‘ArtWords’ competition celebrates 20 years of poetry

Weisman’s ArtWords contest returns for the 20th consecutive year.

From left, Art Words judges Hannah Nelson, Tripura Talagadadeevi, and Laurel Darling pose for a portrait in Lind Hall on Tuesday.

Max Ostenso

From left, Art Words judges Hannah Nelson, Tripura Talagadadeevi, and Laurel Darling pose for a portrait in Lind Hall on Tuesday.

Sophie Vilensky

Sometimes a piece of art just speaks to you. Entrants of “ArtWords,” an annual contest put on by the Weisman Art Museum, are encouraged to transcribe whatever it is they hear.

Established in 1998, “ArtWords” invites undergraduate and graduate students to pick a work of art in the Weisman permanent collection and respond to it with an original piece of prose or poetry. 

Winners are awarded prizes, published online and invited to perform their piece in the gallery. They often go on to publish more work, regardless of major. Undergraduate winners are also honored with publication in the University’s art and literary magazine “The Tower” (previously “Ivory Tower”).

You know the section in the back of the magazine that often features Georgia O’Keefe’s “Oriental Poppies”? That’s the spot.

Entrants love the O’Keefe.

The contest began 20 years ago with a simple enough proposal: to have students write about art. “We were always holding events at the Weisman — creative writing events, readings,” University creative writing department head and 2018 contest judge Julie Schumacher said. “And [former WAM curator and director of education Colleen Sheehy] said, ‘Let’s think about some collaboration that’s more about using the space,’ so we dreamed it up together.”

“It’s a way to get people to not segregate the arts on campus,” Schumacher said. “You have one form inspiring or commenting on another — whether that’s a critique or more of a reflection.”

Fifteen years later, The Tower joined the party. Contest winners are now announced at the magazine’s launch party (this year’s will be held April 26 at WAM).

“We made the decision as a class to partner in 2013,” University English professor and faculty instructor for The Tower, Jim Cihlar, said. “It turned out to be a wonderful thing.”

Contest judges are representatives of the student-based Tower staff, WAM, the English and creative writing department and local publishing houses. More often than not, favorite pieces are the same across the board.

Disagreements, however, are what make the time valuable. “To have two or three undergraduates sitting in a room arguing with an editor from Graywolf — I just think that’s good experience. Luckily we’re all Minnesotans so we’re polite and it works out,” Cihlar said.

Well, for a group of art and prose lovers, the judgement process is hardly work. (That’s not to say it’s easy, though. Cihlar noted the contest always receives a number of impressive entries.)

“We choose the winners, but before making it official we go out and read the work in front of the pieces that inspired them,” Cihlar said.

Third-year English and art history major Laurel Darling, a member of both WAM Collective and the Tower, will act as a judge for this year’s contest. While entries are beginning to trickle in, she plans to sit down with the pieces at the museum closer to deadline.

“[I’m looking for] something that sparks my interest and changes what I’ve seen before,” Darling said.

After the contest, entries are displayed in the Weisman.

“You can have an abstract sculpture associated with two extremely different works of writing,” Schumacher said.

Along with the O’Keeffe, Ed and Nancy Kienholz’s “Pedicord Apartments” seems to offer endless inspiration. This may or may not have something to do with the piece already having a voice of its own. 

“People have written pieces about the characters that might be behind the doors,” Schumacher said. “It’s a terrific act of imagination to start with one art form and think of how another might change or enliven or enrich it.”

This year’s contest closes Jan. 31, so there’s still time for inspiration to hit. Schumacher’s advice? “Stand in front of something and — rather than trying to analyze it — allow your mind to wander… Think: ‘What is it saying to me… and what would I like to say back to it?’”