The Artful Collector: The Major Awards for Artists and ART: The Chesley

Browsing through my photo file yielded one of me taken at the 16th annual Chesley Awards, 2001, accepting an award for one of the winners.  Which did not include me 🙂

Accepting an award is not the same as winning one.
Accepting an award is not the same as winning one.  But I was still happy to be part of the festivities!

(although I have been nominated three times, 1998 and 2004).  The winners were announced, as is traditional, during a Friday night ceremony carved out of the long weekend that is the SF Worldcon – which that year was The Millenium Philcon, held in Philadelphia PA.    Why would I be in the photo gallery, happy to have participated in that event by accepting an award for a winner that was not able to attend?  That’s surprisingly easy to answer. 🙂

Named for the famed science-fiction artist Chesley Bonestell (and see last week’s post: he was the 1954 Retro Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist) the Chesley’s are bestowed by the Association of Science Fiction & Fantasy Artists (ASFA) as a means for the SF/F community to recognize individual works and achievements during a given year.  Initially called the ASFA Awards, they were renamed after the death of the noted astronomical artist, 1986.  There are several award categories, and these have been expanded since the awards were instituted in 1985.

What makes the Chesley’s unique is that don’t deal in generalities.  The awards are very specific – both in citing the artist, and the art for which he or she is being nominated – and for that reason, coveted by those lucky enough to be nominated.  Among the award categories are: Best Illustration, Hardcover; Best Illustration, Paperback; Best Illustration, Magazine; Best Interior Illustration; Best Color Work Unpublished; Best Monochrome Work, Unpublished; Best Three Dimensional Work; Best Gaming Related Work; Best Art Director; plus awards for Artistic Achievement and Contribution to ASFA.  The awards are presented at the World Science Fiction Convention, except in those years when the Worldcon is held overseas; on those occasions, the Chesley’s usually are announced at a NASFIC or even Dragon*Con.

It is perhaps no surprise that the Chesley’s came into existence in the mid 1980s.  It was a BIG decade for science fiction as a genre.  There was the first major public auctionof SF/F art at Guernsey’s Auction House in New York….a three-day extravaganza billed as “The World of Forrest J. Ackerman at Auction” which offered collectors a significant portion of Forry’s collection (photo stills, props, costumes, movie posters, lettres, comics, and hundreds of pieces of original art).  In the 1980s, and for the first time, SF became “research worthy” with Journals devoted to explorations of contemporary SF, and SF-related courses in colleges and universities.  And – outside academe – there were publications like Science Fiction Eye and The New York Review of Science Fiction for commentary plus ongoing mags like Asimovs, Analog, and the British Interzone providing publishing opportunities for artists.  Related to these developments, a new category was added to the Hugo Awards in the 1980s, for “Semi-Prozine”.  Previously, there had been awards only for fanzines (showing fan art) and professional magazines.  This new category included publications such as Aboriginal Science Fiction and Stuart Schiff’s Whispers…and it opened up another market for emerging and established artists.

Michael Whelan cover art for Moorcock's "Elric at the End of Time" DAW pb 1985 and Chesley Award Winner
Michael Whelan cover art for Moorcock’s “Elric at the End of Time” DAW pb 1985 and Chesley Award Winner

Perhaps most importantly, however, there was the quality of the art.   The 1980s produced MAJOR artists and art of a quality not seen before.  Unlike previous generations, the 1980s attracted artists trained in art, who wanted to work in the SF field, to the excusion of other markets.  As a result, several new art awards were established in the late 1970s, early 80s in addition to the Chesley’s:  The British Fantasy Award for Best Artwork and/or Artist (1977); The British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Art (1979); The World Fantasy Award for Best Artist (1975); and even an award to recognize the best emerging artist: The Jack Gaughan Award, founded by the New England Science Fiction Association, 1986.

One of the “winning-est” of these artists is Michael Whelan – who can still be persuaded to produce a book cover: as witness, his most recent Chesley Award win for Best Hardcover, 2011. In fact, Whelan has won 13 Chesley’s, beginning with his first, the first year Chesley’s were awarded, for Best Paperback cover 1985.

His most recent win was his first book cover illo in years, and you can see why he is still winning awards for his commercial paintings – even though he has largely turned to creating fine-art personal works for galleries.  And he’s up for another one, this year – stay tuned for how that turns out!

Michael Whelan cover for Sanderson's "The Way of Kings" Tor hardcover 2011 and Chesley Award Winner
Michael Whelan cover for Sanderson’s “The Way of Kings” Tor hardcover 2010 and Chesley Award Winner 2011

What is remarkable is that the nominees’ original art is often seen by only a handful of ASFA members before coming to a vote of the membership; what frequently serves as a basis for nomination is only the book cover “as published” – and then only the front cover.  This often only vaguely hints at the true quality of the art.  Which is seen for the first time, by many, only when they see the final ballot and the artist submits a scan of the artwork.

Which brings us to: What’s wrong with the Chesley’s is very much like what’s wrong with the HUGOs.  A very small number of people are in a position to actually SEE the art (typically at a convention artshow) before it’s been nominated, and an even smaller number are in a position to vote.  If potential voters are in the thousands for Hugo’s, then an exponentially SMALLER  number – in the hundreds – are members of ASFA and able to vote.  And if we assume the same percent of able voters (5-10%) are voting for Chesley’s, as for Hugo’s, then we’re talking a matter of a couple of dozen of people are nominating and deciding on the award winners.

Michael Whelan original art for "The Way of Kings" Chesley Winner 2011
Michael Whelan original art for “The Way of Kings” Chesley Winner 2011

Nevertheless, and despite those statistics, year after year ASFA members have unfailingly chosen the best – which, perhaps (I have to confess) may be exactly the way it should be.  Those that care enough to vote for the Chesley’s tend to be the connoisseurs of the art.  Not much in the way of the “BEST” the field serves us gets past those few nominators who care enough to suggest potential ballot names and publications.  No one, to my knowledge, has ever said “oh, why did that one win?”  Despite the potential for making the Chesley’s into awards favoring “the few” at the expense of those who didn’t lobby strongly enough – to my knowledge that has never happened.  And that’s why the Chesley’s still attract the attention of artists, art directors and publishers.   If you don’t believe me, just check out The Chesley Awards for Science Fiction and Fantasy Art: A Retrospective by John Grant and Elizabeth Humphrey, with Pamela D. Scoville (AAPPL, 2003).  “An amazingly inclusive celebration of nearly two decades of Chesley award – winning art” (Randy Dannenfelser review.)

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