Portraits of the Artists as Young Men

NWU Faculty Artists Justin Shaw and David GracieIn the art world, courage is at least as necessary as talent: courage in the face of rejection, criticism, false praise and deafening apathy. And nothing in art requires more courage than the self-portrait—that most literal way that visual artists “put themselves out there.”

If that’s true, then Nebraska Wesleyan University boasts two of the most talented and courageous portrait artists in the country. Associate Professor of Art David Gracie and Adjunct Professor of Art Justin Shaw both used self-portraits to win spots in the highly selective Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Their pieces are on exhibition at the Smithsonian through August 22, 2010.

Justin Shaw's Self PortraitJust how selective was the competition? Jurors narrowed down more than 3,300 entries to just 49. More than 98.5% of applicants received polite rejections. And a little art department on the plains is home to two artists in that exacting 1.5%. The odds of that happening are roughly one in 5,625. “I knew this show was a long shot, but the rewards were worth shooting for,” Shaw said.

“Dave and I both getting in is purely coincidence,” Shaw continued. “I didn’t know Dave had even entered the show until we were both semifinalists.”

At that point, the professors realized they both stood on the brink of an important exhibition. “We both hoped it wouldn’t be a situation where one of us got in and the other didn’t,” Gracie told the Lincoln Journal Star. “It’s funny the way things worked out.”

While the two artists have NWU and now the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in common, their approaches could hardly be more distinct.

Gracie undertook his self-portrait as neutrally as he could. “I tried to look at myself objectively, even though that’s not possible. It’s a self-portrait, but it doesn’t have a name,” he said. The flaws of his skin, the folds of his shirt, the smudges on the wall behind him are all rendered with a chilly detachment. “It’s just a person,” Gracie said.

David Gracie's Self PortraitThere is nothing detached about Shaw’s piece, “The Sad Thing Is I’m So Damn Happy”. It’s a sculpture in foam rubber “focusing on things about myself I didn’t like,” Shaw said. While Gracie rendered his flaws just as he saw them, Shaw “exaggerated (his) to a degree.” The nude leans heavily forward. It is Rodin’s “Monument to Balzac” made rubbery and drained of ego.

When asked what the show means for his career, Gracie said, “I have no idea. It’s definitely a positive thing…. The gallery has lots of foot traffic, and the show includes a lot of people I’ve looked up to.”

Shaw hopes that “shows like this one on my résumé will open doors for me in the future. Right now though, I am just savoring the moment.”

Both Gracie and Shaw attended the exhibit opening in Washington, D.C., where they were surrounded by reputed artists from both coasts. “It’s nice to make this leap without being a ‘scenester,’” Gracie said. “It’s hard to be a scenester in Lincoln.”

Shaw agreed. “The food, music, and those attending made me feel very much out of my element. Like a pretend rock star, I even signed an autograph before the night was over.”

Shaw and Gracie may not be Simon and Garfunkel just yet, but they do represent two particularly bright spots in Nebraska Wesleyan’s stellar faculty.