A Word from the President – When I got rejected by Portland Open Studios

By Leah Kohlenberg, President, Portland Open Studios

As we announce our latest round of Portland Open Studio artists, I am struck by how the blind jury process raises the quality of our group. Each year, three respected art professionals volunteer to review applicants as part of a jury and score them. This process ensures that we have one of the best art studio tours in the region.

But today, I don’t want to talk about the successes. I want to talk about the tremendous value of failure.

I’m continually brought back to a major teaching moment of my life, which was applying to Portland Open Studios — and getting rejected.

Back in 2014, two years after I’d moved here, I had met enough artists applying to the yearly event that I wanted in, too. I sent in what I considered my best paintings and was soundly told “No thanks.” As someone who had been painting for 12 years at that point, spending five years in Eastern Europe studying with classically trained artists there, and someone who was teaching art classes out of my studio-living room, that was a tough pill to swallow.

But it also spurred me. I reevaluated the imagery I was focusing on, which resulted in me simplifying and honing in on my subjects more tightly. It moved me away from what I now think of as a “gimmicky approach” (more on that later). I took two drawing classes at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. And I continued to paint and boost my skills. I befriended artists who had gotten into Portland Open Studios, saw the quality of their work and talked to them about what made a successful painting.

The next year, I got in. I was then invited to join the Portland Open Studios board. For the first time, I was allowed to sit in during the final selection process – and I learned even MORE about what works and what doesn’t in a juried show. And every year since then, I have juried in. (Yes, board members have to go through the jury selection process too).

Each jury panel brings its own set of values to an event, and that jury changes each year. Each year, we have a new and (particularly this year) a widening playing field. That means each year, to continue the sports analogy, is a brand new ball game. I also know that each year, it remains nerve wracking for me to apply – just because I’m president of this organization doesn’t mean I’m assured to jury in. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’ll submit. Do the images read consistently? Are they photographed well, and cropped correctly? Are they my best work?

But don’t just believe what I say – let me show you what I mean. I’ve chosen to share the three images with you that did NOT make the cut. Read the analysis of each painting in the caption beneath it. Let my errors be your teaching moment.

I want to emphasize here that while I am critiquing each painting, I also still love all the paintings. One sold, one I gave away as a gift, and one hangs in my studio today. I love them because each painting is a step towards something better. And there are elements of each that I think do work. I love them because they refer me to the next jumping off point. They are still my creations, and they’ve taught me so much.


Painting 1:  This oil painting suffers from what I think of as “trying too hard” syndrome, or “too gimmicky.”  As a newbie to Portland, I was caught up in all the goofy stuff you see here – and I tried to create a composition and stuff it all into one painting.  This creates a lot of inconsistencies – the detail of the architecture plays badly against the simplicity of the figures.  That strange thing (it was a cow head) with the jeans tossed over the side – what is it?  The plusses on this painting: composition isn’t bad, some elements are well rendered and it does appear I’m aiming at storytelling (even if the story isn’t clear).


Painting 2:  The first problem?  This entry is very inconsistent with painting one.  It’s a different medium (pastel on acrylic paint), and it doesn’t have the same narrative attempts as No. 1.  Also, this painting does not “pop” – meaning there isn’t enough strong lights and darks, so contrast isn’t good.  It’s hard to tell what we are looking at. This was a fancy lunch I had in Croatia, and the tiny orange wedges on the right are whole fried fish.   Again a vague attempt at telling a narrative, but here, the painting elements aren’t so strong.


Painting 3:  Although this painting has a certain drama, once again, it’s an example of “too gimmicky.” I went through a period where I painted reflections, and this is one of them – buildings and a tree reflected in a back car window in the neighborhood where I lived in Brooklyn, New York, just before I moved to Portland. I even have the car side windows and rear-view mirror included. At the time, I thought that I wanted the viewer to have to look closely to see what was going on. Now, it just seems extra confusing, and I can see why the jury didn’t like it. On a side note: I still like this painting – perhaps for the turning point it represents to me – and it’s hanging in my studio now.

And with that, let the twentieth year of Portland Open Studios officially BEGIN!


Leah Kohlenberg

One thought on “A Word from the President – When I got rejected by Portland Open Studios

  1. There is a lot of hubris in this post. Juries are subjective (as they should be) and every year will be different. But if you’re on the board, your in. What should also be considered as part of the jury process is the artist who gives everything to demonstrations for 4 days straight and who supports the marketing effort leading up the event, through the event and after the event with social media. Thereby supporting the mission of the event ‘To become an essential component in the Portland art community by bringing artist and patron together in an atmosphere of learning about the artistic process’. I would like to see these aspects considered as part of the jury process as well.

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