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ArtPrize 2011 winners; thrilled, controversial, bittersweet

(This article was altered to fix two grammatical errors.)

More than 1,500 artists from across the United States and 39 other countries competed in ArtPrize this year. More than 382,000 votes were cast by those who visited the event in Grand Rapids. Organizers estimate around 500,000 people came to the event, which runs through Sunday.

The winner – “Crucifixion” Mia Tavonatti

An artist originally from Iron Mountain in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula took home the $250,000 top prize. Mia Tavonatti won $100,000 for placing second in ArtPrize last year. Right away, she knew she wanted to compete this year.

“I just kind of prayed for the right thing to come along and that same week I was hired to do that project,” Tavonatti said. “I’m like ‘yep, I can do Jesus’ - it was perfect for me.”

“That project” is a massive altarpiece for a Catholic church in California where Tavonatti now lives. Construction delayed the installation of the piece at the church so she entered it into ArtPrize.

The piece towers in the same performance hall where the winner was announced last night. It’s 9 feet across, 13 feet tall; made up of tiny pieces of stained glass that make up a vision of Jesus Christ dying on the cross.

Grand Rapids resident Martha Davis and her husband stand for a long time admiring the piece called “Crucifixion”.

“It’s one of the best things to happen to this world – Jesus came and died for us. I mean we have a hope,” Davis said after the winning announcement. “I think she portrayed in there, very well, what he did for us …and how perfect it is.”

The conversation gets serious

In ArtPrize’s third year, I’ve never heard more controversy over the “top ten”. Mainly, the contention seems to be that artists are pandering to their audience more than in years past.

The most cited example is a wax and bronze statue of a very life-like former President Gerald R. Ford…obviously a West Michigan favorite since Ford grew up here. Many said the winning piece “crucifixion” pandered to a region that’s still very religious.

Tommy Allen is an artist and writer in Grand Rapids. In a column earlier this week he begged people to consider the effort, practice and education of an artist before casting a final vote. He’s also one of many who want to extend the first round of voting that narrow down the top ten. (It is really hard to see half of ArtPrize in a week for me.)

“It just comes down to personal taste,” Allen said. “Unfortunately, overwhelmingly the art community is a little bit freaked out by the top ten. But at the end of the day, if this is how the public voted, it’s how they voted. I can’t answer why American Idol is so popular either.”

Just in case anyone takes that wrong, Allen did say Tavonatti “obviously has a lot of talent”.

ArtPrize founder Rick DeVos acknowledged the debate during the awards ceremony but says he doesn’t see any of the conversation as negative.

“This tension between populism and professionalism is at the core of a tangible measure of success – the public debate and discussion that we now engage in annually,” DeVos said to the audience (this year they bought tickets to get in) at the winner’s announcement.

“Where in American can it be said that a 100,000 people who would normally be watching a Saturday or Sunday football game are instead walking around their city and discussion public art?”

At a press conference the winner, Mia Tavonatti said she never heard anything negative either. “From atheists to every religion and non-religion, it was amazing the reception,” Tavonatti said. “I think people can see quality and beauty and I’ve built my career on people’s ability to recognize beauty.

 “Bittersweet” ending, plus ArtPrize = Superbowl for art

Winning ArtPrize is a rollercoaster emotionally for any artist but it was especially for Tavonatti. Her mother was in the hospital all week in Escanaba with pneumonia. She took a turn for the worse Thursday, passing away the morning of the announcement.

Darren Tavonatti, Mia’s brother, stayed with Mia in Grand Rapids. He told his sister to compare ArtPrize to the superbowl of art; that their mother would want her to stay.

“I said ‘you remember when Brett Farve the year he won the superbowl and his father passed away during it?’ He still played the game because there was nothing he could do…and had the best game of his life. So I think this will be your night. It’ll be bittersweet.”

Tavonatti says their mother was in there in spirit.

There were many other winners in ArtPrize 2011. They include:

2ndplace $100,000 - Tracy Van Duinen of Chicago, Ill. who led a collaboration of artists to create Metaphorest, a mural featured at the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology 3rdplace $50,000 - Lynda Cole of Ann Arbor, Mich. for her sculpture installation, Rain, at the Public Museum of Grand Rapids.

Remaining “top ten” $7,000 each

  • Laura Alexander, Columbus, Ohio, The Tempest II
  • Paul Baliker, Palm Coast, Fla., Ocean Exodus
  • Ritch Branstrom, Rapid River, Mich., “Rusty” A sense of direction/self portrait   
  • Sunti Pichetchaiyakul, Big Fork, Mont., President Gerald Ford Visits ArtPrize    
  • Robert Shangle, Sparta, Mich., Under Construction
  • Bill Secunda, Butler, Pa., Mantis Dreaming
  • Llew (Doc) Tilma, Wayland, Mich., Grizzlies on the Ford

Juried award winners, which each received $7,000 include:
Two-Dimensional - Mimi Kato, St. Louis, Mo. One Ordinary Day of an Ordinary Town

Three-Dimensional - Michelle Brody, New York, N.Y. Nature Preserve

International - Shinji Turner-Yamamoto, Cincinnati, Ohio, DISAPPEARANCES - an eternal journey

Time-Based - Caroline Young, Chicago, Ill., Remember:Replay:Repeat

Urban Space - Catie Newell, Detroit, Mich. Salvaged Landscape

Sustainability - Laura Milkins, Tucson, Ariz. Walking Home: stories from the desert to the Great Lakes

Ox-Bow Residency - Evertt Beidler, Portland, Ore. Progressive Movement(s)art

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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