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Datebook: Venerable Amateur Art Show Spotlights Area Talent

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh completed the first solo flight across the Atlantic. President Clavin Coolidge announced he would not run for re-election. Roger Wolfe Kahn and his Orchestra were spinning on the Victrola.

And the first-ever Amateur Art Competition and Exhibition opened at the McLean County Arts Center (MCAC) in Bloomington; 94 years later, it’s still a part of the art center's calendar.  

The Annual Amateur Art Competition and Exhibition is the longest-running amateur art show in the state of Illinois. That’s according to MCAC curator Rhys Lovell, who said one of the things the exhibition does so effectively is build community. 

“It brings the community together. And right now, boy do we need that!” he said.

The annual exhibition is up right now in the Brandt Gallery. There’s 135 pieces, featuring artwork in several categories --  from high school students to adults. A variety of media are represented, with the best in each group winning an award. A former employee of the MCAC, Ian Carey, served as juror of the amateur show. Carey is currently curator at Indiana State University’s gallery. 

The Annual Amateur Art Competition and Exhibition features painting, sculpture, drawing, photography and more, each exploring a wide variety of subject matter -- from goddesses rendered in ceramic and abstract paintings to whimsical yarn gloves. 

And then there’s COVID. 

The 2021 iteration of the venerable show includes work that reflects the constant shadow of the virus that Would Not Be Ignored.  

“There’s a piece called 'Covid Dreaming,' Lovell said. “It’s a painting, an interior. Looks like a home on the water, looking out over the water through a big glass window. There are no people in it, interestingly. But there’s scattered toys on the floor. It’s an empty room that you know is occupied, but the people aren’t there.” 

The painting is by Laurelin Rawley, a student at Normal Community High School. Another piece that focuses on the virus is from a companion show currently up in the Armstrong Gallery that features the work of several of the teachers at the MCAC. It’s dubbed “Apart/Together.” Artist and instructor Heather Evert created a two-part piece using soft materials. 

“It’s mixed media, cloth and yarn. It’s called “Coronavirus I and II,” said Lovell. "Her inspiration for these pieces is microscopic photographs of the actual coronavirus. She has these yellow spheroids that are made out of yarn, sort of nestled in blue iridescent fabric. It really mimics the picture. So, you’re seeing a microscopic image of the virus blown up 10,000 times.” 

Due to pandemic restrictions, the annual award ceremony for the amateur exhibition migrated to a virtual form, but the show is open to the (mask-wearing) public. Many of the works are for sale. Lovell noted the show can give a glimpse of the future artistic landscape in the Twin Cities. 

“I think we’re seeing some real emerging talent,” Lovell declared. “There are people to watch out for that are going to come into their own very soon.” 

The Annual Amateur Art Competition and Exhibition is on view into April at the McLean County Arts Center in downtown Bloomington.


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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.