Quick decisions

Rereading the brief for this year’s Stevens Competition on the train up to London Bridge, I was reminded what a lovely potential commission it is going to be for some lucky budding architectural glass artist. So it was no surprise to find out that we had more than double the number of entries of last year. I was to act as one of four judges to assess the 46 submissions at Glaziers’ Hall so I knew it was going to be a busy day.

It was a rush to get through so many entries in the first round and the overall standard of the submissions was higher than last year, so there was more to look at and more to think about. I suspect a lot of entrants do not realise how short a period of time we have to look at each presentation, and I found myself getting slightly frustrated that so many statements included a lot of information about the commission that we already knew. As judges, we want to read about what is unique to the panel we are looking at, not the general information we already know from the brief. However there were a few gems in there which had made good use of background research and stood out as well thought out responses to the brief.

Surprisingly despite a broader range of good submissions to choose from, the four judges came to consensus pretty quickly and painlessly, with none of the arguments that happened last year. We’re looking forward to the seminar day on Tuesday 31st May at Glaziers’ Hall when we will discuss a selection of the entries.

Read more about the brief here.

A Gift and a Curse

My last blogpost expressed my frustration at the lack of polish in the students’ presentation of their competition proposals. While I was away from the studio last Monday judging the Stevens Competition, my little kiln was busy firing my own glass samples for a competition. The theme of the competition was Innovate | Communicate and entrants were asked to make a pair of favours for a Banquet at Mansion House (see all the competition entries here).

Design for penholder
I had considered the theme and I wanted to make something which could be kept on a desk – the place where most designers, thinkers, writers and business people communicate and innovate – so I designed a cast and slumped matching pair of curving glass pieces which were to function as contemporary desk holders for pens. The words “Innovate” and “Communicate” were printed within each respective pen holder. I had spent a long time making little samples trying to work out the correct sizing to fit even the biggest fountain pen and I finally made a finished version which looked good and felt stable.

However when I went to package it in my signature giftbox, I realised I’d miscalculated something as it was still slightly too big to sit comfortably in the box. I was running out of time before the deadline – cast pieces always take forever in the kiln – and my brain went into overdrive to come up with clever ways to support the glass in the giftbox at an angle which just allowed it to fit.

Then a wonderful email arrived in my inbox from the organiser of the competition saying that she was extending the deadline by a week. What a lovely surprise! I had plenty of time to make another pair at the perfect – slightly smaller – size. With the luxury of time on my side, I could even tweak and perfect the making technique.

So when I chatted to John Reyntiens on Monday – one of my fellow judges who also happened to be entering the competition – I was confident of easily making the extended deadline of Friday. And yet, later that week when I opened up the kiln to inspect my perfected pieces, my heart dropped through the floor and the cursing that was to be heard would have made any West Dulwich resident blush….. I had made a stupid, stupid error!

Jumping e

The bitter irony was not lost on me that while I was being all sanctimonious about the students not paying enough attention to detail, I had not noticed the most basic of errors in my own work… the word ‘Communicate’ looked like the “e” was making a bid for freedom!! Stupidly I had put the “e” in upside down so it appeared at the top of the piece, not the bottom. How had I not spotted this before it went in the kiln?! After the swearing had subsided, I reflected that this was probably karma biting me back for being so unforgiving when judging the student work.

I did not have time to make another one. Last week, the first version looked perfectly acceptable, albeit too big for the packaging, but now, having been offered the extended deadline, I had come to view the older version with disdain, knowing that I had time to make a truly perfect version. And yet my new version now looked ridiculous!

Should I submit it anyway, allowing people to think the jumping “e” was intentional? Should I submit it in its perfect giftbox with a shameful note of explanation? Or should I settle for the old version, which now looked so clumsy to my perfectionist’s eye, sitting awkwardly in its box?

As I went to bed that night I thought about my experience as a judge on Monday and I realised, with a leap of perception, that I am actually far more critical and less forgiving of my own work than I am when looking at other people’s work. I reminded myself that although I was complaining about the students’ scrappiness in the written presentation of their ideas, I was very much more generous and open-minded when looking at their actual glasswork.

