Pulse: Ohio State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

For all but a few of the Ohio State Fair's 156 years, artists have been showing their work alongside animal breeders and 4-H members. And last year, 34,000 people took time from the enjoyment of fried food on sticks to explore this part of the fair experience, held since 1909 at the Cox Fine Arts Center.

This year, however, visitors to the State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition can expect a little more hubbub. The new events planned in connection with the show are a visible sign of the behind-the-scenes work being done by some fresh blood, Melissa Vogley Woods and Pam O'Loughlin, co-directors of fine arts at the fair who started their second go-round at the Cox Center this week.

O'Loughlin and Woods both have backgrounds in art - the former as a designer and art therapist, the latter as a widely shown mixed-media artist who recently launched a blog about artists' individual workspaces.

"Our personalities are really different and where our talents lie are different, which makes it really nice," O'Loughlin said.

Together they've digitized the process by which artists submit work and gotten more aggressive about petitioning arts councils around the state to encourage artists to apply. According to O'Loughlin, "That's one of our biggest goals, to get artists from all over Ohio, not just [the largest] counties."

The annual children's tour has been livened up with new interactive elements such as an image-hunt video in which the co-directors play dress-up, and a collaborative quilting bee inspired by Woods' contribution to last year's Art al Fresco.

And in addition to the traditional schedule of attractions in the building's auditorium, this year the arts activities will spread to the asphalt around the Cox Center. The Columbus Crafty Cotillion will set up operations nearby on Aug. 8 (see story on next page), and Aug. 6-8, artist Adam Brouillette will paint a new, permanent mural on the building's exterior.

"We really want to expand the outside activities, which is kind of hard," explained Woods. "We needed people [like Columbus Crafty Cotillion] who could come and do their show - here's the space, we'll work with you on whatever - so that's how it worked."

As for Brouillette's contribution, "This is a new program too. All these little boarded-up windows you see outside, each of those is going to have a mural, painted each year."

With a chuckle, Woods added, "The fair's getting 'hip.'"

Truth is, inside the Cox Center, it's been hip for a while. The jurors brought in by Woods, O'Loughlin and other directors over the years have reliably selected work that can be challenging as well as creative.

The nearly 300 selections this year range from traditional Americana to an anti-consumerist statement in which an American flag is constructed of China-made toys. Along with classic portraiture, there's Paul Richmond's "Noah's Gay Wedding Cruise," in which the pairs include Ellen and Portia, Bert and Ernie.

"I like seeing people's different reactions," O'Loughlin said.

"The comments," said Woods. "Last year we had a horse that was made out of fake flowers, and this grandma comes by with her husband and they're looking at it, and she says, 'How would you dust that?' Stuff like that is so funny."

But despite sometimes confused reactions and the state fair being better known for airbrush than fine art, the co-directors stressed that the fine arts show, the best-attended art show in the state, is a great opportunity for Ohio artists.

"The only other way you can get an Ohio Arts Council award is to get an Individual Arts Excellence award," Woods explained. "Or you can enter this show, and they're giving out 11 awards this year. It's an Ohio Arts Council award; it's the same on your resume. I don't think it clicks in people's minds."