WILMINGTON — An ethereal school of pastel jellyfish seemingly floats against one wall, while nearby a bright orange cat sneers over a sculpture of a turtle.
The art works are part of Cameron Art Museum’s eighth annual “Illumination” exhibit, opening to the public Dec. 3. Thirty-six handmade lanterns are hanging from the ceiling, displayed on the wall or floor, or are hoisted on pedestals. Each beams, glows and shimmers in various ranges of radiance and color.
“We thought it would be good to place the lanterns in the front room of the museum because at night, when we draw back the curtains, you can see them illuminated from outside,” Matt Budd said.
He was walking through Studio One, speaking about the artists who submitted an entry for 2022’s event. They were challenged to create a piece representing the theme “Let Your Light Shine.”
“We received entries from everywhere,” Budd said.
Two-thirds came from locals, but artists from Michigan, Tennessee and Illinois are represented, as are makers across the state. Nancy Sauser lives in Mt. Holly, North Carolina, a small town on the border of Charlotte, where she has a studio at the VAPA Center uptown.
Sauser — who had a career in commercial art before following her passion in fine art — has been participating in “Illumination” for three years. She won in 2021 for the “Life After Covid” theme.
“It was a butterfly that was still holding tight to its chrysalis,” Sauser explained. “A butterfly, when emerging from its chrysalis, is still the same life that went in, but as it comes out it faces a new normal that it has yet to discover.”
Judges are made up of area arts supporters and professionals, this year including Rhonda Bellamy, executive director of the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County; Charlotte Cohen, general Manager Fox Wilmington; Mahlaynee Cooper, founder of Speak Ya Peace NC; John Jordan, DesginNC co-founder; Keltsey Mattachione, gallery director of CAB Gallery at UNCW; Chris Montero, co-founder and co-owner of Perfect Touch Rental LLC; Miriam Oehrlein, gallery director New Elements Gallery; Dr. Abigail Upshaw, assistant professor of art history at UNCW; and Dr. Acquenetta V. Wheeler, regional medical director for Optum, Inc and trustee of Cameron Art Museum.
Cash prizes totaling $1,500 are awarded to first through third places. A People’s Choice award is also given — though not awarded monetarily — with visitors casting their selections while at the exhibit. Winners will be announced the second week in January before the exhibition closes.
“There are so many great works this year,” Budd said. “It’s going to be quite a challenge for the judges. A lot of artists are finding inspiration in nature and responding to environmental themes in their work. Many are using recycled objects in really interesting ways.”
Sauser has two entries in the exhibit, mixed-media pieces constructed by reed, wire, plastic, encaustic, paper and fabric, foil and metallic powders. The artist said she embraced the museum’s challenge to work with new methods or materials in churning out “Birdsong Brilliance” and “A Motivating Force.”
The latter is 2-and-a-half-feet in diameter by 6 feet in height and was inspired by the playful flow of water cascading down rocks.
“I tried to capture the many different ways that light plays with moving water,” Sauser said. “I am energized by these movements, and can endlessly watch how it is forever changing.”
“Birdsong Brilliance” hones in on her love for wildlife — especially birds which she said are “healing just to watch them.” A peacock became her focus.
“My vision was not to replicate a peacock, rather to share how we can be influenced by those things that capture and energize us,” Sauser explained.
The pendant light — measuring 18 inches in diameter — was made mostly of plastics, plexiglass and paper. Sauser said it’s the first time she has worked with plexiglass since college.
“This was the most challenging part of the design,” she said.
For Judith Chandler, who entered “Artist’s Passion” — a 5-foot hanging paintbrush — the biggest obstacle was figuring out how to create its bristles. Her initial idea was to use 24-inch straws; however, sources didn’t pan out.
“The solution was a kitchen broom,” Chandler said.
The piece consists of a recycled floor lamp base, sheet metal, an ornament, monofilament, acrylic paint and the light CAM provides, which shines through the broomstraw.
Chandler said though the idea was simple it took her a few weeks, working a few hours a day, to complete. That in and of itself was basic compared to her other labor-intensive “Illumination” exhibit entries in 2020 (she placed second) and 2021. The process to create “Artist’s Passion” included fewer steps.
“This year my work is more whimsical and my goal is to present a fun piece,” Chandler said.
A visual art teacher, who spent more than 30 years teaching at international schools in eight different countries, she said she wanted to represent the main tool every artist can identify with on some level.
“It’s the ubiquitous symbol of art: the paintbrush,” said Chandler, who moved permanently to Wilmington in 2020. “The Cameron Art Museum has been my lifeline. I participated in some classes, taught classes, met other artists who are wonderful people.”
