Spectators gathered in the auditorium at Ten West Center for the Arts to catch a fglimpse of Art Battle Fortville, a live painting tournament that challenges artist to craft a piece of artwork against the clock. Staff photo by Tom Russo
Spectators gathered in the auditorium at Ten West Center for the Arts to catch a fglimpse of Art Battle Fortville, a live painting tournament that challenges artist to craft a piece of artwork against the clock. Staff photo by Tom Russo
FORTVILLE — While Saturday night might have found many people glued to March Madness, more than 170 people gathered to watch a different kind of contest unfold.

Spectators gathered in the auditorium at Ten West Center for the Arts to catch a glimpse of Art Battle Fortville, a live painting tournament that challenged artists to craft a masterpiece in a 20-minute time limit.

The local event operates under the umbrella of Art Battle International, the largest live painting tournament in the world. The first event took place in 2001 in a New York City alleyway junkyard and 18 years later has grown into an international movement. The art battles draw crowds across the United States as well as in Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, Italy and New Zealand, according to the Art Battle website.

Many in the Fortville crowd came to cheer on a specific artist; others had attended the first art battle in September, and some were just curious to see what the fuss was all about.

As go-time drew near, some of the artists mingled with the crowd, chatting with friends and family, while others huddled anxiously in the green room, a lounge area down the hall from where the competition would take place.

In the green room with minutes to spare, Barry Asher paced nervously at the thought of painting for the first time in front of a crowd.

“Usually, I’m at home in the solace of my painting world,” Asher said, sitting down at the table in an attempt to relax.

But the Fortville native’s nervousness was countered by his excitement.

“I love art, I love anything creative, and I love Fortville and the fact that they’re having something like this,” he said. “The best way I can support it is to be a part of it.”

Nekoda Witsken of Fortville sat across from him, fiddling with a handful of paintbrushes, some traditional and thin-bristled, others looking more like those used for house-painting.

Witsken, who owns a mural-painting business, traditionally paints in broad strokes on a large scale.

“I paint in public a lot,” she said, “but not in front of a crowd.”

The Fortville artists were two of 12 who competed. The field of competitors also included two artists returning from last fall’s inaugural event, Sharon Jiskra Brooks of Indianapolis and Charles McNally of Carmel; Amanda Stuart of Fortville; Carrie Fedor of Greenfield; Lauren Daugherty and Riley Dismore of Bloomington; Zoey Nateman and Krystle Rouse of Indianapolis; and Jeff Bertrand of Nashville, Tennessee. One spot was held open for a wild-card entry from the audience.

Several of the artists, including Rouse, prepared ahead of time for the competition. She’d been practicing at home painting in 20-minute time periods. She needed to know what was possible to create without the leisure of an open-ended project.

Asher’s plan came to him at the last minute.

“I’ve been thinking about it for weeks — my plan came about sitting in this room,” Asher said. “I never came up with anything until I was sitting right here in this room.”

Of course, neither was willing to divulge a strategy with the competition within hearing distance.

Finally, it was time to put paint to palette. The tension grew as emcee Jared Hiner led the crowd in a 10-second countdown before the white 18-by-20 canvases began to be transformed.

Brooks slapped red paint onto the lower left side of her canvas at lightning speed before blending yellow gold into what would eventually become an impressionist painting of a honey bee.

Nateman danced along to the music provided by a DJ as she whisked her brush across the canvas. The DJ’s upbeat playlist, with songs hand-picked by each of the artists, included Hall and Oates’ “Rich Girl,” Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and Queen’s “Killer Queen.”

Rouse turned her canvas on its side as an oceanside lighthouse began to take shape. She turned her canvas, she explained, so that the paint would drip and look more like water.

Several times during the paint-off, Asher took his canvas down from the easel and laid it on the floor in an effort to manage watery paint while he created a piano keyboard framed by musical notes.

Some artists reacted to the 20-minute time limit by painting with frenetic speed, while others were measured and methodical.

The audience watched the platform stage as the artists worked. Kelley Kelly drove in from Cicero to check out the Fortville art scene. As an acquaintance of Sharon Jiskra Brooks, she was familiar with some of her artwork and wanted to see what the other artists had to offer.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Kelly said. “There’s so much variety in what they’re painting. It’s interesting the see the paintings develop.”

Artist subject matter for the evening ranged from Nateman’s blue and black dinosaur skull to Daugherty’s blue-toned abstract rectangles.

Fortville resident Lisa Dueringer attended with her two children. Her son Talon, 11, pointed out Bertrand’s painting of an apple core with a female face as his favorite.

“We came to the last one, and my kids really enjoyed it,” Dueringer said. “We think it’s entertaining.”

Lacey Willard and Libby Wyatt — with the support of the Fortville Action Committee and Main Street Arts & Music — are the driving forces behind Art Battle Fortville. Wyatt had seen a friend’s photos on Facebook of attending an Art Battle in Phoenix. She thought it looked like a fun and easy thing to put together — a live event where artists compete against the clock to present the best work they can craft.

Art Battle Fortville was organized into three 20-minute rounds: two rounds of six contestants each and a final round of the top two winners from each of the first two rounds.

Additional intrigue for the evening came from the impromptu selection of a member of the audience to participate. Attendees interested in competing put their names in a fishbowl at the ticket table as they purchased their tickets.

Tim Wells, of Charlotte, North Carolina, who happened to be visiting relatives in the area, was selected as the wild-card competitor.

His wife, Carol, said she was “shocked — happily shocked” when his name was called out.

Wells has been painting for five or six years, but he knew what he was up against.

“The time restraint is hard,” he said, admitting it’s hard for him to finish a painting in three hours during his painting lessons. “But there are a lot of very talented people and a good art group here. Very supportive.”

The night’s creations went to a silent auction at the close of the event, with all proceeds going toward the Main Street Arts & Music at the Carnegie, a newly opened arts gallery downtown. The evening’s overall winner, Daugherty’s rendering of a snail shell, is headed to the regional competition in Chicago. Winners were determined by audience vote.

Most walked away with polished creations, but Wells found he spent a bit too much time mixing his palette to create just the right shades for his sunset.

Although time ran out before he could finish, Wells enjoyed the experience.

“I put my name in to see what would happen,” he said. “I did it for fun.”

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