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MFA Alum Balances Art, Identity to Earn $50K Prize–Largest Ever Awarded Solely to Women Painters

Posted July 12, 2019 in AlumniMFA Drawing

At the forefront of Aneka Ingold’s painting “Postpartum” is a woman trapped between worlds.

In one arm, she cradles a newborn to her breast, while the other stretches out a window toward what lies beyond the canvas. The fragile veneer of her stoic expression is betrayed by the lifeless shade of blue that has nearly enveloped her body. And all around, loose threads litter her domestic surroundings, framed by the artist as more of a cell than a home. 

Painting of a woman holding a baby"Postpartum" by Aneka Ingold (image courtesy of the artist)

“Postpartum” isn’t a self-portrait per se, but there’s no denying the connection to Ingold’s own experiences navigating modern womanhood. Like the figure in the painting, the Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) alumna (’14, MFA Drawing) has often felt fragmented by her different identities—artist, educator, and mother of two—and burdened by the pervasive expectation that women today be empowered professionals, dedicated homemakers, and everything in-between.

Naturally, Ingold took to her studio to make sense of it all. The result: her strongest work to date, and a massive leap forward in a career already teeming with high-profile accomplishments.

Recently, Ingold emerged from a field of 647 entrants nationwide as the winner of the inaugural Bennett Prize, a $50,000 award that’s also the largest ever given solely to women painters. Texas art collectors Steven Alan Bennett and Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt conceived of the award as a platform for extremely talented yet still-emerging female artists, particularly those painting in the figurative realism style. Beyond promoting the artists themselves, Bennet and Schmidt aim to amplify the perspective and experiences underpinning their work.

A woman posing in a museum next to pieces of artIngold (center) with Bennett Prize creators Steven Alan Bennett (left) and Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt (right) next to Ingold's work at the Musekgon Museum of Art (© Jennifer Green Photography)

That’s why winning the Bennett Prize means far more to Ingold than money or exposure. It’s been the strongest validation thus far of her own work, which explores the female experience across time, culture, and history.

“I feel so fulfilled to know that the art I’m making is more than just aesthetically pleasing; it’s thought-provoking,” she says. “Much of what I’m saying with my art can make people uncomfortable, but I work very hard to find ways to tell stories that invite viewers to spend time searching inside themselves and reconsidering the way they see the world.”

Ingold’s work grapples with how patriarchal society compartmentalizes female identity and trivializes the female perspective. The women she depicts aren’t individuals, but rather representations of a shared female experience, one that extends far beyond the limits of social constructs, gender roles, and even history itself.   

“You can’t exist or have an identity without considering everything that’s shaped you and your ancestors,” she says. “Those experiences, whether you’re conscious of them or not, as a woman, you’re made up of them.

Painting of a woman surrounded by birds"Formidable" by Aneka Ingold (image courtesy of the artist)

Ingold’s own identity has changed considerably over the last few years, and especially during her time at KCAD. When she first entered the MFA program in 2012, she had spent the previous two-and-a-half years raising her son, and was largely removed from the creative practice she had fostered since earning her BFA in 2003.

“I remember being really scared and vulnerable,” Ingold says, “but my professors were so patient and nurturing. They gave me the space and support to work through all this raw emotion I’d been suppressing since my son was born. Going back into the studio felt like starting all over, but my professors encouraged me to just keep experimenting and working, making marks until I discovered the stories I wanted to tell.”

MFA Drawing Professor Stephen Halko remembers being struck by Ingold’s fierce determination to forge her own path.

“From day one, Aneka was eager to find her voice and not simply follow the tropes of others,” Halko says. “Her tireless work in the studio, and her willingness to undertake substantial academic and personal investigation enabled her to create images that are unmistakably her own. It’s no surprise that she’s carried that level of dedication into her career, and I am elated to see her receive the recognition she has earned and deserves.”

Ingold’s practice has long revolved around womanhood, but it was at KCAD where she came to understand that her identity as a mother was inseparable from her work as an artist.

“Grad school was all about ‘how do I juggle all these roles as a mom?’” she recalls. “’How do I relate to the world as a mom? See the world through the eyes of a mom?’”

The MFA program also helped Ingold hone her creative process and her unique aesthetic: strikingly realistic human figures occupying surrealist landscapes filled with an intriguing assortment of symbols, shapes, and colors. The visual layers, along with the conceptual layers they enable, invite careful examination from the viewer.

