“No Big Heads”: Self-portraits can be more than faces

Members of the public can view the “No Big Heads” exhibit in the Hugh McPeck Gallery in the Student Union. Photo by Christina Swayney.

Students will showcase their artistic creativity at the annual “No Big Heads” self-portrait contest held at the Hugh McPeck Gallery. This is the 34th year of the contest, which was open to all artists 18 years old or older.

“No Big Heads” is the only art competition at UAA that allows applicants from outside of Alaska. It was brought to life by Bill Sabo, a former painting professor that wanted to allow UAA students to compete in a show with artists from outside the university. Since outside artists had to send in their submissions, Sabo proposed the pieces should remain relatively small, thus inspiring the name “No Big Heads.”

April Bey accepts a raven pin from the Hugh McPeck Gallery for being an art juror. Photo by Christina Swayney.

This year’s “No Big Heads” competition was judged by April Bey, who has a bachelor of fine arts degree in drawing from Ball State University in Muncie Indiana and a master of fine arts in painting from California State University.

Bey grew up in Nassau in the Bahamas and currently works as a contemporary visual artist and educator in Los Angeles, California. She expects a lot of creativity from the competition’s participating artists.

“This year, I’m looking for innovation and self-portraits representing diverse ways of making and being. I’m particularly interested in non-traditional processes and materials, but also traditionally applied materials depicting non-traditional portraiture, such as using different materials and 3D,” Bey said.

“Mrs. Spikky Sparrow,” by Heather Rothnie, uses paper mache and is one of the non-traditional self-portraits at the exhibit. Photo by Christina Swayney.

This year’s entries featured a variety of material and interpretations. One entry, “Stream of Consciousness,” by Sean Tyle, was created using ink, cotton and embroidery floss. Another entry, “Mrs. Spikky Sparrow,” made by Heather Rothnie, used paper mache, acrylic paint and cardboard.

Contestants were given creative freedom with their submissions, with the few restrictions being in size and material criteria, such as no living things, dead animals that have not been processed, bodily fluids or physical drugs or alcohol, according to the contest guidelines.

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Bey herself has done self-portraiture. She says the subject matter is not restricted to literal portraits of oneself.

“I do self-portraits regularly, but I use surrogates in the form of celebrities, poets, writers and intellectuals, so the ideas get to as many audiences as possible even if they don’t know my face directly,” Bey said. “I see myself as ideologies and value systems — that translates to my art in the form of Afrofuturism, Afrosurrealism and anti-colonial activism.”

Bey was impressed with the variety of materials used in the artists’ submissions.

“I especially like the color of these pieces. There is a lot of saturation and there are a lot of quirky pieces as well,” Bey said.

There was a $25 entry fee for the competition and contestants could enter up to two pieces. The best of show winner received $1,000. There was also an additional $1,000 in cash prizes for second and third prizes.

“They Were My Favorite Pair,” by Jade Ariah, a UAA graduate, was the winning piece in this year’s “No Big Heads” self-portrait competition, where she competed against both students and artists from outside of Alaska. Photo by Christina Swayney.

The winning self-portrait in this year’s “No Big Heads” competition was “They Were My Favorite Pair” by Jade Ariah. Ariah graduated from UAA in 2018 with a bachelor of fine arts degree in ceramics. Her self-portrait features a pair of blood-stained underwear.

Ariah said her work is intended to reflect upon womanhood and how this piece, in particular, discussed it in a relatable way with the women who experience it.

“I think it’s really important that people who menstruate are the ones that lead the conversation about it. When I conceptualized ‘They Were My Favorite Pair,’ I wanted to give the viewer a mundane snapshot of what life is like having a period,” Ariah said.

Jade Ariah stands before her winning piece of the self-portrait competition, where a variety of artists creatively interpreted their sense of self. Photo by Christina Swayney.

Ariah said her work is meant to be related to in a specific way.

“The piece is meant to be playful and relatable. The title refers to a common experience of staining yet another pair of skivs,” Ariah said.

“SPDH,” by Dan Harris, uses acrylic paint. Photo by Christina Swayney.
“Danny Learns to See,” by Dan Kirchhefer, uses pencil, pastel and ink to create a self-portrait. Photo by Christina Swayney.

Other winners of the contest were “Self Portrait or Danny Learns to See” by Dan Kirchhefer, “SPDH” by Dan Harris, “Blue Dreaming Bear” by Laurel Izard and “Late Bloomer” by Matilda Jacobson.

“Blue Dreaming Bear,” by Laurel Izard, uses hand embroidery on a vintage quilt top. Photo by Christina Swayney.

“No Big Heads” will remain open in the Hugh McPeck Gallery, located in the UAA Student Union, until Oct. 24. Viewing hours of the gallery are Monday-Thursday, 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. The gallery is closed on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.