Tullahoma Art Center | March 10–April 17
“Until the late nineteenth century watercolor painting was not regarded as a true art form. Many considered a watercolor to be merely a sketch before the final work.”
by Annie Stoppelbein
This year the prestigious American Watercolor Society is holding its 150th Annual Exhibition. Over 1,200 artists submitted to this year’s show from the United States and twenty-three foreign countries. A panel of jurors selected 147 paintings to be exhibited at the historic Salmagundi Club in New York City. Of those, forty paintings were chosen by the Jury of Awards to take part in the Traveling Exhibition. For the next year, the forty original watercolors will be on view in museums and galleries across the country. One stop on the tour is Tennessee’s own Tullahoma Art Center in Tullahoma, just an hour south of Nashville. They have hosted this esteemed exhibition every two years since 2006.
The American Watercolor Society’s exhibition attracts busloads of people from all over the country to view the watercolors. They come for subject matter that is contemporary and traditional. They come to see classic techniques and new innovations. They come for the Gold, Silver, and Bronze Medal winners, who were chosen from the multitude of submissions. They come to view a piece of history.
Until the late nineteenth century watercolor painting was not regarded as a true art form. Many considered a watercolor to be merely a sketch before the final work. But in 1866 eleven men sought to prove that it was indeed a discipline worthy of display in top galleries and museums. After the Civil War, Americans were searching for a revival of beauty. Watercolor painting was growing in popularity and being taught in school, but still had not been fully recognized. On December 5, 1866, a cold winter’s night in New York City, the American Watercolor Society was formed. They held their first exhibition the following year at the National Academy, in conjunction with the Academy’s own winter exhibition. One-hundred and fifty years later, the society is still working to advance watercolor painting in the United States and abroad.
John Patt has been the director for the past five and a half years. According to him, the mission has not changed. He says, “We were founded to promote water media art, and we hold to that mission today through our exhibitions and scholarship programs.”
Each year they receive submissions from all over the world. Artists can apply for the status of Signature Member when they have demonstrated great skill and a consistent style over time. Signature membership is a monumental achievement that essentially groups the artist with such notable members as Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, and many more. This year’s artists are contributing to a longstanding tradition.
While the American Watercolor Society is the most recognized international exhibition, and the event of the year for these artists, many other exhibitions are held regularly around the world. Prominent artists in the society convene at such events, which mark the growing international popularity of watercolor painting. China, in particular, has become a hub for traveling watercolor artists. However the American Watercolor Society is unparalleled for their standards of excellence.
In a show of this caliber and quality, it seems most of the paintings are deserving of awards. How or why the winners are chosen is nothing short of a mystery. John Patt says of the judging process, “Each year the Jury of Selection changes, and jurors are not allowed to speak about paintings. Their thoughts are clearly their own. There is no way to predict what painting a particular juror will be drawn toward.” The standards for submission are stringent to uphold the original goals of the society. To be considered for the annual exhibition, each work is restricted to a maximum frame size of 44 inches, must be larger than 10 by 14 inches, and must be behind plexiglass. The artist must be working in a water-soluble medium on paper, inclusive of watercolor, acrylic, casein, gouache, and egg tempera. Although products have been released to ease the task of watercolor painting, a medium that does not allow for mistakes, the American Watercolor Society continues to accept only water-based paint on paper surfaces.
The works vary in subject from landscapes to figures to still-lifes and interiors. This year’s Gold Medal winner is Signature Member Susan Weintraub, for her street scene End of the Day. It depicts the intersection of Brighton Beach Avenue and Coney Island Avenue in the neighborhood of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York, where Weintraub grew up. The New York scene will travel with the rest of the exhibition to Tullahoma, Tennessee, which boasts a vibrant arts community itself. The Tullahoma Art Center encourages the advancement of the arts of all kinds and offers classes in everything from sewing to watercolor painting. The center’s volunteers play a crucial role in greasing the wheels of exhibitions like this. After a month in Tullahoma, the exhibition will return to New York City.
The Annual International Exhibition of the American Watercolor Society is on view at the Tullahoma Art Center March 10 through April 17. For more information, visit www.tullahomaart.org.