Steppes Artisan is a body of work competition that is judged by past Steppes Artisans and other select individuals. Standard judging forms are not used, but rather the judges circulate amongst the participants, evaluate their displays and speak with them. The prize for the tournament is various pass-down regalia and largesse from past Artisans. Winners are responsible for running the Arts and Sciences competition at Steppes Warlord.
As I did a majority of A&S showing at a time when there was no single winner in Kingdom-sponsored arts competitions, I've always considered Steppes Artisan the most competitive and challenging Arts and Sciences competition and hoped to win it one day.
I was horribly intimidated at my first Steppes Artisan. I showed a few stained glass panels, only a couple of which could be considered crudely period. When I compared my work and demeanor to that of others who were displaying, I felt that I could never reach their advanced and "professional" levels. Many who were in contention had mastered several different crafts and often also displayed tools (frequently home made) that were used in period to construct their projects. Some stayed in persona. Whole boats, a small cobbler's shop, beautifully crafted beads, and many other wonderful objects were on display. Between my general intimidation and their pre-occupation with the details of the day, some of the artisans seemed far out of the reach of myself, a relative newcomer in their midst.
Once I had gained more experience in the SCA and had developed my art, Steppes Artisan became the competition that I considered the greatest challenge; I vowed to myself that I would try to someday be a Steppes Artisan. It was a destination and I wanted to get there. I also resolved to try to make my table quite interactive and friendly, and keep my eye out for intimidated young artisans whom I would try to engage and encourage. During my final competition, I did get to chat with a good number of new people and hope that I calmed rather than frightened them.
Regarding entry into the Steppes Artisan competition - please note that you do not have to enter with the goal of winning. In particular, you do NOT have to do the things that I'll talk about below to participate in and enjoy the tournament. As a newer artisan, see it as a chance to interact with others and observe some of the higher-level artwork on display in the Kingdom. Don't be horrified that you are not "there" yet - maturation in the SCA arts world takes place over time and sometimes without you even knowing it. Make sure that you learn something new and enjoy the company of other artists. Also note: what follows is only my generalization of approaches that may improve your chances of winning the tournament, garnered from observation of several Steppes Artisans and from my own final competition.
To become Steppes Artisan you must not only have very good work, but also make a very strong presentation of your work, both in explaining it and displaying it. Standard judging sheets are not used. If you make a strong impression [don't be fake - you really DO like your art, don't you?] on many of the judges who are largely past Steppes Artisans, you increase your chance of winning.
I've observed that people who win Steppes Artisan generally show high level work in three or more art forms, with high expertise in at least one of them. I showed some fairly high-level stained glass, decent but in-depth enamel work, and some low-to-mid-level difficulty lampwork beads. I also included a decent sonnet and an instructional article that I had written on making period stained glass windows.
When displaying at Steppes Artisan, your work generally sits on or immediately next to one 6 to 8 foot table, although this is not a requirement. The tables are covered by a tablecloth of decorative fabric and often feature several levels of display. Some folks spend a lot of time planning out their display; I had a rough idea, brought several large pieces of complimentary-colored fabrics, and created the final layout on site. I placed a large piece of "background" fabric over my entire table and around the legs of a fabric-covered stand made of pipes, which took up the right rear 2/3 of an eight foot table and held my stained glass. I obtained 3-dimensionality on the opposite end of the table by stuffing a box and bottles - that I found on site - under my main table cover. I sat a small wooden-slat box on an elevated area of my table, created a sloped green tongue of fabric emerging from the box and curving down onto the table, and grouped my enamel pieces down its length. My lampwork beads spilled from a small porcelain bowl on another frame of fabric. I similarly framed a sonnet and an article that I had written on making stained glass panels. I included several of my smaller but informative stained glass books on the table, as well as some "hands-on" items, described below. Items that you've given away, or that you decide to not put on your table, should be included as photos and documentation in a notebook (the more period-looking the better). Have good documentation for all pieces displayed.
It is easiest to display a large body of work if you have themes in both display and presentation. I've generally approached my projects as individual steps towards greater proficiency (progress) in a particular art form, and I continued this theme for Steppes Artisan. I also incorporated a teaching theme. Most competitors generally do some teaching, often by explaining their craft and by including period tools and rough materials that they use to create their pieces. Some even create their own tools.
The stained glass panels that I displayed (with others included as photos with documentation in a notebook), showed increasingly difficult period techniques that I was attempting to learn, left to right, with the display rack bringing them to eye level. I didn't show my failures with this art form, but my best examples that I still owned or could borrow back, at each step of my development as a stained glass artist. I had recently successfully employed the final technique that I hoped to learn, so I presented this collection of glass as a "complete" story. I also brought a number of stained glass insignia (kingdom award tokens) that demonstrated all of the techniques showed in my windows; I handed them to people so that they could feel how the glass paint stands off the glass, or how a thin layer of glass can be engraved off, etc.
I presented my enameling work in a way that demonstrated exploration and progressive mastery of techniques. I discussed the work as follows:
"First, I wanted to see the relative temperatures at which the glass melted so I made this small sampler. Then I wanted to make this difficult piece - but learned that I needed to learn several more basic skills first, demonstrated in this and this and this piece. With this mess [show mangled piece] I learned such and such. By then, I had learned enough to finish this more difficult piece. Then, to make this next very difficult piece, I needed to learn how to engrave and shape copper, and about more than one color of enamel, etc., etc., as shown in these pieces."
To increase interest and interaction, I placed on my table a pot of pitch with a piece of copper embedded in it, and had people use small engravers to scratch patterns into the copper, as I had done to create my later champlevé enamel pieces.
Overall, I tended to talk people to death about my art and folks generally came away from my table, with a bit more understanding of both the enameling and stained glass. Whatever I did proved successful and I was honored to be selected as the 14th Steppes Artisan.
I hope that this little article helps and encourages future artisans to hone their craft, enter, and enjoy this fantastic and challenging competition.
For comments, additions, and corrections, please contact the Ansteorran Laurel Webminister at email@example.com
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