“I’m laying down layers of paint and blocking in shapes, then building on that with pen, colored pencil, or whatever else,” Ingold says. “It’s a nice foundation that’s already saturated and interesting and then you put the rendering on top of that and it makes everything pop."

A woman working on a piece of art in a studioIngold working in her studio (image courtesy of Aneka Ingold)

Ingold would emerge from KCAD to embark on a meteoric career trajectory.  

In 2015, less than a year after earning her MFA, she was featured in a national juried exhibition at the Zhou B Art Center in Chicago and was named the Grand Prize Winner in Vying, an international juried exhibition held during Art Basel Miami Beach. She also began teaching art at the University of Tampa, where she found that nurturing others’ creative practice helped her approach her own from a broader perspective

The following year, Ingold earned spots in three national juried exhibitions: Women in Art, where she was named Featured Artist; Drawn, hosted by the prestigious Manifest Creative Research Gallery; and the Valdosta National All-Media Juried Competition, where she won first place.

Woman standing next to paintings in a galleryIngold next to her work at RJD Gallery in Bridgehampton, NY. She's currently represented by the gallery. (credit: Michael Ingold)

Then came the birth of her daughter, and with it, another creative hiatus.

“I had built up all this momentum; I was producing a ton of work and getting into shows, and then this new person came into my life and I had to devote everything to her,” Ingold recalls. “Art had to take a backseat.”

While becoming a stay-at-home mother to her new daughter and her then 7-year-old son limited Ingold’s capacity to create, her desire remained. Working through the resulting internal conflict wasn’t easy.

“The expectations placed on women today to be everything are totally unreasonable,” she says. “But I still felt this enormous pressure to try, and worse, guilt when I came up short. It took a while, but I finally learned to say ‘I’m going to do what I can today and I’m going to stop holding myself to this ridiculous standard.’”

Instead, Ingold began methodically building a foundation for future creative work using the same visual research-based approach she developed at KCAD.

“I’m interested in exploring, so when I’m ideating a piece, I’m looking at all different sources: art history books, boxes of photographs, antiques, old encyclopedias; I might be taking photographs,” she says. “In each piece, I use all these little bits and pieces of symbolism drawn from this research, anything that helps me tap into the past and experiences that are outside of my own.”

Painitng of a woman wearing a crown"Aberration" by Aneka Ingold (image courtesy of the artist)

Eventually, Ingold felt ready to throw herself back into creating. She was able to produce new pieces that she felt showed growth from her previous work, and started applying for exhibition opportunities, including the Bennett Prize. When she got a personal call from Bennet and Schmidt themselves letting her know she’d been selected as a finalist, she was ecstatic.

“I was so excited that it all felt like a blur,” Ingold laughs. “I just remember being so moved that they’d called themselves, and when they told me that they like my work because of how powerful it was, that just blew my mind.”

But after going on to win the Bennet Prize, Ingold found a deeper reward in the opportunity to be part of a dynamic group of female artists who are helping shape the contemporary art world into a more equitable and accessible platform. She and the other nine finalists are currently featured in Rising Voices: The Bennett Prize for Women Figurative Realist Painters, an exhibition currently at the Muskegon Museum of Art that showcases a vibrant diversity of technique, aesthetic, subject matter, and themes. Starting September 8, the exhibition will begin traveling to different venues across the country to reach as diverse an audience as possible.

View of paintings in an art galleryIngold's work alongside the work of other Bennett Prize finalists, on display at the Muskegon Museum of Art (© Jennifer Green Photography)

And it’s not just that the fact that these artists are women that’s important; it’s that their respective bodies of work, each of which make powerfully bold statements on contemporary and historical issues facing women, are being deservedly elevated.

“It’s such an honor to be part of this group of extremely talented artists,” says Ingold. “Meeting the other women and talking about our work, sharing ideas and stories, that was an unforgettable experience. It’s this feeling that I’m part of something bigger.”

In many ways, the Bennett Prize is changing history, eclipsing a past that has marginalized women and opening the door to a future in which female voices are given their rightful place in the human narrative. And in becoming its first winner, Ingold is realizing that she’s only scratched the surface of what she wants to say.  

“I want to, as an artist and teacher, help create a world where my daughter, or any woman for that matter, can be herself and speak her truth,” she says. “I want to make art that creates a platform for change.”

See more of Aneka Ingold’s work at anekaingold.com and on Instagram @ankeaingold

Learn more about KCAD’s MFA Drawing program.