I was excited to help judge 4-H art at the Sheridan County Fair this year, and also nervous about how to weigh individual 4-H members’ achievement against others in the three age divisions of junior, intermediate and senior.

Walking through the 4-H exhibits in years past, I’ve often wondered why a very nice project was overlooked by a judge who chose another as “champion,” which to me lacked the quality and skill of the other. It surprised me to learn the importance of the interview score for static (non-animal) 4-H projects, that how members demonstrate what they learned while doing the project is factored into ribbon placement. The interview is part of the learning experience, as members answer questions and are given feedback. Judges are advised to take into consideration whether members had access to mentors, or if they had to learn and acquire skills on their own. My clerk, artist Jo Ellen Grotte, was very helpful.

Immediately I related to the 4-H members I was interviewing. I saw myself in the young, junior member, peeking shyly out from under her big hat, unsure how to explain her art, uncertain whether it was worthy to be there, scrutinized by a smiling stranger. Even as a professional artist, I find it difficult to state why my work is worthy; like a child, I find myself saying things like, “It was cool. I just wanted to paint it. I really like this blue.”

I saw a bit of myself also in the skilled, loquacious senior member, who — unlike me — knew exactly what to say about developing her process and how she overcame problems and adapted designs to suit the limitations of her materials. What I related to was the fact that this artist disregarded any suggestions the clerk or I offered.

It reminded me of when I was young and thought I was an expert. Part of learning is being humble enough to know that there’s always room to improve. Accepting constructive criticism improves our communication skills and the way others perceive us, and following the advice could make us better artists. Her 3-D projects were well-executed and amazing, but I awarded one project a blue ribbon (meaning it met all requirements without problems), which could have earned a purple (meaning it exceeded all learning expectations) had she been more willing to listen to feedback.

I very much saw myself in the intermediate member who brought some exceptional art, along with an armload of hurried, mostly mediocre entries. My husband’s voice echoed in my mind: “Did you do your best work here?” I too, have submitted sub-par work in an effort to meet a deadline or to fill a wall at a show rather than focusing on producing my absolute best.

This member was talented but very busy, and lacked discernment in determining which pieces were worthy of exhibition and which should have stayed home. At least one project was unfinished. I hated to, but I gave her a white ribbon (meaning the project did not meet expectations) for a would-be ceramic bowl which had broken into a flat disc, but she glazed it a pretty color, called it a spoon rest and entered it as such. The piece could have been salvaged as a base for a beautiful ornament or pendant, but “spoon rest” was a stretch that even my optimistic imagination couldn’t justify. I hope the white ribbon didn’t discourage her, but rather taught this young artist to take time in completing and exhibiting her best work, to demonstrate the skills she’s learned.

I related to the overflowing exuberance of the senior member whose natural talent exceeded my own. As a spectator viewing all the artwork, I would have expected all her projects to garner purple ribbons, but a 4-H interview judge has to weigh a member’s work individually before judging it against others in the division; therefore, within her own art submissions, a painting with a misplaced light source, though it was better executed than much of the other work in that age division, didn’t meet the level of her other work, and so was awarded a lower-level ribbon. She graciously and eagerly listened to suggestions that could improve her painting. I know she’ll use that feedback to further develop her skills.

Interview judging was a learning experience for me more than for the kids. It reminded me what 4-H is about, principles that have the power to change our community, our country and our world: To believe in ourselves, our work and in each other instead of doubting; to always do and put forth our best; to use any opportunity to learn from others and listen to advice; and to see “letdowns” as learning opportunities that motivate us to continue striving toward goals.

The work that goes into 4-H projects is less about gaining external validation through a ribbon or award, and more about intrinsic rewards: the knowledge, confidence and camaraderie that youth develop in this organization. Mostly, I learned that what I’d previously perceived as a dumb choice on the part of a judge involves much more than I’d ever imagined.


By Sonya Caywood The Sheridan Press