The crowd filling The Walters Art Museum’s courtyard cheered as artist James Williams II was announced as the winner of the 17th annual Janet and Walter Sondheim Art Prize late Thursday.
Williams, who recently caught COVID-19, was unable to accept the award in person. Still, the Baltimore-based artist and Maryland Institute College Art graduate was the center of attention at the exhibit, which also featured the work of second- and third-place winners Megan Koeppel and Maren Henson.
“I loved it,” said Rachel Elliot after perusing Williams’ artwork. “It was really powerful and interesting, and I loved the puns. It was very thoughtful.”
After an inquiry from his then-4-year-old daughter about the African American race, Williams took to art to visually retort and challenge the ambiguity of “the Black construct.” With jarring images and dark, rich colors alongside evocative titles, Williams incorporates painting, photography, fiber materials and technology to create pieces such as: “BLK/M/5′8/Checkered Sweatshirt/ Dark Jeans/ Brown Boots or in short Self-Portrait with Checkered Sweatshirt,” “Descendants of Cain,” “Hand-me-downs” and “God Don’t Like Ugly.”
“I’m overfilled with joy that his vision has encompassed and captured so many people and they see the importance of race and identity, not just in the world, but in the art world — that’s very often overshadowed,” said photographer and Baltimore native Patrick Vaughn, who is also known as Photogenisist.
Having earned $30,000 — the largest monetary award in the history of the prize, a quarantined Williams celebrated more than the financial windfall, citing the ability to showcase art despite COVID obstacles.
“I want to take the time to thank BOPA [the Baltimore Office of Promotion and Arts] and The Walters Art Museum for providing this opportunity for us to exhibit, in person, despite the continued difficulties of the pandemic,” Williams wrote in a statement read during the awards ceremony.
The exhibit was not only a highlight for the artists, but also was key in choosing the winner.
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Jurors Catherine Morris, Kambui Olujimi and Jean Shin followed Williams from the beginning of the application process until the end. Olujimi and Shin are both artists and Morris is a curator for the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. From 300 applicants to 13 semifinalists to three finalists, the jurors were charged with selecting a winner who they viewed as being on the brink of changing the arts game.
“I tell [the jurors] to be a little selfish and pick who they think would be the most interesting show to see,” said Lou Joseph, who manages BOPA prizes and competitions.
“Who’s about to make a leap in their work that [the jurors] are really excited about and want to help support?”
As a self-described “street artist,” Vaughn, 27, said watching Williams succeed gives him hope.
“I’m really glad that his work was given one of the biggest stages on the East Coast, The Walters Arts Museum,” he said. “Seeing him in there inspires artists like me.”
While Williams won the main prize, Koeppel earned a fully funded residency at Civitella Ranieri near Umbria, Italy, and Henson got a six-month studio space at the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower.
Audiences will be able to check out all three artists in the exhibit at The Walters at 600 N. Charles St. until Sept. 18.