Art: Pat Wilshire on the Origins and Evolution of IlluXCon

A visual garden of unearthly delights

By , Columnist

This week many of the world’s masters of fantasy and science fiction art will be gathering for one of the most important annual juried shows held in their field. It’s a substantial show, during which these worthies display their wares, including past masterworks as well as new pieces, many created specifically for this event. And yet, the majority of these artists’ fans are likely unaware of this event, much less that it’s happening this week.

That show is IlluXCon. It opens this Wednesday, September 11, at the Allentown Art Museum and runs through this Sunday the 15th. And, as co-founder Pat Wilshire reveals, there’s a lot of activities and opportunities to meet, greet, and interact with IlluXCon’s guests packed into those few days.  

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Just so we’re all up to speed, what is IlluXCon, when and why was it founded, and who was instrumental in making it a reality? 

IlluXCon is the world’s only annual symposium dedicated to the art of traditionally created imaginative realist art. Imaginative realism, otherwise known as fantastic art or the art of fantasy and science fiction, is both the continuation of a 200-year old tradition as well as the cutting edge of contemporary realist painting. The show was founded in 2008 by Patrick and Jeannie Wilshire under the umbrella of the Association of Fantastic Art.

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Who are some of the artists who’ve appeared over the years?  

Over its first five years IlluXCon has been proud to present a substantial percentage of the most important artists in the field, including Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell, Michael Whelan, Brom, Donato Giancola, Greg Hildebrandt, Bob Eggleton, Jim Burns, Petar Meseldzija, Tom Kuebler, Jordu Schell, and a host of others, most of whom have attended the show multiple times.

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IlluXCon is unique in several ways, one of the most noteworthy being that it’s a fully juried show. Could you explain just what that means in practice, why that system was chosen, and what you hope to accomplish with that particular approach?   

The jury for the IlluXCon show serves several purposes. First, and most importantly, it makes IlluXCon an exhibit where the field of imaginative realism can put its best foot forward to the public by showing nothing but exemplary works by the best practitioners in the field. Second, the jury process came about out of necessity—the demand from artists to exhibit in the show greatly exceeded the available space, and so a jury was deemed the most fair way of determining who would get the exhibition spots in any given year.

The process is fairly simple—artists submit three examples of their work, which are presented to a five-member jury. The jury rotates every year so that artists aren’t being judged by the same people. The jury is a mix of those in the field of fantastic art, like publishers and art directors, and those who have significant expertise in the broader field of realist painting, like museum curators or atelier directors. We do not use artists in the field as judges, due to both the risk of an appearance of conflict of interest as well as the difficulty in finding top-tier artists who aren’t applying for the show themselves.

We actually prefer judges, for the most part, who are not familiar with the genre. This helps to ensure that they are evaluating the work submitted rather than the reputations of the artists in question, and also shifts the judging from a consideration of the characters or uses of the work to a pure critique of the artistic quality of the painting in question.

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Given the histories and high profiles of many of the creators applying, I was wondering if any of them had every had any problem with submitting their work for adjudication—and have you ever had to say “no” to someone who might seem a certainty for inclusion in the show? I’m honestly not fishing for dirt here, I’m just curious how that kind of thing might be handled.  

We have had to explain the jurying process more than once, and we have gotten our share of “Jury?” responses. Once we explain that everyone goes through the jury except for the three to four commissioned artists for the year, though, no one seems to have any issue. We have had the occasional hurt feelings when an artist who had been in the show previously didn’t get selected for the next year, but everyone seems to understand the process and not take it too personally.

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Another rather singular aspect of the early editions of the show was that it was a ticketed affair, with a strict limit on the number of the public allowed in the doors. Why did you go that way in the beginning, and what made you decide to open things up to the general public? And is that shift an indication that the central purpose of the show might have shifted or evolved over time, or is this all perhaps part of your original plan to grow the show?  

Actually, we haven’t changed that part of the process. The limited ticket numbers are designed to produce an intimate environment where everyone has plenty of time to talk and interact with everyone else. In previous years, we did sell tickets at the door for Sunday only, allowing for larger crowds that day. This year, we’ve opened it up for single-day tickets on both Saturday and Sunday—but we’ve also extended the show by a day, so the people who attend the whole show still get the same amount of intimate, exclusive access as they have in the past. That’s something that won’t change—it’s part of the structure of IlluXCon.

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Well, who are some of the notable artists who are appearing this year?   

We’re tremendously excited about this year’s guest list. In addition to our repeat exhibitors we’re welcoming a number of new faces to this year’s show, including Roger Dean, Chris Achilleos, Ciruelo Cabral, J. Anthony Kosar, Dorian Vallejo and Kinuko Craft, among others.

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I also know that you always include some new, relatively unknown creators every year. Could you tell us a little bit about a few of the lesser-known creators who will be at the show, and what about their work marked them as ideal candidates for this year’s IlluXCon?  

In the past, we set aside a space or two each year for an up-and-coming artist who might not otherwise make it into the show. The past couple of years, though, we haven’t actually had to do that. The young artists in the field are producing work that is so outstanding that they are able to get into the show without any specific quota on our parts. Last year, for example, two young artists from Croatia came to the show to exhibit in our Showcase, the non-juried event that we hold at the show hotel each year. When we saw the work they’d brought with them, we offered them an unused space in the corner of the main show, where they promptly became the hit of the event. Both of them—Filip Burburan and Milivoj Ceran—will be back this year with proper main show spaces.

There’s nothing specific that marks a young artist beyond quality. Every year there are artists who surprise us, and I’m sure this year will be no different.

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You also do something really different and very, very cool by commissioning a number of original paintings for the show each year. How’d that become part of the event, and what are you trying to accomplish with those new works?  

