Little picture show

Photo By Allison Young

The reception for the Icons of NV will be held on Dec. 5, 5-7 p.m., at the Sierra Arts Gallery.
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Nevada, despite recent rebranding efforts, has a particular reputation throughout the world. “It's interesting to see what people not from Nevada think are the icons of Nevada.”

It’s a state known for being a little rough around the edges, a little free-spirited, a little garish—both rural and urban, scattered with cities where marriage, divorce, sex and tattoos are all readily available within a one-mile radius. It’s home to the neon lights and casino glow of Las Vegas and Reno, but also beautiful deserts and a selection of lakes and ancient cave drawings. It’s a state in a perpetual identity crisis—which, in a way, has become its identity.

This is the imagery represented in the Icons of NV exhibit, opening Dec. 5 at the Sierra Arts Gallery. The exhibit, intended to be held every two years, returns after a five year hiatus.

Founded in 1982, the inaugural Biggest Little Art Show in Nevada was curated by artist and University of Nevada, Reno professor Jim McCormick. McCormick, at the time a new convert to miniature art—art created within a small form—proposed a challenge to Nevada artists.

The challenge: create a piece of art, no larger than 4 square inches.

The show was a success, and four similar shows were held. While each show received an abundance of submissions—typically more than 100—the last Biggest Little Art Show in Nevada was held in 2008. After years of changing leadership, it’s now under the organization of the Sierra Arts Foundation.

“McCormick envisioned it as a stand-alone show,” says Sierra Arts Gallery representative Chad Sweet. “The idea was met with incredulity, but because artists were so intrigued, they ended up submitting more than 100 submissions. The show used to be juried, bringing in outside curators from places like San Francisco or Chicago.”

This year, the Sierra Arts staff will select their favorites.

“We’re so excited to have brought it back,” says Sweet. The gallery put out a call for artists, and 35 artists were selected. “It’s great to have that collaboration of artists and their different interpretations.”

Originally, the size requirements were 2 inches by 2 inches, but this was changed to 2.25 inches by 3.25 inches—the size of a playing card. The gallery handles matting and framing, and the art is available for sale at the exhibit to serve as a fundraiser for the Sierra Arts Foundation.

Sweet, an artist with a background in theater and visual arts, says that artists were not given any additional instructions other than the size and the theme—Icons of NV. From there, everything was left to their interpretation.

“Icons can mean two things,” Sweet says of his personal interpretation of the theme. “It can be a personal icon that you identify with, or a public icon identifiable to others. It’s interesting to see what people not from Nevada think are the icons of Nevada. The longer you’re here, you start to uncover the things that even the locals miss.” Sweet has lived in Nevada for several years, after much time spent traveling for his career.

While the focus of the show is on artists in Nevada—“within a 100 mile radius,” says Sweet—that’s a fairly open-ended requirement. Some of the artists are lifelong Nevadans. Others are former Nevadans who have since moved away or transplants from other states.

In the past, the theme of the exhibit has varied, often representing quite literal aspects of Nevada history, such as mining and gambling.

“It’s interesting that when you give artists a limit, they want to break away from that,” says Sweet. “But when you give them so little, they want more rules. What’s an icon? A person? A place?”

For several of the artists, Nevada icons are interpreted as internal representations of the state’s features and reflections on their own values.

“I live here because I can see the sky,” says painter and cartoonist Erik Holland. “I came here from the Bay Area and have lived in big cities for most of my life. But I live for the big desert sky—and the smell of the sagebrush, the way the mountain turns red at dusk. Life is filled with possibility. It’s just beautiful.”

Holland is one of 35 artists participating in the exhibit. His tiny painting is of the Nevada sky.

After the “month of brown” during the Yosemite Rim fire, Holland says painting the open sky was “the first thing that came to mind.”

For Holland, a muralist and en plein air painter—a term referring to artists who paint outdoors—keeping his art within the exhibit requirements was a unique challenge.

“I really enjoyed working in that size,” he says. “I was trained in art school to think big: ’If it’s not big it’s not good.’ I’ve never taken small work that seriously. To tell you the truth I didn’t find it particularly limiting, trying to make a postage-stamp sized image of a big size.”

Holland moved to Nevada in 1999 after spending several years in the Bay Area and Alaska. After a brief stint working at the Battle Mountain Bugle, it became his dream to live in Nevada.

“I’ve done iconic Nevada buildings since arriving,” says Holland. “I’ve already done a book of cartoons with a Nevada Arts Council grant.” He’s currently applying for a Jackpot grant to publish a book.

Illustrator Lisa Kurt, an artist featured in the show, moved to Nevada from Boston.

“Nevada has so much cool history and so many rich stories that make it such a unique and interesting place,” she says. “Nevada is an inspiring place. The landscape is often very inspiring for me as an artist.”

Kurt created a mixed-media portrait of Sarah Winnemucca—a “controversial” figure, but “an incredibly interesting person.”

The size requirement challenge Kurt to maintain the level of detail her art usually includes—expressive faces, subtle color shifts within her characters’ hair and eyes.

Although she posted a larger version of the painting on her website, the original “really is hard to believe until you see it,” she says.

While Holland and Kurt interpreted the familiar, some artists took a more abstract approach. Artist Austin Pratt’s piece, entitled “Basin + Range: Original violence/dissident underworld,” features a coffin surrounded by abstract imagery and color. Other pieces encompass landmarks, like the Fleishmann Planetarium, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary.

“I just think that the show itself is so unique,” says Sweet. “It’s a unique format and it really challenges artists. The public gets excited about it, too, just to see what people come up with.”

As artists whose hometowns are in other states, the exhibit was a chance for Kurt and Holland to explore their identity as Nevada artists.

“I like this show as a concept,” Holland says. “It was a perfect fit for me, and a challenge to try something new as an artist. And there’s so much I love about Nevada. This is my home.”