Cream of the crop

The Anna Airy Award is one of the most prestigious prizes in the Suffolk art world. ANDREW CLARKE went along to Suffolk College, to take a look at the work of this year's finalists.

The Anna Airy Award is one of the most prestigious prizes in the Suffolk art world. ANDREW CLARKE went along to Suffolk College, to take a look at the work of this year's finalists.

LEGENDARY Suffolk artist Anna Airy would have thoroughly approved of having an award in her name dedicated to encouraging young artists to improve their skills.

The colourful and diverse work of this year's finalists is currently displayed at the Forefront Gallery inside Suffolk College and makes for a startling exhibition. There are oil paintings, sculpture, mixed media creatures, manipulated digital images, black and white photography, portraits and abstract art, landscapes and textiles. The gallery buzzes with youthful talent and exuberance.

This year's Anna Airy Award winner, Chloe Sage, is probably the only prize winning art student who has changed degrees from maths to Fine Art and History of Art. Unfortunately her change of degree was dictated by a sudden and dehabilitating illness which hospitalised her seven years ago.

However, it was the effects of her illness which has informed her prize-winning entry Look Really Well 2005. She has created a nine-metre long pill box which features 1,092 tiny pictures of Chloe taking her medication last year.

Chloe, 25, of Arundel Way, Ipswich, said: “I was at Leicester University doing a mathematics degree when I was suddenly taken ill - severely ill. I was diagnosed as suffering from vasculitis which is a condition which inflames the blood vessels which also affects the brain.”

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It is believed by doctors that a stroke which Chloe suffered, was also linked to the condition.

She added: “It's under control now but it's left me mentally unable to carry on with my maths degree. So I was also always interested in art, so I have changed my course and I am now doing an art degree. I feel that art should reflect life and so I wanted to include my life in my work. Although my condition is under control, it requires daily medication to keep it that way. One of the great problems I have is remembering whether I have taken my pills and this artwork arose out of my daily battle to remember.

“What I did last year was to take a photograph of me taking my medication because there would be a permanent record of the event. Look Really Well 2005 was created to show how personal circumstance, repetition and routine affects people's daily lives. It provides a rhythm that dictates what people can do and shapes their lives.”

As to the future Chloe hasn't really thought about what happens after she graduates. “For me graduating will be a real achievement. This condition leaves you feeling incredibly fatigued, so I'm taking one day at a time.”

Jan Watson, co-ordinator of the Anna Airy Selection panel, continues to be amazed at the standard of the work entered for the competition. “Every year the standard gets better and better. This year we have had well over 100 entries including our first contributions from a school outside the county - St Mary's School in Cambridge thanks to teacher Gill Clifford who used to teach at Mildenhall and has taken the competition with her to her new school.”

She said that the judges Alex Pearl, tutor at Suffolk College, Barbara Norman and herself had a difficult task whittling down the entries to the finalists. “The standard was as high as ever this year. The judges were impressed by the ambitious scale of some of the work which creates such a visual impact in the exhibition.”

She said that despite the high standard there was complete agreement that Chloe Sage would be this year's winner. “Chloe Sage's work worked when viewed from a distance and close up. Standing away from the work it looked like a sparkling band of silver mosaic flowing across a wall. Viewed close up it lost its decorative quality but a personal story emerges from within the tiny mosaic of shapes.

“Chloe has documented an entire year of her life in a series of photographic self-portraits. It is an intriguing piece that reflects contemporary art practise and at the same time is a very personal statement.”

Thomas Simmons, 18, of The Royal Hospital School, was delighted not only to gain The Most Promising Artist award in the 16-10 category but he also sold his first piece of art work. “I can't really believe it,” he said shaking his head. “It's the first time anything like this has ever happened.”

He entered three sculptures in the exhibition one made with plastic drink stirrers gathered from Tate Modern, a clay sculpture which is glazed perfectly at one end and at the other is peeling away, looking like an old dilapidated piece of leather at the other. The third sculpture is an intricate web of cotton coated in a wax-like plastic making it look semi-organic.

Thomas has gained a place at Glasgow School of Architecture and he plans to make a career as an architect.

Jan Watson said that Anna Airy would have been proud that her name was being attached to an art prize which was helping talented young artists realise their dream. “Anna Airy was one of the leading artists of her generation, a distinguished portrait painter and printmaker and an official war artist for the First World War.”

Anna was one of the leading lights in the Ipswich Art Society and dedicated much of her later career to inspiring and promoting young talent - and yet many regarded her as a walking contradiction. She was a superbly gifted technical painter - she won every prize that the Slade School of Art offered, she was a lifelong champion of young talent and yet she had an amazingly blinkered and narrow view on what constituted art.

Whether she would have approved of the works currently on show as part of the Anna Airy Show at the Forefront Gallery inside Suffolk College is unlikely.

But despite her authoritarian views she was well regarded by students because she was a natural born teacher and had a witty personality which tended to deflect some of her more conservative ideas - which made her seem rather silly and outdated a long time before her death at Playford in 1964.

The competition was launched by Ipswich Art Society the following year to honour Anna and to continue her work in fostering new talent. For many years the award was only open to young artists aged between 16-22 but with the advent of mature students and retraining opportunities a new category has been added designed to embrace older entrants and it's a category which has become increasingly popular over the last five years.

Although the monetary rewards are not great winning the Anna Airy Award does provide a vital showcase for the young artists work.

The full list of winners are: Anna Airy award - Chloe Sage; Most Promising Artist (16-20) - Thomas Simmons; Most Promising Artist (21-25) - Adam Weal; Mature Student Award - Wendy Brooke-Smith/Jenny Knights (joint award).


The Anna Airy Exhibition is open at the Forefront Gallery, Suffolk College from 10am to 4pm until Friday when it closes at 2pm.