By Sue Schneider
Twenty-eight years ago, Bob Kanyusik thought that the idea of a national art show in Rhinelander was crazy. Today, the annual Northern National Art Competition is still going strong and Bob has been honored with the position of judge and juror.
“Back then, Fern Stefonik of the Northern Arts Council approached me with the project, and I thought it would never work,” he recalls. “I was sure it would fail, but I didn’t want to be the one to say no.”
At the time, he was teaching art at Nicolet College and was director of the art gallery there. The Northern Arts Council (NAC) was – and still is today – a very successful volunteer organization that advocates for artistic education and events in the local area. “The partnership between the college and NAC has been essential to the success of the Northern National,” Bob explains. “We have the gallery and the structure; NAC has the connections in the community and the ability to raise funds for prizes.”
Bob admits it got off to a slow start. “That first year, we found a good candidate who would jury and judge the show for free. That helped. Since then, the show has gotten bigger and better every year. The college and the arts council have been good, respectful partners and their constant commitment has kept it going.”
His own involvement has fluctuated over the years, and when other college staff took over direction of the gallery, it relieved him of the bulk of the work. The current art gallery director, Katy Ralph, has spent more than 10 years at Nicolet and puts many hours into the project each year.
Katy’s work on the show begins months before the event, meeting with the NAC to plan details and select the judge/juror with the aid of a committee. Bob was chosen this year, not only because he is clearly qualified, according to Katy, but because he has proven to be an excellent judge. Organizers of a show in Wausau who used him said he was the best judge they had ever had.
Submissions for the show come from all across the country and even internationally; each artist sends a digital photo of his or her piece along with an entry fee. With more entries arriving each year, Bob maintains that the Northern National’s substantial cash prizes totaling more than $8,000 draw a lot of interest. “Past judges have told us that we have some of the best awards they’ve seen,” he says, “both in the amounts and the number of prizes offered. We get wonderful entries; every year we say, this is the best show ever.”
A few weeks before the show opening, Katy will have organized the photos in a presentation ready for the jurying process, at which time Bob will start going through the work and selecting those pieces he thinks are worthy of the exhibition.
Katy will then have artists send in their selected pieces and she and a group of volunteers will gather to unwrap the submissions, an event she likens to opening up Christmas presents. “Seeing photos of the work is one thing, but when you see them for real it’s amazing how different they look,” she says. “They can be larger or smaller, and not all are ‘pretty.’ Some pieces can be quite dark, emotionally charged.”
Hanging a show in the gallery is an art in itself, and Bob has nothing but praise for Katy’s work. “She does a wonderful job,” he says. “She has a real gift for it.” The day before the show opening, Bob, as judge, will have a few hours to take a closer look at the work and award prizes, including three $1,000 awards.
From the beginning, the opening of the Northern National has coincided with the annual School of the Arts in Rhinelander, a project of the University of Wisconsin. This year SOA has been shortened from its usual week-long time frame to just a three-day weekend. But in keeping with the tradition, the Northern National opening will be held during SOA on Saturday, July 18, with a reception beginning at 6 p.m. Advance tickets are on sale at various locations around Rhinelander.
Bob’s final contribution to the show will be a presentation of prizes and a talk about some of the winning entries. “I have been to every opening for the past 28 years and heard every judge’s commentary,” he says. “They’ve all been good in their own way. Each one has offered a different perspective and been an educational experience for me.
“Somewhere over the years, judges began to talk about their own work,” he says. “That’s been very interesting, but I won’t be doing much of that myself. As an educator, I’ve never taught my own process. My work is irrelevant in my teaching, as it will be in my judging. I’m here to look at what an individual artist and their work offers.”
Coming to the end of his teaching career, Bob is set to retire from Nicolet this spring. His plans include continuing to learn and pursue his own projects. For the past few years, he’s been taking advantage of Senior Auditing, a program which allows anyone 62 or older to take empty seats in any class for a very small fee.
“Every semester I’ve taken new courses,” he says. “I’ve taken all the new graphic design classes offered at Nicolet and explored computer graphics. I plan to take classes in Spanish and economics in the future. Senior Audits is a terrific opportunity.”
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods Commerce and Living on the Lake magazines.