Don't Let the Funny Stuff Get Away
It’s Fair time in Western Washington. A lot of it feels like a Home Show, now, and I probably won’t go but up until my father’s death four years ago our family always went. What is now the Washington State Fair is 123 years old. It’s the largest fair in the state and one of the largest in the world. My entire working career was spent at Merrill Lynch and the company didn’t believe in helping its employees with college tuition so after my regular working day, I worked a shift at the fair: Bragging Rights? I was promoted to corn dog chef. And what I earned helped pay for my college books.
When the fair began it was a three-day event going by the name of the Valley Fair. Thirteen years later the name was changed to the Western Washington Fair. By 1976 “fair officials” began calling it the Puyallup Fair in recognition of its small-town host. To date, that name has lasted 37 years.
Every August, the Fair’s Fine Arts Department begins considering artwork to be shown. Acceptance is definitely not a foregone conclusion and competition to get in—hung, as it were—is keen. However, miniatures stand a better chance so that’s what I paint. I started entering watercolors in 2006, and every year the process was an experience.
The first year, I was working full time, and the arts department volunteers who registered submissions would only work one evening. It was enter that night, or not at all. So, I drove from my job to the fairgrounds, a good 25 miles, and got in the queue to submit my two paintings. The process involved moving from table to table where at each one a volunteer had a particular thing to approve. About eight people were ahead of me in a slow-moving line. When I got to the first table, I saw that it was being run by two women so old they could have worked with author Betty MacDonald (The Egg and I) at the WPA. One of them told me that I’d have to go over to another table and complete an application form for each painting and then get back in line. And since I have a self-imposed rule to never criticize a volunteer, I did without a murmur. The applications were fussy and required some information in quadruplicate. The experience taught me to always carry some of the address labels charities frequently send out. Being able to stick them on instead of repeatedly writing my name and address makes life easier.
Forms in hand, I got back in line. Again, it crawled along. When I finally reached the first table again, I was told to get out my entry fee. Neither of the ladies wanted it; they just wanted to make sure I could pay. While they reviewed the applications, I was given an envelope to address to myself. Then with the envelope, the cash, the applications which now carried their stamp of approval—a dot made with a black magic marker—and my artwork, I was allowed to move on to Table two. During the all the years I entered the Fine Arts competition, I never figured out Table two’s function. But a person can’t move on without collecting their stamp of approval, a blue magic marker dot.
The ladies—all the volunteers are female—at Table three were there to check the size of miniatures, making sure they don’t exceed the qualification, and to approve the wire hangers. Every painting must have a wire hanger, even though miniatures are hung by the little hook attached to the frame. Also, the wires have to have their ends wrapped so they don’t scratch the walls. Table three issued a green magic marker dot, and with it, entrants were allowed to get into the Table four line, and actually turn in the paperwork, entry fee, and paintings.
There were three Table fours, with three ladies and a runner at each one. The three women assigned a number to each picture, wrote the number and the entrant’s name in a ledger, attached part of the application to each painting, and took the money. The process at Table four is approximately ten minutes per artist, more if someone wants to admire your work. Still, the first year I was young, enthusiastic, and patient. I love the art world—the imaginations, the smells—so I said to one of the volunteers, “Gosh, this looks like fun. I’d like to volunteer; how do I do it?” She leveled a gaze at me and said in a husky, Lauren Bacall voice, “We’ve all been doing this for years; in order for there to be an opening for a new volunteer, someone has to diiiiiiiie.” She dragged out the last word until she ran out of breath. And since one of the ladies was wearing a chemo-cap and missing her eyebrows, I thought it was a pretty tacky remark.
Thus chastened, I went home.
The second year, I downloaded the application forms and completed them at home. Unfortunately for my husband, he had driven me to the fairgrounds and parked outside to wait. Same women; same tables; same dots. The final line inched along so slowly, one older woman went and got herself a chair. Seeing that, the “traditionally built” lady in front of me got herself one and, thus ensconced, she looked over a standard-size water color I was submitting and told me the perspective seemed off, it was improperly framed, and would no doubt be rejected. I wasn’t at all sorry when one of the Table three ladies, with a few minutes of idle time, went up to her and took the chair away saying, “I’m sorry, but we can only have one chair in the line at a time.” I was sorry, however, that she was right. The painting was rejected.
The following year, I persuaded my friend, Carol, to enter and we met at the Fine Arts Department. We had our wire ends taped, our money out to show that we could pay to enter, and our paperwork completed. We actually moved along pretty well until we hit the last table. Part of the application forms requires a check mark from a number of choices on which medium the artist used. Carol had checked the watercolor box. However, someone at one of the tables had also marked the miniatures box, and that’s where she got in trouble.
“You have TWO boxes marked,” said one of the Table four women.
“I only marked one; someone at one of the other tables marked the second one,” said Carol.
“You can have only ONE box marked. You have two marked.”
“But I didn’t mark the second one. Someone else did.”
“Well, I don’t know. This paperwork is incorrectly filled out and shouldn’t have been approved.”
After much hushed consultation among themselves, the women allowed Carol to turn in her miniatures, but not without a warning not to do that again.
The humiliation of being accused of having checked two blocks when she only checked one was just too great. Carol refused to enter again the following year.
The next year I was submitting, for their consideration, two miniatures and an 11 x 14 oil pastel. I had my forms ready. I moved through Tables one and two and got my magic marker dots with a minimum amount of fuss but got held up at Table three. Remembering that the hanging wires can scratch the walls, I completely wrapped mine.
Wrong thing to do.
I was at Table three for fifteen minutes while a wire-wrapping expert was called in. She took all my wiring off and rewired it her way, but not without a lot of uncalled-for remarks about what she felt was the poor quality of my frame.
All told, I was at the Fine Arts Department an hour and forty minutes. During the wait, one of the artists told me there were four generations of people among the volunteers. The women, generally aged eighty-plus, manned the tables and their great-grandchildren were the runners. The other two generations filled in as needed.
Another year and a change not only were we allowed to check two boxes, i.e., miniature and watercolor, but two chairs were allowed in the final line. And there was a whole row of benches. It seemed like standards were being dropped like paint off a brush. But wait!
I generally volunteer to act as a hostess, which really means stopping people from photographing the artwork. It’s a four-hour shift in a hot, upstairs gallery. Very tiring. When I was asked to hostess because not enough people had volunteered, I asked if I could work a two-hour shift, saying four hours was an awfully long time. Absolutely not, was the answer. Not for any particular reason but because that’s the way it’s always been done—it’s always been a four-hour shift and will continue to be.
The last time I entered, the volunteers were gone, and paid employees were in.
Sometime around Labor Day the envelopes we addressed to ourselves come in the mail and we will be advised as to what had been accepted and what was rejected. However, whether accepted or not, I always feel like I’ve come away a winner because the process is just so dog gone funny.