Arts & Culture

Dana Oland: The fine art of the Western Idaho Fair

Dana Oland
Dana Oland

Entering something in the fair and bringing home a ribbon — blue or any other color — is a deep part of Americana. From apple pies to prize flowers, people have delighted in sharing the fruits of their labor and their creativity at the local fair.

But besides the pickled beets and animal competitions, the Western Idaho Fair offers a surprising bevy of fine arts — painting, sculpture, photography, ceramics and digital illustration. In fact, it is one of the largest arts events in the state. Nearly 300 artists of all mediums and skill levels show their artwork and compete for bragging rights and small cash prizes, says Lynda Snodgrass, who has overseen the fair’s fine arts competition for 12 years.

“This year, we’ll have about 425 pieces of art,” Snodgrass says. “It’s really amazing that we get so many great artists who do this every year.”

Snodgrass is an artist herself. Since she took on the role of superintendent for the fine arts division, she no longer enters her work, although that doesn’t stop her husband Jerry, a sculptor, from entering. He’s won his division multiple times.

Lynda Snodgrass says she is careful to choose judges whose takes are independent and impartial. This year’s jurists are Stephen Douglass, owner of Eagle Art Gallery, and painter-artist Lauren Johnson, who is relatively new to Boise.

Judges award prizes in categories of subject, medium and class. They also give out awards for best theme (this year’s is “Harvest of Fun”), for best Fair Art to a piece that depicts something about the fair, a judges’ choice for both amateur and professional artists, and several other awards.

There also is a Purchase Award that fair director Bob Batista selects. The fair buys a piece that is added to its collection. The works are displayed in the fair’s offices or other county administration offices.

“It’s something we like to do to help local artists,” Batista says. “There’s no real rhyme or reason to it, but it’s usually something that has won an award and that we like.”

You’ll see the major award winners displayed on the front wall in the North Expo Building.

But winning an award isn’t the only reason to enter, says painter Fred Choate. “It’s just plain fun,” he says.

Choate, a skilled muralist and oil painter, has entered the fair’s art competition more times than he can remember, and won more awards than he cares to admit. For him, the fair has become a way to participate in his community and inspire his art students.

“I encourage my students to enter the fair,” he says. “Now, four of them have beat me for best landscape in the past few years.”

Choate entered three oil paintings this year and helped encourage his friend and painter Chi-E-Shenam Westin to do the same.

It’s something Westin shied away from for years but is now ready to embrace.

“I hope people will see the art and see that it’s something they want in their lives,” he says. “Art is not a big part of our everyday culture. It would be nice to have people look at something and say, ‘Oh, I’d like to have that.’ ”

The exhibit is a lively mix of everything, and most artists enter three works. There are 30 categories in both professional and amateur divisions, and categories for painters include Idaho landscape, seascape, animal/wildlife, abstract/contemporary and mixed media. Sculptors enter by their medium: clay, wood, metal, etc.

In the past few years, the fair has expanded its offering to keep up with changing times, adding digital art to the mix.

Artist Brice Garlick entered two of his pop-culture digital caricatures last year and won two awards. But right now, the amateur and professional artists compete in the same digital category, and that doesn’t always show the medium at its best, Garlick says.

“I always enjoy putting my art out there,” Garlick says. “And the fair is good to a certain extent, but it’s a new category, and I don’t think they give digital art its due. They think it’s just a computer program that puts it on the screen. There’s a lot more to it.”

Watercolor painter Lori Seale started entering the fair contest in 2003 and now it’s something she looks forward to every year. She entered three pieces this year.

Seale grew up on a farm and raised kids in 4-H and FFA. Her animal portraits have won multiple awards throughout the years.

“It’s really a wonderful way to connect with people who wouldn’t normally seek out an art experience,” she says.