Dear Artist,

Yesterday, my friend Joe Blodgett brought a big yellow print into the studio. It was sort of modern, with a large, undecipherable signature across the lower end. “What do you think of this?” he asked. “Interesting,” I said, which is what I say when I don’t know what to say. “Why don’t you run it through those ‘evaluation points’ that you use when you jury?” he suggested. I protested that my points were subject to modification — sometimes there’s something major that upsets them. “Like, ‘I like it,’ ” I said.


“Basket Light Drawing” 2017
painted on acrylic glass and lit from within, 42 x 32 inches
by Dale Chihuly (b.1941)

My evaluation points are compositional integrity, sound craftsmanship, colour sensitivity, creative interest, design control, gestural momentum, artistic flair, expressive intensity, professional touch, surface quality, intellectual depth, visual distinction, technical challenge and artistic audacity. If you were to assign a maximum value of 10 to each of these fourteen points, an almost impossible top mark would be 140. Loosely speaking, a total of around 50 is often enough for an “in.” My system doesn’t favour realism over non-objective work, but in my jury duty hard-won realism often wins out with these points.


“Float and Reed Drawing” 2008
work on paper, 60 x 40 inches
by Dale Chihuly

Cruising the print and looking at it in different lights and over the afternoon, I was hard pressed to find points to hand out. It ended up with 30. While it had a sort of confident flair and a look of audacity, it was mostly what I call “basic.” As a piece of print art — embellished or not — I saw it as unchallenging and average. Though bright in colour, it was dull in spirit. It suggested some sort of bare ambition — which has its appeal, but is often not enough in the big scheme of things. As a juried show-piece the print wouldn’t make it. Mind you, some other juror — even using the same set of points — might have evaluated it differently. Joe phoned later and told me the print was the work of Dale Chihuly. “Chihuly’s the internationally-known glass artist. That one is worth a couple of thousand — edition’s almost sold out.” I told him I hadn’t been aware that Chihuly made prints. “That’s how ignorant you are,” said Joe.

Once again I had been victimized by my ignorance. Or was it innocence? I’ll stick to my guns. Ambition and audacity are quite frequently mistaken for talent and value.


“Japan Diptych Drawing” 1997
artwork by Dale Chihuly

Best regards,


PS: “Knowing is false understanding. Not knowing is blind ignorance.” (Nan Ch’uan)

Esoterica: Do we all crave a level playing field? It’s been my observation that innocent-eyed jurors — often from another village–are best able to separate the better from the poorer — the grain from the chaff. All art carries a provenance that ranges from humble to exalted, from non-existent to stellar. What we’re looking for here is the truth. In art, is the truth possible? “Real knowledge,” said Confucius, “is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”

This letter was originally published as “Ignorance” on November 25, 2005.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Somebody once said people become artists because they have a certain kind of energy to release. That rings true to me. It must have an outlet. That’s why I draw.” (Dale Chihuly)

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