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What to expect from 2020’s big art prize winners: MICA professors Susan Waters-Eller and LaToya Hobbs

LaToya Hobbs, 37, is the 2020 winner of the Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize.
LaToya Hobbs, 37, is the 2020 winner of the Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize. (HANDOUT)

Two Maryland Institute College of Art professors who create unusual works snapped up Baltimore’s two most prestigious annual art prizes this year.

LaToya Hobbs, 37, who seamlessly melds woodcutting, painting, and collage to create portraits of Black motherhood, won the Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize accompanied by a $25,000 award on July 20.

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Susan Waters-Eller, 70, uses principles from neuroscience to create surreal and occasionally disquieting landscapes. On May 19, she picked up the top Baker Artist Award, which comes with a $40,000 prize.

Now, Hobbs is working on “Salt of the Earth,” a portrait series of modern matriarchs. The images on wood panels, many in black and white, capture the dignity and nobility of ordinary women. Viewers may notice that Hobbs has incorporated African adinkra symbols for strength, power and beauty onto her backdrops or into her subjects’ clothes.

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“I see women as the preservers of our families, culture and communities,” she said, “just as salt is a preservative.”

The subject matter sometimes dictates whether Hobbs applies paint to the panels or picks up a chiseling tool.

“When I’m using woodcutting techniques,” she said, “I’m thinking of carving away negative stereotypes about Black women.”

Susan Waters-Eller picked up the, $40,000 Mary Sawyers Imboden Award, the top prize in the annual Baker Artist Awards.
Susan Waters-Eller picked up the, $40,000 Mary Sawyers Imboden Award, the top prize in the annual Baker Artist Awards. (Theresa Keil / HANDOUT)

Her work can be viewed on her website, laytoyamhobbs.com. A virtual exhibition of her award-winning portfolio is at promotionandarts.org.

As a high school student, Waters-Eller was fascinated by science, later combining it with her art. She draws on theories of brain development to create a particular feeling.

“The first thing I teach students is to divide their canvases into big shapes,” she said. “The body reacts instinctively to lightness and dark, to objects over our heads or that we need to move around. Shapes that are out of balance create a sense of alarm until things come to rest.”

Since 2008, Waters-Eller has been outlining her theories in her blog, “Seeing Meaning,” which has 82,000 hits and has been read by art lovers in 130 countries.

Her work — which will eventually include her current project, a work inspired by George Floyd’s death on May 25 — can be found at visualcommentary.blogspot.com and at bakerartist.org.

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