David Shields latest book.
David Shields' latest book.

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The Frye Art Museum and Artist Trust this morning announced their joint awards to the three Washington artists who'll be featured at the Frye: writer David Shields, visual artist Alison Bremner, and poet/performer Storme Webber.

Shields receives the largest prize: $50,000, for the 2015 James W. Ray Distinguished Artist Award, which "recognizes artists in all disciplines whose work demonstrates exceptional originality and is intended to free artists to advance their creative work." Last year's winner of this award was Jessika Kenney.

Isn't Shields already "free... to advance" his work without this award? He is accomplished and established, a bestselling writer and a regular at major publications. He also won the 2013 Arts Innovator Award, also from Artist Trust, for $25,000.

His win makes me wonder what this award is really for, and which considerations matter. Then again, these large new awards often mystify me.

The selection of Shields also raises the problem of presenting a writer in a museum. The Frye does it regularly (see the current Genius exhibition, for instance) but I've had a few writers tell me they get short shrift in such a visual institution. We'll see what the Frye and Shields bring.

Bremner and Webber, the two artists who win $15,000 each for the 2015 James W. Ray Venture Project Awards, are surprising winners in a good way. They're far from the usual art-awards crowd. The Venture Project Awards "support individual and collaborative projects by artists in all disciplines whose work demonstrates artistic excellence and exceptional originality."

Alison Bremners True Story, a painted deerskin drum, is an example of the way she mixes humor and tradition (and is in fact a true story).
Alison Bremner's True Story, a painted deerskin drum, is an example of the way she mixes humor and tradition (and is in fact a true story). Courtesy of the artist

I'm glad to be introduced to Bremner's work by these awards (she is based in Kingston and a Tlingit native of Alaska), and while Webber has been writing, performing, and teaching for years, her ritualistic, blues-based work infused with her Two Spirits has gained intensity and resonance, but not yet the broader following it deserves, in the last few years.

From Storme Webbers interdisciplinary installation about the souls of Seattles pre-Stonewall days, Noirish Lesbiana.
From Storme Webber's interdisciplinary installation about the souls of Seattle's pre-Stonewall days, Noirish Lesbiana. Courtesy of the artist

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Finalists for the $50,000 award were Buster Simpson and Gail Tremblay.

The money comes from a fascinating source: the Raynier Institute & Foundation, which awarded the Frye Art Museum | Artist Trust Consortium a five-year, $1.1 million grant "to support exceptional artists living and working in Washington state." The program is currently in its second year.