I slept on my decision. The next morning I awoke with a compromise solution. To my eye the original set of samples would now never seem perfect, but to anyone else’s eye they would be fine. And the packaging problem? I did the unthinkable, and abandonned the idea of using my giftbox altogether…. for someone like me who produces fairly commercial products this was a bit horrifying as it meant losing my branding. But within an hour I had googled a great company who make drawstring pouches out of jute, and suddenly I had a solution, albeit a very longwinded one as it involved me driving to the other side of London and then a long detour back via Art Logistics in west London to drop off the finished pieces. All that driving gave me time to reflect that the extended deadline had been a gift, but it had also resulted in me being subject to the curse of my own perfectionism.

Finished and packagedOne day I will achieve it, but for now I can but dream of the day when I can think my way to an acceptable compromise without needing the pressure of a deadline!

Competitive Spirit

I took the train up to London Bridge on a lovely sunny Monday morning this week to do my judging duties for the Stevens Competition. Glaziers Hall was unavailable so we had a lovely room in Southwark Cathedral Conference Centre with lots of windows to view the sample glass panels. Ironically the site where the finalist’s panels are to be installed is in a corridor with substantially less light, so this was a critical consideration from the beginning.

However as a first time judge, I had a lot of other criteria to get my head round before anything else. The four judges were given a short introduction and then we worked in half hour segments, viewing and marking 6 panels at a time. There were six criteria to assess each panel against, but before I got down to the sticky business of handing out marks or reading artists’ statements, I wanted to give each panel at least a few minutes of my undivided attention. It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was entering the Stevens Competition as a student, and I remember how much thought and effort and work went into my entries, so I really wanted to just appreciate the glass pieces on display and connect on a sensory level with the artist’s intention.

Little did I know how much time would elapse while I was being all touchy-feely and when we were given our ten minute notice, I was in a slight panic noticing that the other judges had already allotted their marks and I hadn’t even started! Needless to say I managed my time a little better with each subsequent group of entries, so by the end I had the timing down to a tee.

We judges struggled with the decision beyond the first round of judging. We were to choose a prize for craftmanship and for presentation and the debate that ensued assured me that the Glaziers Guild, who run the competition, had chosen the group of judges well – we all brought different skills and areas of interest to the table, and we had a lively discussion for both categories.

After lunch, we proceeded to the second stage of judging which had a selection of the twelve strongest panels, again shown in two groups of six. This time we discussed each panel before remarking against the same criteria, and although I am pretty sure that my marking was consistent and a second viewing merely strengthened my convictions about most of the panels, we were told that overall our second round marks showed quite some variation to the first round marking…. the group discussions had obviously engendered a lot of thought.

What was interesting was how some panels which had seemed very strong contenders to start with, did not hold the emotional connection upon further scrutiny, whereas other panels which seemed obvious on first viewing, somehow acquired more depth the longer we considered them. Inevitably at this stage we were beginning to think about the panels in situ in a long, busy corridor and these aspects started to come into play in our decision-making. The final decision was deliberated upon for quite some time, going back and forth between pairs of panels, comparing them against each other to see how they fared when either viewed up close or at a distance.

The final marks were totted up and announced to us and, despite the worry that sometimes intricate marking systems can skew the results and favour submissions that don’t inspire that gut-feeling ‘rightness’, we were all satisfied that the marking had produced the right overall decision. It was a learning curve for me for my own practice to realise that the order of importance in submitting a competition proposal is to communicate:

1. simply
2. efficiently
3. professionally
4. emotionally
5. deeply

These are the chronological stages one goes through as a judge from first viewing to decision-making, though interestingly this does not match the chronology of viewing an artwork as a spectator, for which an emotional link with the artwork is of primary importance. However, as judges, we had to consider that the final panel chosen will be made and installed in an actual site (Swansea School of Glass), and thus it was critical that we had confidence in the winner’s professionalism as well as integrity of their work.

This was one thing on which I felt many of the entries fell down. I am a terrible perfectionist so I was aware that I was applying my own high standards and expectations to a group of student work, but I left feeling rather peeved that the easiest part (by a long way) of assembling a complete competition submission – such as checking for spelling mistakes or mounting a printed piece of paper on backing card rather than shoving in a dog-eared printout – were not done. I know one is meant to look past these things, but it immediately undermines one’s confidence that the entrant will have attention to detail in the final installation if the most basic of tweaks are not made in the submission in the first place.

However this aspect will provoke a lot of discussion at the prizegiving in May when the prizewinning students are announced. It will serve well as an educational experience for those that didn’t quite make the grade this time to improve for the next time they enter a competition such as this.