Rose Solari stands naked on a plywood pedestal in a basement studio at the Corcoran School of Art. It is the first day of the five-day Seventh Annual James Wilbur Johnston Sculpture Competition sponsored by the Art for Humanity Foundation. The 19 participants have journeyed from as near as Washington and as far as the West Coast to spend a $35 lab fee and their own travel expenses in pursuit of a $1,000 first prize in a competition "that seeks to reaffirm the importance and value of academic figure study in contemporary art."
It's a scene of intense concentration, the silence interrupted only by artists adjusting their sculpture stands or scurrying up to Solari to quickly measure one of her legs or her torso or her back. Every 12 1/2 minutes monitor George Lewis, a 1985 Corcoran graduate now doing free-lance illustrations, gives the model's pedestal a quarter turn. He sits on his own stool, sketching the model in his sketchbook. All of the competitors are working steadily, purposefully on their clay versions of the model, which they hope will win the first prize and be cast in plaster. One of the participants parries, like a boxer, behind his stand.
Deborah Smith, a ceramicist from Chicago, has been coming to the competition for four years. She has won honorable mentions twice, once for a male figure and once for a female figure. She calls the competition "unique."
"It is only recently that there has been a great demand for figurative work," she says. "This is such a great city to hold it in . . . I just hit up all the museums."