The IlluXCon commissions are really a key part of the show’s mission. We wanted to encourage artists to create masterpieces, without regard for art direction or deadlines, and so created the commissions as a means of giving them the opportunity to do so. We do not art direct the commissions, and in some cases we don’t even have any idea what the artist is doing until we see the finished work—but we’ve never been disappointed with the results. Our hope is that these commissions help to encourage artists to take the time to do major personal works in order to really show off what they are capable of doing when not constrained by other requirements. So far, it seems to be working—the percentage of personal works at the show has increased dramatically every year since the beginning.

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Well, that brings up a couple of questions that are likely on the mind of many an artist reading this, namely, “Can anyone apply for a spot in the show? And if the answer’s yes, how do I apply and when’s the next deadline?”  

Yes, anyone can apply for the show! There is no fee for application, and all are welcome. Anyone who is interested in applying for the 2014 show should go to [the website] Illuxcon and sign up for our mailing list. We’ll send out information about the jury submission process in late September or early October. We normally try to have the show’s lineup set within two months of the end of the previous show so that everyone has as much time as possible to create work for the next year’s event. IlluXCon 2014 will take place September 17-21 at the Allentown Art Museum.

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Would you mind talking about who's on the IlluXCon jury, and give us some idea of the primary criteria they use when judging work submitted for possible inclusion in the show?  

The IlluXCon jury changes every year, as we don’t want any individual tastes to impact the content of the show over the long term. Their primary criterion is simple—“Is this person a terrific artist in whatever medium they choose to use?” Contemporary imaginative realists are among the best realist painters on the planet, and the jury selects artists who show that to be the case. Past jurors have included the curators of the Delaware and Brandywine museums, the director of the Allentown museum, the founder of the Art Renewal Center, and the founder of the Angel Academy of Art in Florence, Italy, in addition to art directors and publishers more closely related to the field.

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What do you hope that those artists exhibiting at IlluXCon get from their participation? I ask because, while I know that sales of original art are important, it strikes me that there’s something else that might be gained from appearing at the show. True, or am I way off-base here?  

You’re not off base at all. Sales are important, and IlluXCon’s per artist average in sales is substantial, increasing every year. Although IlluXCon regularly sees individual painting sales in the five-figure range, one thing that I think artists take away from IlluXCon that is even more valuable is inspiration. That’s one area where the “rock star” artist is no different than the young student—seeing work that provides inspiration, and an incentive to take their work to the next level, is critical in order for anyone to grow as an artist. IlluXCon provides an extra “kick” to this inspiration because the exhibition is not prints, or giclees, or coffee mugs, but original work, which possesses an impact that simply cannot be captured by any reproductive medium.

This is something that the exhibiting artists have recognized from the very beginning. One unique aspect of IlluXCon, as compared to other events, is that we have no Guests of Honor. Every single artist who attends the show does so at their own expense, including paying for their space in the show. The fact that we have repeat exhibitors from not only across the United States but Great Britain, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, and Eastern Europe is a testament to the importance of that inspiration.

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What do you hope that those attending your show—be they buyers or simply lovers of exceptionally fine art—get from their experience at IlluXCon?   

For first-time attendees, we hope that they take advantage of this opportunity to really see the best that the school of imaginative realism has to offer. In the end, some may decide that they don’t care for it, just as I personally am not a huge fan of abstract expressionism, and that’s fine—but we want people to have the chance, and take the time, to experience the work in an appropriate context before evaluating it. A comic book convention or expo mart, while great in their own way, are not the proper context for this to happen—that’s why we’ve moved the show to the Allentown Art Museum, to provide a setting for the show that allows the work to be seen not as “gaming art” or “SF art” or “Conan art” or “book cover art,” but just as “art.” Two weeks ago, the spaces that will be filled by the IlluXCon artists were hung with a magnificent collection of Toulouse-Lautrecs. Two years ago it was filled with masters like Tiepolo and Canaletto. That’s the context in which this work deserves to be seen and experienced.

One of the things we found doing the At the Edge exhibition at the same museum last year—with record-breaking attendance—was that many art lovers had no idea that this field, or these artists, even existed…but when exposed to the work, they loved it, finding it both inspirational in imagery and dazzling in its technical virtuosity.

For those who already know and love this particular genre of artwork, we hope that they leave with an even greater appreciation for the work and the creators in the field and, if they are artists themselves, a determination to produce the finest quality work they possibly can in their own artistic endeavors.

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What do you get from doing all of that hard work? Obviously, this isn’t an event that can be put together overnight, or even in a couple months. So what keeps you doing all of that hard, behind-the-scenes work that makes a show like IlluXCon function effortlessly?  

IlluXCon is a full-time job in and of itself. We are always planning at least a year out, and sometimes—as in the case of the move to the museum—more than two years out. But we do the show for one simple reason—it has to be done. For nearly 100 years imaginative painting has been relegated to illustration only, but the changes in the publishing market in recent years has rendered that a poor option for the future. The only way this genre and the artists who practice it can succeed and sustain themselves going forward is to branch back more into the artistic mainstream where their predecessors—the Pre-Raphaelites, the Victorian painters, the Symbolists—were able to build successful careers. As long as the field is evaluated principally by the usage of its imagery, rather than the imagery itself, its future remains in jeopardy.

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Could you lay out the major events of this year’s IlluXCon, when and where they’re happening, and how readers can learn more details about attending the show?   

There are a wide range of events happening at this year’s show—the Main Show exhibit, the Weekend Salon—both juried—the weekend Showcase event, three days of demonstrations and lectures, the Thursday evening Jam and SketchFest…full details, including a schedule of programming and events as well as a complete list of all exhibiting artists, are available on the IlluXCon website.

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Anything else to add before I let you go?  

Nope, nothing to add!!

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