Jesus Wins World's Biggest Art Award! Michigan's ArtPrize Goes to Towering Crucifixion Mosaic

Tracy Van Duinen's "Metaphorest," 2nd place winner of the 2011 ArtPrize
(Courtesy of ArtPrize)

Grand Rapids, Michigan's annual ArtPrize embraces art by democracy. And the people have clearly spoken. For the second year in a row, the prize has honored Mia Tavonatti, thus perhaps launching a new sort of art star.

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Currently in its third year, the competition chooses winners by popular vote, awarding them with generous cash prizes. This year, Michigan native Tavonatti took the 2011 first prize — which comes with a hefty quarter-million-dollar purse — for her glass mosaic "Crucifixion," a transcendent image of Jesus on the cross set against a background of roiling clouds and golden light. Last year, Tavonatti took second place in the competition.

Taking the top honor proved an emotional moment for Tavonatti, whose mother died in the artist's home town of Iron Mountain, Michigan, only shortly before the awards ceremony, according to the Detroit News.

The work of the ArtPrize nominees isn't the kind one would generally expect to see highlighted at a biennale or featured on a magazine cover — last year's top art work was Chris LaPorte's wall-filling realist drawing of American cavalry officers circa 1921. But then the ArtPrize audience is entirely different from the standard art-world cliché. Only exhibition-goers in Grand Rapids are allowed to vote on the prize, rather than "art-world elitists" (as the Detroit News puts it). This year, "382,000 votes were cast to pick the top 10 out of 1,582 participating artists." Over 500,000 people visited.

ArtPrize's second place, with a prize of $100,000, went to Chicago artist Tracy Van Duinen, whose mural-sized mosaic "Meta-Phorest" was created in cooperation with students at the West Michigan Center for Arts & Technology in Ann Arbor, forming a "tribute to the potential building power of the arts and Grand Rapid's youth." The end result is an eye-catching architectural mural in bas-relief, featuring a floating, Buddha-like face with the slogan "visualize" emblazoned above it. Ann Arbor, Michigan artist Lynda Cole took the $50,000 third place honor with her sculptural installation "Rain," an ethereal grid of hanging squares of silver leaf, left free to "move with ambient air currents."

The ArtPrize-winning pieces have a few things in common — they are all accessible but visually impactful, and civic-minded. Though these projects aren't properly speaking public art, they must compete in a public arena for attention and votes from visitors who may not be educated in contemporary art theory and art history. "Different communities need different things from art," wrote art critic Paddy Johnson of this year's prize, "so the same work of art might be very successful communicating to one group of people, and not at all to another."

The fourth- through tenth-place runners up included Laura Alexander's intricate yet monumental paper cut piece "The Tempest," Paul Baliker's nautical sculpture "Ocean Exodus," and Robert Shangle's "LiveStatue and Friends" performance. Each runner-up received $7,000.

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Click on the slide show at left to see images of the winning ArtPrize works.