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The Competitive Edge


I’m just home from Cornwall where I had a great time teaching two French Beading classes, seeing some old friends and meeting some new ones. Thank you to everyone who came to the workshops. While I was down there the round one Battle votes were cast and my fate was sealed…out to a very lovely set of jewellery made with bezelled cabochons, chains and great style! At least now I can finally share all the photos of my piece ‘High Stakes’, so I’ve put them in an album on my Facebook page and I want to say a big thank you to everyone who has supported me and written and said such lovely things about my work. I’ve made a lot of new friends along the way and got more involved in the beading community so it’s been a great experience.

I’ve been thinking about writing this blog since the Battle of the Beadsmith pieces first started getting posted a few weeks ago. I have entered a lot of competitions over the past decade, all with different rules, some with themes, some without, some international and some very local. The Battle though is an entirely different kettle of fish. For one thing, it’s by invitation only, so if you’re taking part, you know that your beadwork is considered to be of a certain standard and also that you are going to be up against an amazing set of entries, so really need to pull out all the stops! That’s not to say that the same doesn’t apply for other competitions – I would never enter with a piece that I consider to be mediocre. If I haven’t had the time to put into doing something that stretches me, then I don’t enter the competition. What really struck me though, was the fact that everyone got to see every single entry for this competition. Normally the first round or two is conducted behind closed doors with just the judges viewing photos (or actual pieces) and deciding upon their favourites. This small selection of work becomes the finalists that are put on public view. So, in general, I have no idea how many people have entered the competition or what the standard has been like. I may be one of the three finalists simply because only three people entered in my category!

The second thing that struck me was that in most competitions there is no kind of feedback. Sometimes the judges’ comments on the finalist pieces are given to the entrants or made public, but very often there is simply a result. Having so many people comment on my work and also seeing the work of others and the comments that it received gives me a lot of feedback to take forwards and bear in mind for my next design.

Most of all, the Battle was a new experience for me (and probably a lot of others) in that I not only saw the competition from the perspective of an entrant, but also from the perspective of a judge. Since I had to select my choice of ‘winner’ from each battle pairing, it made me think more about the judging process. Some of the pairs were so evenly matched that it was virtually impossible to decide between them. It was almost a given that the technical standard of every piece was extremely high. It was therefore impossible to exclude pieces because of technical imperfections, so what other criteria should one use to judge? Colour combination, design structure, innovative use of techniques and/or beads. Of course these are all factors, but they can still make it very difficult to compare say, a piece of bead embroidery with a piece of structured bead-weaving, or a Venetian mask with a necklace. So, almost inevitably, there is an element of simple favouritism – not the type that means favouring one’s friends, but a matter of personal taste. In those battles where I deemed there to be nothing to choose between the technical and innovative qualities of a piece, it simply came to a matter of I ‘like’ that better than the other. Needless to say, the first round results have thrown up a few surprises and a little controversy. It is important to remember though that the battle results that were ‘surprising’ to one person may seem absolutely right to someone else – at the end of the day, it is a matter of personal taste. There has been some debate about the rules and structure for the battle for next year. After all, the randomly drawn pairings give the field of battle an element of luck that is maybe not found in other competition formats where the top few pieces are selected from the entire field of battle. I must admit, as I was casting my votes, there were moments when I thought I might have found it easier to simply select my top twenty from the entire field!

I have taken a lot from every competition I have entered over the years, so what advice would I give to anyone thinking of entering a competition? Firstly, try to have some idea of your field of battle before you start working on your piece. It’s worth looking at the results for previous years in order to give you a guide as to the standard that is expected. There are some competitions (including the battle) that I would never have dreamed of entering a few years ago because I did not believe that my skills were sufficiently honed to be able to create something that would be of the expected standard. If you are looking at a competition field and feeling the same about your work, don’t give up – it doesn’t mean that you aren’t good enough, just that you need more practise and experience. We all have to start somewhere and we all develop at different rates. Secondly, perhaps the hardest lesson to learn is not to take the competition too seriously. Of course there is no point in entering if you have no desire to ‘compete’ or win. If that desire is strong, you will probably end up pouring your heart and soul into the work that you create and it can feel as though that work has become a part of you. Putting it out there for someone else to judge, criticise and perhaps pass over altogether can be a very difficult thing to do. You have to remember that the work is not a part of you and that there may be a million reasons why it was passed over, reasons that are beyond your control and which do not make you a ‘bad’ beader or ‘bad’ designer. So, my advice would be to only enter a competition for yourself, for your own development, for your personal enjoyment and fun, not for the glory of winning or in the hope of receiving some kind of judgment of your work. Any form of art is wholly subjective – what appeals to one person will not appeal to everyone. If you create work that makes you smile as you are doing it, that fulfils you, then keep on doing that and do not worry what the rest of the world thinks about it. When those competition results are announced, hold onto the fun that you had in creating the piece and feel proud of your achievement in designing and making something, don’t let the results influence your feelings about your work or spoil your enjoyment of what you are doing. For me, competitions are a great way of stretching myself, whether that is trying to use a new technique, or design to a theme that I would never have thought of trying. It can be interesting to receive feedback and I have received comments that have made me think of things in a new light or pushed me to grow to a new level, but at the end of the day, I have my own style, my own way of viewing the world and interpreting that through beads and I have no control over that. Some judges are going to love it and some are going to hate it, but c’est la vie!

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