On the Subject of Awards
(and how they can help improve your practice)

by Ian Cooke-Tapia

An Incomplete Timeline of Isthmian Identit(y/ies)

October is, apparently, when I make my best work.

Perhaps it is a fact of the season: as time spent outdoors
transitions from gardening and hammocks to a test of one’s ability to function
without heat or light, the manic momentum made possible by summer must be
channelled into something, anything!, before a wet and bone-cold winter zaps
away any creative energy. Perhaps it is something entirely different, but
something does happen when greens give way to the reds and oranges of autumn.

October has been, for the last two years, the month when my
manic creative energy is suddenly channelled. Mind you, this is in reaction to
external forces, and that conversation about self-drive is an entirely
different article altogether. These forces and their common denominators have
less to do with the real subject of this little essay than with what they
themselves have in common; limitations on theme and subject matter; challenges
on what style means and what mine is and what it does; the design philosophy of
limited time (deadline) as means to either force out the great ideas out of us
like a wringed sponge, or to make them out of hammering a meh concept into shape with the hammer of labour. No, I am not
talking about client briefs, but rather competitions – Awards! Celebrations of the
best *insert sector*’s has to offer, and a little of self-serving back-patting.
Coincidentally, it is in October when I decide to participate in these Awards
(or at the very least when I remember to).

When a client approaches you with a brief or a contract, it usually
means that they’ve found you; you’re a fit, stylistically, monetarily or even
personally, for the narrative they have in mind. But unlike these commercial
relationships, Awards do not have such an active role in the process of
delivering artwork. They do, however, test an artist’s skills in a very
different way. Clients want what clients want (or what they think they think
they want) and that oft-times isn’t conducive to one’s best work. But knowing
that your illustrations and ideas are going to be judged based on their skill,
execution and impact against that of a worldwide colleagues and experts? That,
right there, is wood to a fire!

Results of a contest. What later would become a book contract

For me, this all started around August or September 2016,
when I became aware of the Nami Concours, a biennial competition sponsored by Nami
Island that “aims to offer
opportunities for illustrators to showcase their creative talents and raise the
quality and standard of picture book illustration.”
I have to say, in
the argumentative superiority of hindsight, that it was successful. While very
open-ended, the competition’s limitations (illustrations for picture books,
visual narrative, textless) made me think how I could start to tell complex
stories within a single image, as well as how I could tell them with less
colours, less details, less… well, less work. Time was of the essence, of
course. Orson Welles once declared: “The Enemy of art is the absence of
limitation,” something I have struggle to keep in mind and have to
constantly come back to like someone who forgets the lines of a poem they love.
Nami Concours was something I wanted to participate in, but the idea eluded me
for a while. As I sit here writing these words, I am hard pressed to remember
what gave birth to the character of Coyote, that concept that saw his first
fully-fledged experience in the failed submission to this competition (their
online system glitched and I was locked out). I digress. The result of those
months of focused labour has been some of my most successful work; but as of
today those illustrations have become the basis for a publishing contract and
revenue in the form of prints. The original images, as these things go, are not
what I would love to have on the final books, but they exist and I am now using
them as a basis for something with more polish. Without the deadline, limits
and even hope of winning the awards that the Nami Concours provided, Coyote
wouldn’t exist. And, let’s be honest, humanity would be poorer for it.

