Reborn as "Virginia Artists," the end-of-summer tradition at Hampton's Charles H. Taylor Arts Center more than doubled the number of artists and entries it had drawn in previous years, tantalizing lucky, even surprised viewers with one of its best-ever collections of artistic talent.
But few observers could have predicted that the once-teetering contest would become still bigger and better known, with this year's edition attracting a record 763 entries by 276 artists representing an increasingly large swath of Virginia.
Much of the credit goes to James Warwick Jones, the award-winning Hampton painter and curator who has transformed both the center and its exhibits since being hired as its manager by canny Hampton Arts Foundation director Michael Curry in 2005.
Since then Jones has not only vastly improved and enlarged the former library's galleries but also raised the threshold for the ambition and importance of its exhibits.
"For us, the changes in the old Bay Days exhibit have turned out to be a good thing. It opened the show up — and we've set records for the number of entries every year," he says.
"But we're not only getting more entries, we're showing more work — almost twice as much as we were — because of the improvements we've made to our space."
As in previous years, Jones has used his prize money wisely, too, parceling out what is now more than $7,000 in ways calculated to not only lure more artists but also diversify his show's interest.
Nearly a third goes to recognize excellence in various media, including prizes for drawing, printmaking, mixed-media and crafts as well as the old mainstays of painting, photography and sculpture.
That's one reason why the revived show usually scores so many extra points for the variety of work found by viewers. It also helps explains why — of the six major prizes awarded this year — only two went to the often dominant field of painting.
Indeed, the 2010 Best-in-Show winner — "Pandora's Box" — is a tour-de-force example of eye-fooling printmaking, one that has left many viewers both smiling and scratching their heads.
Created by Aylett artist Katherine Gilbert, this long, horizontal image of a grassy field bounded in the distance by trees — and on the right by a deserted country road — appears first to be a photograph, then a partly 3-dimensional construction.
Three-quarters of the way down as you scan it from the left, the picture seems to sprout out into space, forming a partially opened lidded box, before receding again and continuing on uninterrupted.
Spend just a few seconds looking, however, and this teasing exploration of visual reality reveals its real identity as a masterfully made print teeming with deceptive detail and shadow. But the real icing on this trompe l'oeil cake is the winged insect that appears to have escaped from the box, crawled out to the road and then headed across the border of the picture.
Teasing, puzzling and meticulously executed works are a favorite of juror Nancy Sausser, exhibit director at the McLean Project for the Arts, who also gave the Juror's Choice Award to Williamsburg artist Brad McLemore's beautiful but enigmatic "Chub."
Part mysterious artifact and part unidentified industrial tool, this hand-built ceramic sculpture incorporating both gritty stoneware and smooth porcelain clays bristles with eye-catching passages of texture and color — much of it resulting from the unpredictable interaction of the clay bodies and glazes with the intense heat, flying wood ash and swirling sodium vapors in his kiln.
But it's the curiously ticklish experience of knowing yet not knowing exactly what this evocative, grinderlike object is that makes you start to look.
Erickson can be reached at 247-4783 and email@example.com. Look for him at facebook.com/dpentertainment.
Want to go?
What: Virginia Artists 2010 Juried Exhibition
Where: Charles H. Taylor Arts Center, 4205 Victoria Blvd., Hampton
When: Tuesday-Sunday through Aug. 29
Online: Go to dailpress.com/vaartists2010 to see the prize-winning works from the show.