TRAVERSE CITY — Paul Welch knows he doesn’t have a lot of time.
The 80-year-old retired art instructor and veteran artist spent most of his career focused on teaching young artists rather than working on his own art. He’s focused more on his art since retiring from Northwest Michigan College 24 years ago. But Welch began to feel he left things undone as time ticked past.
That’s why he decided earlier this year to throw his hat in the ring for the prestigious ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids. He knew getting into the juried art show was a long shot. Organizers sift through nearly 6,000 works of art each year and send rejection letters to more than 4,000 artists.
“I’m 80 years old,” Welch said. “So I figured ‘Hey I’m going to do this.’ I entered it, I guess, just for the challenge.”
The 6-foot-3-inch tall former college football player now walks with a cane. He doesn’t have a Facebook page and knows Twitter only by name. He knew if he was going to succeed in the effort he’d need some help tackling technological hurdles.
“I had to get my granddaughter to help me with the entry,” he said. Submissions for ArtPrize must be digitally submitted, no prints are accepted.
Knowing the entry, his first try at the show, might be his last, Welch decided to go big. While other artists vied for space inside restaurants and building lobbies, Welch decided the best place for his work is somewhere where people can see it, where they can enjoy it.
He enlisted the help of several friends to execute his proposal to hang a 24-by-18-foot collage of his self portrait on the side of a building. The original painting was a mixture of acrylic paints and colored pencil not much bigger than a dinner plate. Traverse City photographer John Williams helped Welch scan and manipulate the painting to create the giant collage. And Britten Banners offered it’s unique facilities to print the massive work.
“I entered shows,” he said. “I’ve won shows. I’ve been booted out of shows.”
But getting picked to participate in the ArtPrize competition is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Welch said.
“How many people could say they did anything that big,” he said. “It’s like winning the Master’s (golf tournament).”
Tuesday afternoon a crew worked to hang the massive print between a pair of large girders on the lower level of the Plante Moran building in Grand Rapids. The piece Welch calls “Face-to-Face” borders the Grand River and can be seen by drivers as they pass on nearby roads.
From a distance, the splashes of color look like an abstract gathering of lily pads.
“When they get close, these faces suddenly start to appear,” he said.
Centered on the mesh canvas is Welch’s large mug, his shaggy beard, wrinkled brow and mustache-framed smile peering out from a sea of smaller color-manipulated versions of the face.
The piece is a statement about the struggle within each artist to define self, Welch said.
“There’s not anybody who creates who doesn’t have an ego,” he said with a grin. “Art to me is my whole way of life.”
It would be nice to win the $200,000 prize awarded to the most popular work in the show, but Welch counts his inclusion in the show as a win.
ArtPrize events begin Saturday and continue through Oct. 9. The official opening day of the show is Sept. 18. But anybody passing on Interstate 196 through Grand Rapids who looks north and west across the Grand River along the way will see Welch’s face staring back.
If you want to go
Welch will lead a bus tour from Traverse City to Grand Rapids on Sept. 26. For $60 you can board the bus, get entry to the Grand Rapids Art Museum and attend a talk featuring Welch. For more information, call 989-600-1248 of go to www.tailoredtraveling.com.