Its State of the Art/Art of the State exhibit from earlier in the year drew in a first-time “Illumination” artist. Candy De Jesus of Wilmington took the theme to heart — and soul.
“At this point in my life, and with all the changes over the last few years, my pride and light come from my ancestry,” she said. “My roots allow me to move forward even in trying times.”
De Jesus entered “Ancestral Lights of Puerto Rico,” a tabletop lantern standing roughly 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide, created over two months. It’s constructed primarily out of cardboard and wood, though other areas of the lantern contain canvas and recycled materials, including paper towel rolls, egg cartons and dryer sheets.
“I wanted to use the recycled materials to show how we as a people can take from nothing and create beauty,” De Jesus said.
A glow punctures through the center and five sides of its silhouette, each representing imagery of Puerto Rico — the state flower, hibiscus, national flag and Caribbean sea. Another side showcases instruments and people dancing, while the other two sides consist of Taino symbols, representing the indigenous groups that lived on the Caribbean island.
“I did a bit of reflecting to think about what I personally perceive Puerto Rico as,” De Jesus said, “and what my culture and the island itself means to me. I came up with these five sides as they held importance for my ancestors, for me now and for my future. I wanted to show the strength and resilience of my people.”
Also returning to the competition is Chicago artist Pate Conaway, who has been participating in “Illumination” almost since the beginning in 2014 (he score third place once). This will be his seventh entry.
“This show has become a yearly tradition for me,” said Conaway, who graduated from the Interdisciplinary Arts from Columbia College in Chicago with a master of fine arts. “I like the challenge of embracing the theme and the considerations involved in creating something that are both a sculpture and a lantern.”
Also a performer — who graduated from Chicago’s Second City Training Center — Conaway’s work taps into disciplines shared between both visual and performance art.
“Veneration” is a a 27 inch-by-13 inch-by 6-inch mixed-media sculpture that mimics the free libraries erected in neighborhoods. Conaway said he also was inspired by roadside shrines.
“I wanted to create an altar with a sacred feel, yet also playful like those little free libraries,” he said.
He started with how an artist is inspired, noting it can come from anything: a word, an object at a yard sale, scraps of paper.
“These ‘seeds’ can lead me down a path that goes nowhere or somewhere,” he said. “My job as an artist is to welcome and explore these ‘seeds.’ My intent for the Cameron show was to create a lantern-shrine that honors the gift of these creative seeds.”
Conaway said he experimented with its main image ad nauseam, printing seeds and pods on different thin paper. In order to execute a stained-glass look, he then painted each image from the reverse.
“The overall structure was created very improvisationally,” he said. “I got inspired by trips to local junk stores, finding objects that I could make into a shrine.”
A doll wardrobe and a wooden wagon became the foundation, which transformed into a caravan.
“This made me think of a traveling show or carnival, so I decided that my lantern would be a little traveling theater,” he said.
He hand-sewed puppets to become the “actors” and the stage has a plexiglass window illuminated with an LED light, bordered with pleated fabric. Conaway included three mirror balls behind the plexiglass to create movement in light that will “cascade across the seed images.”
“Center stage is an image of a seed, surrounded by dialogue,” he said, with mixed-media creations of more seed imagery aligning the top of the structure. A pinwheel created from an aluminum can peeks above it all.
“I inscribed the can with the phrase: ‘Yes…and…’ This is a principle of improvisational acting,” Conaway explained. “When an actor gives you a line, you accept it and add to it. I thought this was fitting for these, to say ‘yes’ and then build on creative ideas.”
A preview party for “Illumination” is open to the public Friday night and the winning judge’s selections will be announced. The event includes live entertainment, with drinks and food for sale through CAM Café. Tickets are $20 for members and $25 for nonmembers. The exhibit will remain on display until Jan. 15.
Before the exhibit closes, its traditional Floating Lantern Ceremony will take place Jan. 8 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Participants can purchase lantern sleeves for $12 through CAM guest services and decorate them to memorialize a friend or family member, document a special memory, time or place, or honor something else. The ceremony is held to reflect, remember, and offer gratitude, with lanterns afloat on the CAM pond, and live music, hot chocolate, and light bites served at CAM Café.
UPDATE: The winners, announced at the opening of “Illumination,” include: Nancy Sauser’s “A Motivating Force” in first, Lemuel Heida and Tricia Messenger’s “Untitled” in second, and Sharon de Beck’s “The Light That Shines from Within” in third.
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