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Drawn In

VCU art students hold their breath while the "Red Crayon of Justice" determines their fate.



Standing on the second floor of VCU's art building on jury day for the annual student show at the Anderson Gallery, Garmezy keeps a safe distance from the wall case displaying his work and jitters like a guy at a sports bar whose team is tied at halftime.

"It's a little nerve-racking, but I'm confident in the judge," Garmezy says with a grin. Any VCU arts student can submit work for the Anderson Gallery's annual student show, but to get in they have to get past the juror.

There was some tough love going around the day this year's juror, Heide Trepanier, came through with her red crayon. The whole process is up to her discretion. The juror is not required to accept a certain number of submissions. Trepanier's criteria are clear: She is looking for mastery of the materials, solidification of ideas and self-editing.

Trepanier is a product of Virginia Commonwealth University's graduate painting program and she taught in the art school until two years ago when she stopped because her own paintings were selling so well. Her close relationship with the school, combined with her growing international reputation, were what the Anderson Gallery sought in a juror. On judgment day, Trepanier looked the part with unruly hair and wearing a long black skirt and cowboy boots.

Trepanier dubbed the red editor's pencil the gallery gave her to check the "accepted" or "not accepted" box on each of the 487 entry forms her "Red Crayon of Justice." A gallery associate used several spare pencils to keep her hair in a bun. Each time Trepanier needed a new pencil, the associate rearranged her hair.

When we are young we learn that art is about boundless self-expression. In the children's book "Harold and the Purple Crayon" an ordinary boy draws himself into any adventure he can imagine. The book emphasizes one of the two things children usually learn about art: Through art, your imagination is boundless. The other is that art hanging on the wall should never be touched.

Trepanier and the Red Crayon of Justice is a different story. She wrestles oversized canvases to make sure the framing is straight. She shakes table legs to make sure the joints are tight. She also isn't afraid to mark a piece out.

In the fine arts building, submissions lined the hallways and spilled out of classrooms. "Do not disturb" signs were posted on the closed doors of a third-floor painting critique room where assistants cleared a wall and dragged canvases to the front for inspection, bringing new ones to fill in the holes left by Trepanier's crayon.

"It's some sort of surrealist abstract expressionism gone mad in here," says a distressed Trepanier, who is surveying a wide-brushed, red-blue-purple crisscross design and a portrait of a golden octopus.

"If you're using every color, you're not making any decisions," she says, referring to a colorful picture of a girl that gets the crayon. Another more traditional portrait is technically lovely, but symbolically unsound as it gets pushed aside.

Along the way professional artists start compromising. It's hard enough to find the time and money, but once you get up and running, you have to contend with critical traditions in your field and opinions about appropriate techniques. At some level professional art becomes as much about self-defense as it is about self-expression.

"You pay dearly to play," reflects Trepanier, "and the more in the game you are the higher the stakes."

For students who make it into the show, it's a very good first step. They gain credibility from having their work displayed in a well-known public venue and the opportunity to make money if it sells.

Bobby Lancaster, an art enthusiast and home furnishings wholesaler, often buys from the student art show.

"When people come into our home, we get equal compliments on the student work," Lancaster says. "I feel very comfortable that there are pieces of ours that are going to appreciate radically, but that's not our motivation. Our motivation is the beauty of it and the excitement that it provides us in our home."

In some ways the gallery's reputation relies on the juror. Amy Moorefield, the Anderson Gallery's acting director, says the juror ensures the work in the student show is on par with the professional work in the gallery during the rest of the year. Unlike curated shows where gallery's can pull in anything they want, juried shows rely on the pool of applicants.

"It's not a selection system, it's a rejection system," Moorefield says.

The rejections are part of the coming-of-age process. "There are heartbreaks when they don't get in," says Richard Roth, chair of the painting and printmaking department at VCU. "That's the nature of the art world. Keeping your self confidence going despite not getting into things is important."

In the end, the show will not necessarily be "the best of the best," Trepanier says. "It will showcase work that is the clearest in intent for the level of the student." She rewards decisiveness and potential in younger students and is dismayed by the shortcomings of the more advanced students.

In past years, gallery projects specialist Traci Horne Flores says, "The students follow the juror from room to room like a school of fish."

But this year, junior art student Garmezy is one of a small knot waiting for the verdict. He nears the wall case holding his glass objects only to find the lobster hasn't made it. Even though his frosted glass saber jaw got accepted, Garmezy's own jaw gets a little tighter as he looks off into the middle distance. He says he thinks the judge picked the wrong piece. Maybe the juror isn't familiar with glass processes, he speculates, but is philosophical about his lobster's rejection. "There's a lot of competition, people all want to get acknowledged," he says. S

The "Student Exhibitions 2006" run March 31 through April 15 at the Anderson Gallery, 907 « W. Franklin St. For more information call 828-1522 or visit

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