The California Arts Council handed out only 26 cash prizes this year to recognize exemplary California artists and the competition was fierce. When the winners were announced last week Berkeley residents Lia Cook, Mildred Howard, Nancy Selvin, Sharon Siskin, and Dean Smith each won a $4,567 fellowship. Christel Dillbohner of Kensington and Karen Kersten of Oakland also won fellowships.
“The Arts Council recognizes the enormous value that arts and culture have in our daily lives,” said Arts Council Chair Barbara George. “By supporting these creative individuals, we are able to validate their artistic vision and further encourage their imaginations to make great things happen in California. These artists are among the best natural resources in California."
The 11-member California Arts Council awards fellowships annually, rotating among four disciplines: literature, visual arts, performing arts, and media arts and new genre. This year, the Artists Fellowships were given to the visual arts. To be eligible, the selected artists must have demonstrated previous professional experience and artistic excellence for at least 10 years and be judged “exemplary” on a statewide basis by a panel of their peers.
“I think the recognition by your peers is really tremendous,” said Nancy Selvin, a West Berkeley-based ceramic artist who has lived here since the mid-60s. “It really validates what you're doing. It really says, ‘keep going. You're doing a great job.’ I think that's the real significance of it. And it's always a boost to your career anytime you get any kind of an honor. People take notice. That's always a benefit.”
Mildred Howard creates mixed media and installation works. Next week she’s leaving for a show of her work in New York. For more than five decades she’s made her home and art studio in South Berkeley.
“I'm really grateful to get it,” Howard said. “It's not a lot of money but I'm glad to get it. Especially when the economy is doing so bad and they cut the budget of the California Arts Council.”
Howard, who installed her site-specific installation piece “Blue Bridge” over Fillmore Street in San Francisco's Jazz Preservation District last week, said she doesn't know how she will spend her award money.
“It'll do part of a project, I don't know what,” Howard said. “Maybe it'll go into the general budget of being an artist, keep things alive for another month or less.”
As the mother of a new baby girl, Karen Kersten, a sculptor based in Oakland, knows exactly how she'll spend her fellowship.
“I work with toxic materials,” Kersten said. “I can't just work when the baby's sleeping and then pick her up when she wakes.”
Kersten intends to spend some of her fellowship money on a sitter while she works on her art. She also says the honor has boosted her confidence and encouraged her to keep working.
“My work [which ranges in size from as small as four inches to as large as 22 feet] is not salable, especially in San Francisco. It's too large and odd and difficult. This will keep me from feeling limited.”
That sense of freedom moved other winners as well.
“You take more risks when you have a little more money on hand,” said Selvin. “You can experiment. You can hire somebody to help you a little bit. It all goes back into the work.”
Lia Cook, a textile artist based in Central Berkeley, plans to use her award to enhance her weaving equipment. Utilizing photographs as a starting point Cook creates enormous weavings that have much in common with both modern paintings and medieval tapestries.
“I like equipment,” Cook said. “That's where I like to spend my money. I already have committed to the widening of [my] loom so it's good. I'll be able to work bigger which is what I want to do because I like what happens to some of these things when they get really, really big. It changes them. Things that start out as little pieces of snapshots blow up and become something totally new.”
None of the award winners claimed they were living on easy street. All of them said making ends meet as an artist was perhaps their most difficult task and that the cost of studio space was the most troublesome of expenses.
“It's only recent that space has become expensive,” noted Selvin. “Historically it's been fairly affordable, so there's a lot of artists here, and a lot of very, very good artists. Now you have do other things. You work as a teacher. You work at the Cheese Board. A lot of male artists I know work at construction. You have to find a way to support what you do. It's very important that you support your art, your art doesn’t really support you. Emotionally it does, but you have to support your art."