Q & A with the 50th Annual Northern Lights Judges

How the Northern Lights Judges Make History Every Year
The 2024 Northern Lights Judges
(from left to right: Amy Wilderson, Helen Otterson, Neil Johnston)

It is as big as it sounds: it’s White Bear Center for the Arts’ 50th Annual Northern Lights Juried Art Exhibition. Just 10 years after its creation, Northern Lights was considered one of the most prestigious art shows in the area and one of the most important events in the White Bear Art Council’s annual calendar. And it’s stayed that way.

The inaugural exhibition in 1974 was co-sponsored by White Bear Arts Council and Lakewood Community College. WBCA archives show that the first exhibit had over 200 entries from artists in the five-state area of Minnesota, Iowa, North and South Dakota, and Wisconsin. That year, the White Bear Arts Council recruited Augsburg College Art Department chairman Philip Thompson as judge. It came to be a very big job as Thompson whittled the 200 entries down to a quarter of the selection based on WBCA’s judging guidelines of quality, content and originality. From there, he picked the winning pieces.

Each year is unique. As one of this year’s judges, Neil Johnston says, “the shows are so different, in part based on the sensibilities of the judging group, but also based on the individual interests and creativity of the artists.” This year, as WBCA celebrates the 50th year, 394 artists submitted over 700 pieces in mediums across the board including ceramics, paintings, fiber, photography, mosaics, and so much more. It was up to this years judges to narrow down the field.  Artists Neil Johnston, Helen Otterson, and Amy Wilderson chose 101 works to make up the landmark exhibit.

Neil Johnston is a painter whose work responds to his interest in how time, environments, places and memories have a lasting impact on people by combining resin layers with collaged paper, letterforms, landscape views, GPS data, maps and more. Helen Otterson is a sculptor who works with ceramics and glass. Her work often draws from human cells, and plant forms. Amy Wilderson is a jewelry artist whose work taps into memory, culture, and heritage by reviving forgotten treasures.

How did you feel about being asked to be a Northern Lights judge?

Helen Otterson: It was an honor to be asked to participate in the jurying process.

Amy Wilderson: I was honored and thrilled when [WBCA] asked me to be a Northern Lights Judge! I have taught classes at White Bear Center for the Arts and know firsthand how invested this community is in being involved in the arts. Being a judge gives me an opportunity to be part of recognizing and awarding artists at all levels. I am especially pleased to be a part of this 50th anniversary event. 

Neil Johnston: This was such a surprise and a great honor and responsibility. There is nothing quite like discussing an artwork and discovering something new – becoming aware of another aspect that I hadn’t been aware of before. In all the best art conversations, I come away being slightly more aware of something new. This continual learning philosophy is an extension and support of my studio practice – I couldn’t wait to see what I could learn from Amy and Helen and the jury process.  

Can you describe how you all worked together? What was the dynamic?

HO: Working with Amy and Neil was fantastic. Many times we had the same sensibilities about the work. The conversations were very egalitarian and it was easy to share our thoughts and opinions about the work.

AW: Working with Helen and Neil has been an absolute pleasure. We are three artists with very different practices which was a wonderful way to bring varying observations to the table even as we found common appreciation for most of the submissions. On the pieces that we disagreed on, we engaged in delightful and respectful discussions, where value for each other’s opinions and expertise was always at the forefront. Even though we had a lot of submissions to review and ended up extending our sessions, it was an enjoyable experience.  

NJ: Amy and Helen are so thoughtful, and we fell into a comfortable flow as we discussed the pieces. We were mindful of the potential for diverging points of view, and took time to listen. Close looking and listening guided our conversations and critical discussion in a way that felt natural and honest. We had a good time – serious when necessary, but joyful in our deliberations too. I couldn’t have been more pleased with how it all went!

In regards to the artwork, what were you looking for during the judging process, and what were you drawn to?

HO: I was interested in including a wide range of media that was strong in subject matter and technique.

AW: We reviewed each submission many times, which allowed us to approach the works from different perspectives. I was particularly drawn to the use of unusual materials as well as subjects that were depicted in surprising, sometimes unconventional ways. I appreciate when an artist is as creative with the materials that they use as they are with the subjects.

NJ: I think we each were drawn to different aspects of the pieces. We often discussed the formal qualities: form, content, composition, and subject matter of any given piece, for example. I wouldn’t say that there was a specific ‘feel’ or ‘dynamic’ that we were looking for, rather we took each piece individually on the merits that we discovered. Personally, I wasn’t looking for any one quality, rather I found myself trying to identify in each a rising quality that stood out – that aligned with some quality of intent or purpose – in addition to materials used or skill. The show evolved as the conversations did, and in the end, reflects a coming together of our 3 individual vantage points.

How do you feel about this year’s show? Are there any themes that came through for you?

HO: Seeing all the work hanging in the gallery makes the artwork come to life.

AW: Oh, I think this is a fantastic show! As judges, we didn’t focus on a theme, instead focusing on compelling, creative expression. There are quite a few more three-dimensional works in this exhibit than there have been in past shows, which speaks to the variety of artistic forms that artists were willing to share.

What went into your decision for Judges Choice Award?

[Portrait of Hanh by Katiana Shovelain]

HO: The use of light and shadow creates a sense of  dimensionality in the figure. I am struck by the  juxtaposition of the detailed realism of the figure with the abstract treatment of the background. 

[Righteousness by Kiara Hohn]

AW: Throughout the judging process, I was particularly drawn to this work. The subject’s pose and facial expression challenge the viewer’s perceptions and evoke a wide range of emotions, which can also generate conversation, possibly leading to common ground. My feelings about this painting were confirmed in reading the artist’s description of this work

[Non-Zero-Sum Stimulus Red by Jeffrey Hansen]

NJ: This painting utilizes a compelling contrast between its viscous texture and precise circular form, conveying a sense of intention and mystery. The use of primary blues, contrasting with the unavoidable red circle, suggests personal symbolism. The title, particularly  the concept of “Stimulus Red,” prompts further contemplation, while the painting’s open-ended nature encourages exploration and introspection

Is there anything about this show that you think makes it different from year’s past?

NJ: Each year, the Northern Lights Exhibition surprises, inspires, acknowledges, and celebrates art making in our community in as many ways as the artists are individuals. The shows are so different, in part based on the sensibilities of the judging group, but also based on the individual interests and creativity of the artists. This always makes for the uniqueness of each show and each year we have new things to be joyful for. This year will be no exception. You all will have the opportunity to experience the show, to share your impressions, to formulate your own favorites just as we did in the jury process. In the end we are all happy with the selection results, and we can’t wait for you to see them all!