The Young Sculptor Competition

For many of you, the phrase "Young Sculptor Competition" may be new. So before I tell you about my experience during the competition, let me explain a little about what it is.

The Young Sculptor Competition is an annual figure modeling competition sponsored by the National Sculpture Society (NSS). The competition is based on an old world tradition. I believe this competition has been running in it's current form since some time in the late 1970's. The basic parameters of the competition are as follows: To create a 32"-36" figure in water based clay in 28 hours over the course of 5 days of working directly from a model. The judging criteria is: Each sculpture is judged on mastery of the human figure in sculptural form as well as each competitor’s comprehension of the action, unity and rhythm of the pose. Emphasis is placed on encouraging the analytic observation of the human figure, including proportion, stance, solidity and continuity of line. Of secondary importance is surface finish and detail. So, having given you that information, I'll now tell you about my experience.

My history with the Young Sculptor Competition actually goes back more than a decade. I first learned about it when I was still a student in college. I became interested in competing in something so prestigious, so I began submitting. I was turned down the first year (as I thought I might be). I continued to submit each year and soon found myself scratching my head as I was turned down time and time again. Over the course of 12 years I submitted and was rejected 9 times. Last year I was finally selected as an alternate, but wasn't asked to compete. This year I was once again selected as an alternate, but a few days later I recieved the news that someone had dropped out and I was in. I was finally going to get to compete. In the couple weeks leading to the competition, I had a lot of preparation to do. I hadn't sculpted from a live model in about a year, and it had been about a year and a half since I touched water based clay. Through some rather unfortunate circumstances I did not get the time I wanted. I did however manage to get about 7 hours with my wife as the model. Even though it wasn't much time, I felt that the result of those 7 hours was a good sign that I was ready for the competition.

I won't go through a day by day recounting of the competition (mainly because I think it would be boring), but I will describe the week as best I can.

It started (as it always does) with armature building. The interesting thing about that is that everybody builds armatures differently, and all the competitors have to use only the materials supplied to them. I didn't particularly like the materials provided, but I made a nice armature that served it's purpose. As many different ways as there are of making armatures, there are more ways and styles of sculpting. It was clear after the first day that the competition wasn't going to come down to details, rather the judges personal taste in styles. Everything from highly resolved structures of the body, to loosely finished and gestural sculptures filled the room. As the days went on, the competitors' styles really began to come through. By mid week it was also clear that this competition was also about endurance. Every body was tired. Legs and backs were sore, and there was still a few days of competition remaining.

At the end of the day Thursday (the last full day of competition), I finished an hour early and I left the studio to get some rest. On Friday, there was only 3 hours to finish the pieces before the judging. Some people were still rushing to the very end, others were carefully going over their sculptures and applying the finishing touches. I spent that time looking over any small details, but trying not to noodle the piece to death. At noon we were cleared out of the studio before the judges came in and the doors were locked. It was out of my hands - although it seems as though it was always out of my hands.

When it came time for the judges descisions, it was the first time I actually felt nervous. The judges started with an anonymous critique of each piece (they only knew the number of the piece and not who had sculpted it). This was the time that it became clear that the competitors and the judges interpreted the criteria of the competition differently. Where myself and many of my fellow competitors stuck to a strict interpretation of the model, the judges felt that the model (and the pose) was really more of a guideline. In the end, the piece that the judges selected for first place didn't really look like the model, but it had a more dynamic interpretation of the pose.

While winning second place my first time out (I say that because almost half of the competitors have been in the competition before and some of them have been in it as many as four times), is a great achievement for me, it's also a little bitter sweet because I feel the judging didn't follow the parameters that I thought were set in stone. Now that I've had some time to myself, away from the competition, I'm quite proud of my accomplishment and I look forward to (possibly) competing again next year.

If there's any parting advice I can leave you with, it would be this: Competitions are never about "Who's the best", but instead about who the judges think did the best work, in their opinion. So if you find yourself lucky enough to be in a competition, make sure that your main objective is to make something that you're proud of. Don't compromise on your artistic values, or try to pander to the judges preferences. In the end (and I mean of our lives, not the competitions), these little moments of failure or victory mean very little. It's the ability to look ourselves in the mirror and say "For that one moment, I did the best I could."