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Twitter plays key role in art award for Elon professor

Young Kim dropped small lights from the rafters of a vacant office near downtown Grand Rapids to illuminate the dozens of salt and clay portraits he created on the ground below, but when his work fell short in the public voting of a Michigan art contest billed as “the largest in the world,” fans of the Elon University assistant professor turned to Twitter – and their efforts proved the power of social media.

Organizers of the inaugural ArtPrize competition earlier this month honored Kim, who teaches traditional and digital photography in the Department of Art, with the Curator’s Choice Award. The citywide extravaganza ran from Sept. 23 through Oct. 10 and allowed artists from around the globe to compete for a $250,000 top prize.

Young Kim's exhibition, "salt & earth," won the Curator’s Choice Award in the 2009 ArtPrize contest in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Unlike traditional exhibitions where curators judge art, a public vote determined ArtPrize winners. Visitors to Grand Rapids who registered at one of several locations, including the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, a local organization co-hosting the event, could cast ballots for more than 1,200 artists.

Entries ranged from a large piece of furniture mounted over the top of the trestle of a bridge, to an underwater colored ice and snow sculpture, to portraits made of pushpins, though it was Kim’s work that captured the attention of art professionals and journalists alike.

Kim visited Grand Rapids prior to the start of the fall semester to photograph people he met downtown and made stencils at Elon University in the weeks that followed. Upon his return to Michigan in mid September, he rigged lights from the ceiling and used the stencils to sift red clay onto salt squares evenly spaced along the floor.

Each portrait showed a man or woman, young and old, black and white, facing the camera with his or her eyes closed. Having subjects close their eyes was Kim’s way to weave a theme through the project. “I always gravitate toward images of people with their eyes closed,” he said as he reflected on the peaceful, contemplative nature of the act. “It’s a simple gesture but it’s a way to connect.”

Assistant professor Young Kim

The portraits in his display, titled "salt & earth," drew rave reviews from local observers and garnered Kim attention from Michigan Public Radio, the Grand Rapids Press and even a brief mention in the New York Times.

“The fact that whoever you are, no matter your level of experience, that you had an emotional response to the work, from the moment you walked into an installation, that’s really difficult to pull off,” said Jeff Meeuwsen, executive director of the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts. “He was able to create what was in some ways the perfect public art piece.”

The ArtPrize, however, was a democratic creation. The public chose their favorites, and while Kim’s cracked the top 25 of all exhibits, he fell short of the final cut into the top 10. Nevertheless, his local supporters would not be deterred.

Twitter users in Grand Rapids quickly established a forum to spread news of their favored artist, and donations earmarked for the Elon faculty member poured into the UICA. Meeuwsen said organizers had always planned to offer a Curator’s Choice Award and the unexpected gifts helped fund such a recognition.

The nature of his work made the slightest draft a danger to the images - something Young Kim anticipated and, in fact, said demonstrates the fragile nature of human existence.

“The way he engaged the community, not only in helping to install the piece, but the subject matter, they’re people from the streets of Grand Rapids, it was just a really beautiful piece,” Meeuwsen said.

The surprise award included a $5,000 check. Young learned of the honor as he returned home to Greensboro, listening to the award ceremony using a cell phone with broadband access that he had connected to his laptop for live streaming on the passenger seat. It was something he now says is “not recommended.”

“I didn’t know they were going to do that until they announced it,” Young said. “It was great to help me fund what I did. People in Grand Rapids have been so generous.”

Colleagues at Elon say the award couldn’t have gone to a more deserving recipient whose modest demeanor masks a fountain of talent.

“Young is a careful and thoughtful person, gentle and with a good sense of humor. He treats everyone around him with respect and kindness, and he's a very good listener,” said Kirstin Ringelberg, an associate professor of art. “From the moment he came to Elon I've felt attached to him because he's so easygoing and open to everyone.”

The empty office was an ideal venue for the exhibition.

Kim started teaching at Elon in 2007 having spent several years as an assistant professor at West Virginia University. He received his bachelor of fine arts degree at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee before earning his master of fine arts from the University of Kentucky.

“His work surrounds the viewer in the space, but it doesn't overwhelm the viewer or crowd out the viewer's own thoughts about the work,” Ringelberg said. “Young creates a really careful balance between object and space, between viewer and artist, between meaning and form.

“For me the ideal artwork is one that finds that balance, and Young's work achieves that.”

Eric Townsend,
10/16/2009 2:29 PM