The theme for this year’s Martha’s Vineyard Drawing Prize competition was “Fortitude,” and the artists involved interpreted that word in a number of different ways. Among the winners were a pencil drawing of an age-worn farmer surveying his land, a pen-and-ink image titled “End of the Trail,” based on the famous statue of the same name showing a weary Native American man hanging limp on his exhausted horse, a colored pencil drawing of two American Bisons holding their own against a snow storm, and a charcoal drawing of an African American man and his two small children riding on the subway titled “It’s a Black Life!”
Local artist and illustrator Elizabeth Whelan launched the competition last year, opening it up to artists across the U.S. She got more than 100 submissions in 2019, which increased to 429 this year, representing 37 states across the U.S., and two Canadian provinces.
“I had started off thinking it would be something just for Martha’s Vineyard artists, but it turned into an international drawing competition,” says Whelan. “I wanted to encourage the pursuit of excellence in drawing.”
Whelan is an accomplished artist in her own right who is currently focused on portraiture, although she has worked variously as an illustrator, printmaker, and graphic designer. She chose to honor the art of drawing as a way to broaden the field to include artists who may not have the means to pursue painting.
In a press release for the competition she writes, “Drawing, particularly in pencil or charcoal on paper, is one of the most prevalent and accessible art forms around the world. However, the art market in North America gravitates to the color and power of paint. But painting is expensive: canvases, brushes, oil paints, easels, frames, it goes on and on. It’s a huge barrier to entry for many artists. I wanted to balance that aspect of the art world by creating an opportunity for artists who draw; whose artwork is just as worthy of attention.”
The entries were judged by a panel of jurors representing art collectors (Kathleen and Jim Greer), a gallery (Posie Haeger from Featherstone Center for the Arts), and a local artist (Harry Seymour). Although the founder and all the judges are from the Island, and the contest is named for Martha’s Vineyard, Whelan’s mission is to welcome artists from all over, while making it clear that she is promoting the Island’s storied tradition of supporting the arts.
“We have this brand — Martha’s Vineyard — that has a lot of cachet,” she says. “People tend to associate it with wealth and exclusivity, but we can also use that brand to exemplify what we stand for — excellence. There is this really incredible arts community here, and a community that has long supported and encouraged that.”
Whelan wants the winners and finalists to be able to make use of more than just the cash prizes, but also the name and prestige attached to the competition. “I’m hoping the drawing prize will help put a spotlight on the artists or enhance the spotlight they already have,” she says. “More exposure is always a good thing. It’s very exciting for me to help promote these artists.”
Whelan points out that drawing has historically been underappreciated in the art world. “I would like to see collectors interested in high-quality drawing,” she says. “This is where the new crop of artists for the galleries is coming from.”
The cash prizes: $500 for first place to Michelle Smith of Illinois, $350 to second-place winner Diana Belenky of California, and $150 for third-place winner Patrick Laird of Oklahoma, are all paid from Whelan’s own pocket. The $10 entry fee (for up to three drawings per applicant) helps to defray the expenses. In total, there were 25 finalists this year, and four Juror’s Prize winners.
You can view all of the winning entries on the M.V. Drawing Prize website, on Facebook, and on Instagram. To make the contest more democratic, this year for the first time all of the entries will be available for view on a separate Instagram feed. For those interested in participating in next year’s competition, the theme will be “Questions.”
“I hope that seeing this exceptional work will encourage other artists to try their hand at drawing, or improve the skills they have,” writes Whelan. “This second year of the Martha’s Vineyard Drawing Prize was a great success. It goes to show that members of the arts community can create opportunities for each other, so that we can all succeed.”
To learn more about the competition and see the winning entries, visit mvdrawingprize.com, and follow it on Facebook and Instagram at @mvdrawingprize and @mvdrawingprize_showcase.