Tammy McCoy did not have a lot of time to sit back and relax during the first Battle of the Brushes in downtown Burlington. As director of the Burlington Art Center, she did her best to make sure the larger than expected crowd was having a good time.
"It's awesome," was McCoy’s reaction to the fact that more than 100 people crammed into the gallery along Jefferson Street to watch the timed painting competition.
“I think everyone seems to be having a great time. I think we will need a bigger place next year,” said McCoy.
McCoy was handing out popcorn and water, selling bottles of wine and plates of meats and cheeses, and going table to table, making sure everyone was enjoying themselves.
McCoy said the idea for Battle of the Brushes came from James Henry, a local artist who competed in timed art contests in the past. She said it seemed like something fun for people to do at the gallery in January.
Six people paid $5 each to compete: James Henry, Susan Reinier, David Garrison, Mary Birdsell, Kathleen Almelien, and Doug Rutzen. Jessica Kirby was a late addition after Almelien could not participate.
Each artist was provided a blank canvas (roughly 36” x 24”) and an easel. They could paint portrait-style (vertical) or landscape-style (horizontal).
The artists brought their own paints, brushes, and other materials.
The competition lasted three hours, with a couple of ten-minute breaks mixed in. The winner, selected by a pair of judges, received a $250 cash prize.
There was not a theme for the competition, Instead, the arts center unveiled a still-life and the artists had to include at least three items from it in their paintings. They could also add other elements.
Once the still-life was revealed, the clock started ticking. Several participants quickly started sketching out their basic design with charcoal or paint while others immediately started putting paint on their paper.
Susan Reinier, a self-taught artist from Cedar Rapids, studied the still-life for a while and was the final artist to start putting something on the canvas.
“It was a little overwhelming, at first, to try to pick and choose what I really wanted, what I have time for, because I am a slow painter,” said Reinier, adding that once she got started, the process became easier. “You know, it’s a little bit nerve-wracking, but once you get into it, you are just in the zone that you kind of tune everything else out.”
It also helped that Reinier, who's originally from Burlington, had a little extra support in the audience. Her parents sat just a few feet from her canvas and watched her throughout the three hours, even providing her snacks during the first break.
“She was a little bit nervous going into it,” said Jean Ballinger about her daughter, “I knew she would come out of that just fine. I have always enjoyed watching her paint or draw. She always laughs because she says ‘Watching paint dry, how fun is that?’ But it’s the creative process that you see the layers of oil paint going on and then you see it change before your eyes.”
Jean Ballinger says she knew early on her daughter had a knack for art, so she and her husband encouraged her to pursue it.
“She was always just using plain old pencil,” said Ballinger. “I said, ‘Don’t you want to do something more than just pencil,’ so we got her some colored pencils and we bought her some oils and encouraged her to go to the art center classes when it was the old art guild up on Washington Street.”
At the end of the night, Reinier looked at the finished product and said she was happy with the result of her first timed competition.
“I am real happy with the size of the work I did in three hours,” said Reinier.
Fellow competitor Jessica Kirby of Fort Madison said she could have used a little more time.
“I think I needed another 20 minutes,” said Kirby, as she looked at her painting. “I would have tried to clean it up a little bit. Some of the details needed to be in there.”
Kirby was a last minute replacement, but she knew what to expect coming in as she has participated in timed competitions before. But she said she got to pick her subject in those contests, instead of a still-life being presented to her.
That led her to immediately shift her easel so she had a straight-on view of the still-life. She said because of the limited amount of time, she wanted to make things simple.
“You only get three hours, so I don’t want to have to think too hard about the composition,” said Kirby. “I’ve got other things to worry about.”
Like Reinier, Kirby had some support from the very start, in the form of her friend, John Preston of Fairfield.
Preston was sitting in the crowd during the competition, but his accomplishments as an artist could have easily had him on the stage competing for the title of first Battle of the Brushes champion. Instead, he was there to support Kirby.
Preston said he appreciated the opportunity to watch the artists work up close.
“I think it’s fun,” said Preston. “I like it. I like the fact that people can see how art is made as opposed to wondering about it and just seeing the finished product.”
Preston sat back during the competition and watched for a while before getting up and walking around, observing each artist. By the end of the night, he had become the official color commentator for Tri States Public Radio.
Preston said he was particularly impressed with David Garrison’s technique and use of color.
“[Garrison] is trying to soften his edges [by using his hand and a towel]. He’s trying to get a sense of volume around the objects so that not all of his edges are knife edges,” said Preston, adding that when Garrison started using a blade on his painting, “it’s almost like frosting a cake. He’s getting a lot of paint on there. Then once it’s on the canvas, he can kind of manipulate it by using his hand or his towel or his brushes.”
It appears the judges were just as fond of Garrison’s work as he was the winner of the first Battle of the Brushes. He walked away with a $250 cash prize. The paintings were also raffled off as part of a fundraiser for the Art Center.
Director Tammy McCoy said afterward that she was so impressed by the artists and by the turnout that this will likely become an annual event in January for the gallery.
“It feels really good to know that we can open up the gallery [for this],” said McCoy.
“A lot of people might have been intimidated to come in in the past, but now, we can offer them a glass of wine and a beer and they can come in and enjoy the art work. It is a big benefit to the community.”