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A challenge and an honour

Pauline McLean | 11:26 UK time, Sunday, 19 April 2009

I've been a judge on the Hellen Keller International award for the past eight years - they're held biennially - and chair of the judging panel for the last two prizes, quite a challenge as well as an honour.

They're genuinely judged blindly - an irony which i'm sure would have tickled Helen Keller, who established the fund which allows the prize to be awarded.

As judges, we have no idea whether work is by a professional artist, a community group or an enthusiastic amateur. All we have is a room full of art and a shortlist to draw up in less than a day.

Make that two rooms full of art.

The competition is now attracting so many entries - almost 200 from across the globe - that they had to be spread out across Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and Sense Scotland's new headquarters Touchbase, in Kinning Park.

As we picked our way through the early diners in the concert hall café, noting artworks here and sculptures there, the scale of our challenge began to hit home.

How on earth do you find a winner in work so diverse that it includes papier mache sculpture, fine art, drawings, collage, video installations, even a website?

Fortunately, I had plenty of help from my fellow judges, Amanda Catto, head of visual arts at the Scottish Arts Council, Monica Callaghan, head of education at the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery and Keith Salmond, who as a visually impaired artist brought a welcome new dimension to our judging process, often highlighting the more accessible works, the stuff you can smell and touch as well as see.

In the end, we were unanimous about our winner - a large artwork made of up 20 smaller squares. Each featured a different pattern made in black paint, slowly dribbled across the fabric.

It was vibrant and interesting, worked on different levels for sighted and non sighted audiences and had an oomph about it we all loved.

It was also in Touchbase, leaving the organisers with the challenge of projecting it at the awards ceremony in the concert hall (while also encouraging everyone to come and see it in the flesh along with the rest of the entries).

With a lovely twist, the winner - turned out to be from Helen Keller's home town of Florence, Alabama.

Rich Curtis created the piece over 12 months, working with students at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind.

He played them music and asked them to respond by drawing marks on paper. The resulting 20 textured paintings are designed to be felt as well as seen.

One of the loveliest things about the way the competition is judged, is meeting the artists afterwards.

Sadly, Mr Curtis wasn't there in person but many of the other artists were in Glasgow for the prizegiving.

Among them was Matt Hulse, who created a website Dummy Jim about a real life story of a deaf man and Jean Compton, whose vivid image of a child in the womb earned her a runner-up award.

Also represented were many of the creators of the children's work, Shawlands Academy and Hazelwood School in Glasgow - who worked with recycled to create their ambitious artwork Medusa.

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