Winning the Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize would render any artist speechless. It’s the mid-Atlantic region’s most prestigious visual art honor. Just making the finalists’ circle means an elite spot in the handsome Sondheim show at the Baltimore Museum of Art, which is year after year the best survey of young talent in the area. And the $25,000 prize could feed a truly starving artist for a year.
But for D.C. artist Ryan Hackett—the winner of the fifth annual Sondheim Prize and the first D.C. artist to be so honored—that speechlessness was a feeling more visceral than surprise.
“I could barely say anything,” Hackett, 34, says. “It was the blankest moment of my life.”
On Saturday night, Hackett accepted the Sondheim Prize during a reception at the Baltimore Museum of Art, which has hosted the ceremony and attendant exhibition since 2007. The day of the reception and the following day, however, Hackett was busy with viewings and a funeral for his wife’s grandmother. It was at the departed woman’s house in Kensington, Md., where Hackett made the large-scale paintings and video piece that won him the award.
Hackett says that his work is about “dislocating the psyche,” and in a sense, pairing a supreme high with a profound low fits his art. Hackett talks about “captive and wild psychology” as informing his work. Seasonal affective disorder is a subject he has tackled before. For the Sondheim installation at the BMA, his own past efforts seem to be the duality he was playing off of. Instead of an elaborate multimedia installation, he focused on two large-scale and rather serene-looking paintings. These he painted in Kensington, which afforded him the space to think and work large. A video piece that accompanies the paintings was shot in part in the area.
Hackett moved out to Kensington two years ago, after living for about a year in Adams Morgan. Before that, he spent a spell in San Francisco, but he grew up in P.G. County and has called the D.C. area home for much of his life. Hackett describes his grandmother-in-law’s home, which he and his wife have been renting, as a “live-work artist’s residency here in Kensington.”
“To be quite honest, I came back from S.F. to a D.C. I was no longer a part of,” says Hackett. “Not in the sense of art, but in affording a studio.”
The Sondheim lists Hackett as a Kensington, Md., artist, but he’s District through and through. Around late 1999, Hackett and friends founded Decatur Blue, a collective studio/gallery space at Florida Avenue and Vermont Avenue NW that had a big presence in the early ’00s arts scene. Hackett and his fellow collectivists—Jose Ruiz, Stoff Smulson, Champneys Taylor, Javier Cuellar, Brian Balderston, and Gabe “Baby” Martinez, all of them artists—made work there and hosted exhibits by some of D.C.’s best-known artists.
Sculptor Dan Steinhilber and his wife, painter Maggie Michael, both showed there. So did performance artist Kathryn Cornelius. Bands, too: French Toast, Q and Not U, and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists all played Decatur Blue shows in the second-floor space at 919 Florida Ave. NW.
“After that, like anything, people diverged,” says Hackett. “For me, it drove me to California for a while—for a Master’s, but also to live there.”
The Sondheim Prize may facilitate Hackett’s return to D.C. proper. He says that he and his wife, who are expecting a child next month, will stay in Kensington for another year before returning to the city. The money will also fund some new projects Hackett wouldn’t be able to pull off otherwise. The multimedia artist plans to submerge a sculptural work in 90–100 feet of water off the Florida Keys for some time, for example. He wants to do a project with the Baltimore Aquarium that he won’t describe. And he’s looking to partner with a hospital on a “multimedia installation that brings elements of the natural world into the space.”
For D.C. artists, Hackett’s victory is a thrill. No artist outside Baltimore—no artist who did not matriculate from Maryland Institute College of Art, actually—has ever won the prize before, despite the fact that it’s open to applicants from D.C. and Maryland, northern Virginia, and southeastern Pennsylvania. This has led artists to claim bias, notwithstanding rotating jurors who come from all corners. (This year’s jurors were New York–based curator Robert Nickas, Postmasters Gallery director Magdalena Sawon, and Hamza Walker, director of the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago.)
Capital City artists cried foul especially last year, when Hackett and fellow D.C. artist Molly Springfield, both strong finalists, lost to a trio called the Baltimore Development Cooperative, who installed a claptrap geodesic dome on the BMA’s lawn with a flimsy message of social activism.
“I had a lot of people tell me not to apply for the prize, because it only goes to Baltimore,” Hackett says.
But where other D.C. artists (including Hackett) tried and failed, he brought the trophy home. That it represents something of a homecoming for him is only a little bit bittersweet.
“[Decatur Blue] was an essential time for me to understand psychologically what was happening in the area,” Hackett says. “D.C. goes in waves with the really fascinating, cool shit that goes on.”
Images courtesy of the artist. Installation view photograph: Mitro Hood.