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Last brush standing: the rise of competitive live art

Art Battle format requires artists to paint in a circle as the audience walks around to evaluate each piece. [Photo courtesy of Art Battle Canada]

Thumbs up or thumbs down? While painters, centre, work against the clock, an Art Battle audience circulates critically. [Photo courtesy of Art Battle Canada]

Across Canada, visual art is being taken to a new level, as artists are pitted against each other in a public competition called Art Battle. The goal: to create a painting within 20 minutes. Typically the painters work standing in a circle, facing inward, while audience members move around the room to take in each piece at various stages of completion. After 20 minutes, the audience votes on which painting or paintings are best.

The contests form a tournament, ascending to a national paint-off in July. First, from a citywide competition of 12 artists, the top four artists move on to a next round, which meanwhile is fed by other 12-artist contests from the same city; eventually, one winner will go to the National Art Battle Competition. The number of city competitions per year varies with population—Ottawa normally holds 12—but each participating Canadian city winds up sending one artist to the national battle. Twenty contestants are expected at this coming summer’s national event in P.E.I.

Art Battle is the brainchild of Toronto-based artists Chris Pemberton and Simon Plashkes; it emerged from the Toronto art scene six years ago. Pemberton says they were “looking to create an ongoing event that showcased artists and had also a level of interactivity for the audience.” They wanted to build something exciting and new that could cater to an audience’s multisensory perspectives, and their innovation has paid off. Since the first battle, in 2009, the competition has expanded across Canada to cities such as Vancouver, Kingston, Ottawa and even Red Deer.

Pemberton says the tournament has doubled each year, with more than 100 competitions in 20132014. Rapid growth has included increased exposure and attendance: Art Battle now hosts over 300 artists, versus about 100 in Year One.  It provides a space for established and emerging artists to showcase their talents, while giving attendees an inside look at the creative process.

Nurturing confidence

Although painting a piece in 20 minutes may seem a daunting task, many competitors enjoy the challenge. Vancouver-based Yared Nigussu has won the National Art Battle three years running. “In the studio, it’s more like you’re a traditional artist,” he says. “I spend three or four days on it, depending on the mood of the piece.” But the pressure and exposure of Art Battle have both been good for him, he explains: “Three years ago I was just kind of a shy artist, painting in my own corner. Nobody heard about me.  Now people have heard of Art Battle. I say I have been a winner for three years; then they give me some value.”

Nigussu’s experience has inspired him to perform live for audiences on his own.  And he estimates that his following of clients and fans has grown 50 percent with his involvement in Art Battle.

‘You get to see someone’s personality and how they paint.’ Art Battle audience member Felice Miranda

Ottawa artists too are using Art Battle to showcase their work more widely and to network with colleagues. “I want to really help other artists get some recognition, get some publicity, because we do have some amazing, creative people in this city,” says Art Battle Ottawa organizer Peter Purdy. He praises Art Battle’s benefit to newer artists: “Unless you’re in that upper echelon, you’re not going to get into galleries.”

Purdy, previously an Art Battle competitor, became involved in administration only in the last year. He says that more often than not, his participation in Art Battle has resulted in a commissioned work and expanded his customer base. “Art galleries  aren’t the most accessible for all members of the public,” he  says, laughing. “Art Battle really humanizes it. You get to see the artists: it’s not just a painting on a wall, it’s a part of them.” He estimates that at least 50 percent of the artists who competed in Ottawa’s last Art Battle were approached about commissions.

Each artist is allowed to prepare a pallet of paints before the timer begins, and they gather in the centre to start the competition. [Photo courtesy of Art Battle Canada]

Ready, set… Artists, each with pallet and blank canvas, wait for the start in the crowded hall. [Photo courtesy of Art Battle Canada]

But Peter Simpson, arts-editor-at-large for the Ottawa Citizen, remains skeptical of Art Battle as a springboard for young talent. “I’m not sure it’s the kind of thing that would directly get gallery directors interested in artists,” he says. “The ability to create art very quickly, in the high-pressure position of being in front of a live audience, does not typically involve skills one thinks of as essential for an artist.” He acknowledges, however, that Art Battle may help new artists’ personal development: “If you decide to make a career as a visual artist, you’re going to be beset with obstacles.  If Art Battle can be a lesson in overcoming challenges, it’s got to be beneficial in that way.”

Patrick S. Greene, a finalist in Ottawa’s Art Battle of October 18, 2014, agrees: He cites the benefits to artists of being thrown outside their comfort zone. Part of the Ottawa arts community since 1989, Greene has often challenged his own perceived limits, even painting a live exhibition blindfolded. Art Battle is unique, he says, because it allows artists to build confidence while learning from fellow competitors. “I like that it’s a community. If you’re in the competition more than once, it’s a good way to explore new ideas and learn to be very fast. It teaches you to use the full canvas rather than just teeter on one spot.”

Despite its format of competition, Art Battle fosters growth.

Natalie Morrissett, at 16 the youngest competitor of the evening, says that winning was not a major goal for her. The ability to network with other artists and try something challenging was satisfaction enough. “Even not making it into the next round, that’s okay with me,” she says. “Those artworks were amazing! I’m coming back next round.”

Drawing a crowd

Although Ottawa normally holds monthly battles, Purdy says organizers were unable to secure a venue for this year’s November and January competitions—thus reducing the possible number of artists who could compete for the second round. Purdy says he knew there would be hiccups in his first year as organizer: “I am dedicated and determined that next season will be our greatest showing ever!”

While the event’s rise in popularity is due partly to word of mouth among artists, co-founder Pemberton says that the returning audience has been equally crucial. Although some are family or friends of the artists, showing their support, many venture in to experience the unusual atmosphere of live, timed art. Felice Miranda attended her first Art Battle a few years ago as a birthday present to herself. “It’s a competitive battle; it’s really exciting!” she said. “You get to see someone’s personality and how they paint.” Catherine Duveau, having been to battles in Ottawa and Toronto, says she continues to seek out the event because “it’s always different.” She enjoys observing the artists, she says: “I like seeing them do something they love. It’s a good thing for Ottawa.”

Like Patrick S. Greene (pictured left), artists try to employ a unique artistic technique to set them apart from their competitors. [Photo courtesy of Cat Hennessy]

Ottawa artist Patrick S. Greene, foreground, doing Art Battle. [Photo courtesy of Cat Hennessy]

Many involved in Art Battle are veterans of the visual arts community, well versed in the difficulties of breaking into a local limelight. They agree the event creates opportunity in cities where big names dominate or where arts communities are just emerging. Says Purdy, “After owning a gallery and being a struggling artist to get my name out there, it’s become a real passion to help up-and-coming artists. This is a way that’s helping artists get exposure who might be struggling to do that.”

Despite its format of competition, Art Battle provides an environment to foster confidence and growth in local art scenes. “Though there is one winner at the end of the night, typically all the artists have a really great time,” Pemberton says. “We consider all of our painters to be stars. We share all information and work as widely as we can.”

[Front page photo courtesy of Art Battle Canada]