Three Iowa teens are finding their voices through very different lenses of a common creative vision, and in the process, embodying the spirit of the Grant Wood Art Colony and the artist and educator whose legacy the University of Iowa program continues to honor.
Wood, an artist, teacher, student and traveler who found international fame with his paintings, explored many artistic realms, from metalwork to woodwork, as well as the Regionalist portraits of rural Iowa for which he’s best remembered.
But it’s his passion for developing young artists and creating “a community of kindred spirits,” that is celebrated in the annual Grant Wood Legacy Prize, awarded since 2016 to Iowa high school students who excel in the visual arts.
This year’s winners are Phaedra Isbell, a junior at Cedar Rapids Prairie High School; Yuer Zhu, a junior at Ames High School; and Lauryn Ginter, a senior at Central High School in DeWitt.
They rose to the top among 400 submissions from across Iowa, reflecting the various media in which Wood worked: jewelry, painting, drawing and illustration, printmaking, design, ceramics and glass, and mixed media.
Current Grant Wood Fellows Margarita Blush, Johnathan Payne and Elena Smyrniotis judged the entries, choosing winners who demonstrated a Regional voice and skill.
This Legacy competition for Iowa students is presented in collaboration with the UI’s Belin-Blank Center, which serves as the Iowa and Midwest Region-at-Large affiliate for the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and can help the Grant Wood Art Colony reach out across the state for the Iowa portion of the art competition.
The regional competition, which includes Iowa and parts of the Midwest, brought in 6,000 entries, according to Jan Warren. She oversees the contest in her role as assistant director for Student Services at the Belin-Blank Center in Iowa City. Entries were judged for personal voice, skill and creativity, she said.
Iowa’s Gold Key winning art entries were forwarded to Maura Pilcher, director of the Grant Art Wood Colony, who then brought in a separate panel of judges to determine the Grant Wood Legacy winners.
“It’s a wonderful partnership,” Warren said, “ because in a sense, we’re both trying to do the same things — recognize young, creative, talented students who are good at what they do, in this case, in visual art, and recognize them. The get recognized at our ceremony. Usually, we have a really beautiful ceremony at the (Iowa Memorial Union) with lots of fanfare.”
This year, the winners were recognized March 7 in a virtual presentation that included an art show and readings.
“I love this event. I love the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards,” said Pilcher, who was named to her position with Grant Wood Art Colony in 2015, and started the Legacy Awards the following year. “This is Iowa, where state championships are a big deal in high school. This is not only the state championships, but the regional championships of art and writing.”
Pre-pandemic, parents would drive to Iowa City from around the Midwest for the in-person ceremony and art show.
“It’s really fun to see the pride in their eyes and their commitment to supporting their students this way,” Pilcher said.
“I’ve been doing this for several years now, and I am always impressed by the quality of artwork, but I’m not surprised by it, because I see it come in year after year. The complexity and the depth of the artistic output is just phenomenal.
“Another thing I like about this program is that it’s not always just about skill, but having a voice, and making sure that voice is represented in their work,” she added. “Somebody could be a very skilled printmaker, but if (the work) doesn’t reflect something the artist wants to get across ... it doesn’t have that same impact.
“(The competition) gives the opportunity for someone who may not be the most skilled, but at the same time, has a great voice they’re able to communicate through their work. In this case, with these top three, they have the skill and the voice. Once you get up to this Gold Key level and the Grant Wood Legacy winners, you’re getting both of those — the skill as well as the artistic voice.”
The Legacy winners also will receive a scholarship to attend the UI’s online Belin-Blank Summer Art Residency from July 5 to 23, which includes 20 students in art and 40 students in writing from across the country. Last year, a student from England got up in the middle of the night to attend the writing sessions online.
The awards are important affirmations for students who are creating their art in their bedrooms or in a classroom, but in “a solitary kind of way,” Warren said.
“It’s my personal philosophy that it’s the creative people who are really going to change our world,” she noted. “I don’t think it’s the politicians, I don’t think it’s the business people. I think it’s young, creative people who can look at the world in a different way and think outside the box.”
She sees a lot of potential in the Grant Wood Legacy winners, said and the scholarships for the summer intensive program can help move them forward.
“It’s great to say you’re really good, but then what? We want to say, ‘You’re really good, and we want to give you this opportunity to continue to work on your skills, your craft, whatever it might be.’
“They really are wonderful young people,” Warren said. “They blow me away — their ability is just outstanding.”