who do collage and constructions that could involve painting or wood or ceramic,” said Stetson. “I found that to be very contemporary, very much about our time.”
“I was surprised at the low number of painters the judges accepted, compared to applications taken, but they picked some great ones,” said Linz. Painting is a difficult medium at festivals, she said, because higher-end painters tend to shy away from them. “But this is not your typical street festival. This is a true fine art festival. You can find high-quality art that you could find in galleries all across the United States.”
“Contemporary artists—for a long time, but more in the last decade or so—have been working more and more outside the gallery,” said Fortin.
“The tip of the iceberg is the stuff you see in the magazines, the big auction houses, that kind of stuff,” said Stetson. “Just below the surface it’s a really wide, wide piece of ice. This is some of the best stuff being made, some of the most creative, freeing work.”
In the end, it was very clear to Laura Linz that the judges were not looking for traditional artists.
“Luckily for us, they were looking for something new and exciting,” she said. “Some festivals have a much more traditional flavor. A lot of that has to do with the city they are in, what people there are looking for. I think Chattanooga wants some fresh new innovative things, and that’s what we’re giving them.”