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Salt Spring National Art Prize tempers Canadian art's big-city bias

A blind jury named these 52 Canadian artists the strongest working in visual art today. Discover some of the work now on display as part of the first ever Salt Spring National Art Prize, which will award $25,000 in prize money October 24.

The $25,000 prize's first year saw its 52 finalists chosen by a blind jury

They didn't give their names, or ages, or home towns when they applied. But according to the Salt Spring National Art Prize (SSNAP) jury, the strongest visual artists working in Canada today are the 52 artists now exhibiting their works at the Gulf Island's Mahon Hall.

The old idea was that an artist needed to live in a major city to see what's going on. I think the technical world has given artists no excuse to be ignorant.- artist and SSNAP founding director Ronald T. Crawford

They're the first ever SSNAP finalists, and they're vying for $25,000 in prize money, plus a residency on the island, which will be awarded Oct. 24. Some have exhibited everywhere in the country — and at least one is a total rookie. And that's the beauty of the prize, says SSNAP's founding director, local painter and stone sculptor Ronald T. Crawford.

"It's an open show, it involves every medium," Crawford says. "[The jurors] chose the work from a blind jury situation, which is unique to national shows."

Those jurors, which will change in every edition of the biannual awards, include curator Vicky Chainey Gagnon (The Rooms, St. John's, NL), artist/educator Holger Kalberg (University of Winnipeg) and Salt Spring painter Ian Thomas. 

"This show was just based on the work itself," Crawford continues. "It was important to me as an artist because that puts the art in the foreground... I felt that every artist across the country has an equal opportunity."

Artist and SSNAP's founding director, Ronald T. Crawford, at work. (SSNAP)

More than 800 Canadians, representing every province and territory, applied for the prize, sending a sample of their work and an artist's statement. 

The final 52 include painters and photographers and sculptors — and they hail from every region, including four from Salt Spring Island itself. 

"Basically we wanted to put together an exhibition that encourages the arts right across the country," says Crawford, "we wanted to get artists from across the country here on Salt Spring Island." 

And there's the thing. When a visual arts prize of this value is of relatively short supply in Canada, why host it on Salt Spring, a Gulf Island about a half-hour ferry ride from Victoria, population: 10,000?

Says Crawford: "Well, why not?"

"The decentralizing of art is important, I think. The old idea was that an artist needed to live in a major city to see what's going on. I think the technical world has given artists no excuse to be ignorant of what's going on in the rest of the world," he explains.

Inside the 2015 Salt Spring National Art Prize exhibition, on until October 26 at the island's Mahon Hall. (SSNAP)

"We have artists on Salt Spring who exhibit nationally, and internationally," he continues. Wildlife painter Robert Bateman, a famous resident, is a popular example, and the island has long been home to a variety of galleries and dozens of artist studios which can be visited by tourists year-round. 

"We have a great support system. We have everyone we needed here to put this thing together," he says, and that includes the local donors who have supplied SSNAP with its entire $25,000 purse.

Twenty-seven of the finalists made their way to the island over the weekend to attend SSNAP's exhibition opening. Crawford expects more to visit through the month. 

The competitors' work will remain on display at Mahon Hall through Oct. 26, and a series of panel discussions and artist talks have been programmed throughout the month in conjunction with SSNAP. 

"Salt Spring has a great deal of artists, and as a community we have conversations quite a lot among ourselves. But we don't have the opportunity to have new artists of this exceptional quality come here so we can meet and look at the work and have a discussion. And dialogue about the arts is critical."

View a selection of the pieces now on display as part of SSNAP's first exhibition. More can be found at saltspringartprize.ca along with further information.

2015 Salt Spring National Art Prize Exhibition. To October 26 at Mahon Hall. 114 Rainbow Rd. Salt Spring Island. www.saltspringartprize.ca

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