About a year later, while I was in the depths of an entirely
different project, I was contacted by Ana Elizabeth González, the Cultural
Attaché to the Consulate of Panama in London. Simply, she had kept me in mind
after a meeting a couple of years before and was extending an invitation for me
to participate in the VIA Arts Prize. Unlike the Nami Concours, whose
limitation was on medium and its focus on artistic excellence, the VIA Arts
Prize limited on style and context; Dialogues, to pick from the website, sought
artworks that have some point of
communication (or “exchange”/ “correspondence”/ “opposition”) with
a specific artwork, or with the oeuvre, of a Latin American, Spanish
or Portuguese artist, from any era. Alternatively, artists may establish a
“dialogue” with a particular style of art originating in Ibero-American
” Not being very versed with Ibero-American visual artists,
and not quite wanting to do much research in case that distracted from what I
already had  (mostly because I already
knew what I wanted to do), I latched on to that last sentence where the
“dialogue” would allow for flexibility. 
My submission was an unfinished series of illustrations done in my own
ink-on-paper style, heavily influenced by remains glimpsed from pre-Columbian
pottery designs from pre-Contact Central American cultures. The series, titled An Incomplete Timeline of Isthmian
spoke of themes of the Columbian Exchange, neocolonization,
Native American rights in the face of Latin American nation states,
environmentalism and uncertain futures. In hindsight, I should’ve done
something a little more in line with the competition theme if I wanted to win;
but instead, I dialogued with my own style.

Reportager Award Ceremony – See me in being hit by sunlight, green-red trainers

Both of these projects have benefited from not just being
made in the first place, but from having had time to rest, simmer and grow in
my neglect. While the Awards acted as wood to the fire, the ashes that remained
when the flames died out have been used to fertilize the soil of ideas. The way
I see it, without the Awards these pieces would just not exist. And without the
time since, they wouldn’t be what they are today. In the book The Tao of Writing, Ralph L. Wahlstrom
speaks of “doing without doing”, the Tao concept of Wu Wei. He likens it to
getting great ideas while in the shower, or how when you’re in a walk things
just “come to you”. The interim time since creation has given me fresh eyes and
ideas to help these projects improve; with every new sketch, Coyote’s style,
linguistic and visual, are both strengthened and limited. The time without
doing… it has power. The work I did for VIA Arts Prize, titled has yet to
find its place. Maybe it is lacking colour, maybe I just need to push it in
front of publishers; and I can decide to take these actions because I took the
very scary decision of pitching myself against, not a closed market where I
know the strengths and weakensses of my immediate colleagues and can position
myself with and against them, but against a global market where quality is
years ahead and whose rules I do not yet know. To aim for the stars is to land
on the moon, or so they say.

In my search for a role and platform for An Incomplete Timeline of Isthmian
I decided to submit it to the Association of Illustrator’s
World Illustration Awards.After all,
it is some of my most poignant work, and what is the point of illustration if
it sits unwatched in a hard drive? Lately I’ve been trying new ways of getting
my illustrative work out into the world, figuring out where it can exist
comfortably and uncomfortably. Call it market research, if you will. Again, I
decided to give it a try and submitted the project to the Experimental category
and hoped for the best. I won’t lie; it was a couple of months where I would be
gripped by a certain anxiety whenever I thought about it. I won’t lie: I wanted
to win.

Last week the results were announced and I wasn’t one of the
shortlisted artists. I am not at all peeved or angry. The quality of work the
AOI celebrates is indeed some of the best and I am not there. Not yet, at
least. Sometimes it isn’t about the prize, but the race itself. Oh, getting the
prize would be so sweet, but years later what is left from these experiences?

Personally and professionally, one has to allow themselves
to be pushed harder and farther. In lieu of having a platform, we must find
where our work can exist in this world, and, at least to me, Awards are proving
to be a source of creativity, upskilling, and a way to get “out there”, during
and after the event. After all, I was shortlisted in 2015 for the Reportager
Award and got a publishing contract out of it all.

There is great criticism for Awards, especially paid ones.
And having worked for an Awards company, I can honestly say that some of them
are just marketing ploys that might not get you anything at all unless you
definitively get to stand at the podium with a trophy of some type. But the
same experience has taught me that for those of us who want very much to win
but know, somewhere deep down, that we’re not “there” yet, the value of
entering these Awards is multiple-fold; maybe you will win, maybe you’ll be
discovered by a great editor and be contracted; perhaps a colleague will keep
you in mind and recommend you to someone else; perhaps the advertising coming
from the platforms your work appears on will increase your website’s traffic. Thing
is, unless we try, we can’t know.

Winning an Award is a journey in and of itself. Let us not
forget that, often, it is the side roads that lead to places most interesting.