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The artist walked around the room where dozens of pieces of art leaned on walls and rested on tables, often pushing her face often to within three or four inches of the surface to scrutinize the technique. She studied each piece of work intently.

The artist, Fritzie Urquhart, was the juror for a new show, selecting pieces that would be included.

Urquhart shuffled the sheets of green and yellow stickers in her hands and placed them on the art pieces. Yellow meant the painting or sculpture was in the regional show at SDAI: Museum of the Living Artist. Green meant rejection.

Behind Urquhart’s back, about two dozen artists watched just as intently, swelling with joy when yellow was placed on their piece, deflating with defeat at green.

“You always think you are going to be OK if you get rejected, but you don’t realize you are holding your breath,” said Ellen Dieter just after her painting was accepted into the show. “Then you heave a big sigh of relief.”

This scenario of judging regional shows plays out eight times a year at the Balboa Park museum, known as MOLA. Any artist can enter two pieces for each regional juried show.

It’s one of the best places I know of for San Diego County artists to show their work, one of the only open places in the county where artists can consistently get into high-quality venues for a juried show. Artists who repeatedly get chosen for the group shows can win points toward having a show of only their work there.

Although I have entered my pieces many times in the shows at the museum, this was the first time I had watched the judging process. I was surprised that the room was so keyed-up the whole time. It was not a relaxed room; there was a reverent feeling that I didn’t expect as the artists watched Urquhart’s every move. And just like Dieter, I felt myself tensing each time Urquhart approached one of my works, then feeling relief when she put a yellow sticker on both paintings.

Within three hours, Urquhart had narrowed 277 entries into 127 pieces for the show, never glancing behind her where an artist might be living or dying when she reaches for a sticker.

She told me later that while she knew the artists were there, she never let it distract her from her job of selecting pieces for the show.

Because the submissions are so diverse, the criteria Urquhart told me she uses are fairly general. She said she looks at the fundamentals for technique — what colors someone chose, the quality of workmanship, the composition or construction of the piece. But she also looked for how effective the piece was at telling a story or conveying an emotion.

Unlike a show planned around a specific theme, the juror might not have the choice to zero in on a particular medium or message. He or she has to work with what the artists submit.

“I tried to select work that communicated something more than the sum of their basic elements,” she said.

Typically, artists find out whether they are accepted into art competitions with phone calls, emails and letters in the mail. Thick envelopes indicate you’re in; thin ones are usually rejections.

But at this museum, the artists themselves haul the paintings and sculptures in and out of the storeroom during the judging, so there’s an opportunity to watch.

During the process, everyone talks in whispers. But during this recent judging, one person talked above the white noise. It was Christina Thomas’s first time entering her work at one of these shows.

After her first piece was rejected, she said she wanted more than anything to ask the juror “Why?” Her voice broke through the glassy silence of the room.

But later, Urquhart placed an “accepted” sticker on Thomas’ second piece, an abstract cat. Thomas was so excited she picked up her work and in a stage whisper said: “Look, Dani, my cat got in, my cat got in!”

She said she plans to continue entering her artwork in the museum shows. The artists whose work she admires tell her you can’t predict what work a juror will pick, which is heartening, she said.

“One time a painting is rejected and the next time it can be accepted and even win an award,” she said. “It’s all so subjective.”

You can reach Dani Dodge at Dani@DaniDodge.com, see her work at www.danidodge.com or become a fan at: facebook.com/DaniDodgeArt. Oh, and she tweets, too.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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