Most used blue jeans aren’t worth $50,000. That is, not until Jim Arendt gets his artistic hands on them.
The Conway artist and director of the Rebecca Randall Bryan Gallery at Coastal Carolina University has earned Artfields’ grand prize with his life-size textile creation of a female figure reclining on a sofa. The piece was constructed entirely from recycled blue jeans donated by students and friends, plus his secret ingredient: Alene’s Tacky Glue.
Billed as the “first-of-its-kind Epic Southern Artfest Competition and Celebration,” the 10-day Artfields event attracted entries from almost 800 artists from a dozen southeastern states, eagerly competing for $100,000 in prize money. Of those, 400 works were selected for display in dozens of businesses throughout Lake City.
Self-made billionaire Darla Moore came up with the idea to revitalize the historic inland town her family has called home for six generations. The show’s impact on tourism can’t be immediately measured, but the prize money certainly revitalized Arendt’s bank account.
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“My wife likes to remind me we spent this money years ago,” said Arendt, 35, a highly skilled oil painter with a couple of lingering student loans. “I was surprised when they called my name. You can’t ever get your hopes up on something this big. I’ve won prizes before, but nothing on this scale.”
Arendt began his love affair with denim about four years ago, when oil painting became too time consuming for a man with a young family and a full-time job teaching, managing a gallery and tending to students.
“It grew out of my inability to have long painting sessions. I had to come up with a material to accommodate my lifestyle,” he said. “Oil paint was invented to paint the skins of the gods and I’m not dealing with the skins of the gods.”
Denim turned out to be the perfect metaphor for his everyday heroes – the family members his work depicts. Raised near Flint, Mich., Arendt defines himself as a poor farm boy, not from means.
“We lived through the farm crisis in the 80s, a time when government policies and farm prices created the perfect storm. Thousands of farmers went out of business and we barely kept our land,” Arendt said. “My dad [held two jobs] as a power company lineman and a farmer.”
Like his family, denim is durable. When it gets roughed up, you can patch it. Arendt “paints” figures and faces in myriad shades of denim, using every part of the garment, from zippers and seams to belt loops, which he uses to hang his works. The pieces are 100 percent denim, from front to back.
Karen Watson, executive director of Sumpter County Gallery of Art, where Arendt’s solo exhibition will open May 16, finds his work both technically superior and emotionally evocative.
“I’m familiar with him as a painter, but the work in denim is quite unique,” she said. “It resonates with people. Denim was the material of post-war America. You see textiles and agriculture dying, so we’ve got tourism now. But denim speaks to the history of the south and of this country. It strikes a chord with so many people.”
The Artfields judges and spectators, who voted for their favorite works, must agree. Both popular and professional votes counted toward the prize. Arendt’s winning entry features his sister, Jamie. The massive piece is 150 inches wide by 96 inches tall and took four months to complete in his garage studio, where he “hangs out with the lawnmower, listening to podcasts.”
If he needs a hand, his two daughters, Harper, 6, and Ansley, 3, are willing studio assistants.
Arendt’s work has captured the imagination of some influential venues across the county, Watson said. In 2012, he was a finalist for the 701 Center for Contemporary Art prize in Columbia. His work was awarded Best in Show at Hub-Bub Gallery’s Emerging Carolina in Spartanburg and was included in the South Carolina Biennial 2011. Another piece is on its way to the Netherlands for display in an international textiles show. A couple of weeks ago, Arendt was in Pittsburgh for Fiberart International 2013.
“There were about 64 artists and I was honored to be included,” said Arendt, who met talents from all over the world there. “I’m a young kid to that group. John-Boy Walton [actor Richard Thomas] walked up to me and said ‘I like your work.’ It was dreamlike.”
Arendt met his wife, studio artist Yvette Cummings, at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Mich., where they both worked their way through school. He began admiring her paintings before they met.
“I have a talented wife in the same field. We are supportive and competitive,” said Arendt, who has been winning art awards since 1998 and earned his MFA from University of South Carolina. “We’ve tried to strike a bargain where we give each other studio time. I take over parenting duties some nights. It takes a lot of sacrifice on both our parts to make it work. I couldn’t do it without her.”
As much as Arendt loves creating, he’s not ready to give up his day job.
“I really enjoy teaching. It’s important for artists to share knowledge collected through the centuries,” said Arendt, who prepares young CCU artists for the real world of galleries and shows. “I would teach for free. I like my students. They help me solve my problems.”