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Artist makes brush with victory

Cliff Mann is the new champion of Art Battle-Prince George.

Cliff Mann is the new champion of Art Battle-Prince George.

You could be forgiven if you had never heard of Mann prior to 2013, but he is on his way to becoming a household name in local art circles for reasons beyond winning the big prize at the high-pressure painting competition this past weekend.

Mann first came to public attention this past spring when he took over the year-long position of Artist In Residence at the Community Arts Council. The watercolour specialist took the keys from outgoing AIR Corey Hardemann.

Mann got international recognition in July when one of his paintings was included in the book Splash 15 - Creative Solutions: The Best of Watercolor. "I used to go to the library to look through this book for inspiration," he said. "Now, those painters looking for their inspiration were looking at my work. I don't even know how to express how that feels."

From there, the same painting was featured in the latest edition of Watercolor Magazine on newsstands now.

But the biggest wave of emotions was yet to come. They burst free on Friday night at the annual painters' showdown downtown. Art Battle-Prince George is a co-production between the Community Arts Council and Groop Gallery where the event was held. Packed with onlookers, with mood music pumping, and spotlights blazing on the competition easels, 11 of the city's best artists slapped canvass for a 20-minute power paint. Six went first, with Amie Stoltz prevailing. Five more went in the second heat, including Mann and defending champion Hardemann (who also won the provincial title to represent B.C. at the nationals held at Maple Leaf Gardens). Mann's expression was shock and wonderment when his name was announced the winner.

He and Stoltz then went head-to-head in the finals. Again, it was 20 minutes to do their best work, and again it was fan voting that decided the winner. Mann's painting was the democratic choice.

It was only later that night that the chemistry between his brain and his stomach started to even out, Mann confessed. He and several others in the competition also disclosed that they had only rehearsed their first painting, so he and Stoltz together were making up their second heat images on the fly.

"Going up against Core, how can you not be intimidated?," he said. "And she really did an awesome painting, but so did Cara [Roberts], Amie, there were a lot who had a really strong first round. I'm sure Amie had an idea in her head for the second painting that just wasn't as polished. That's how it was for me. And also, you're totally spent - the pressure, the lights, the crowd, the music, it was really hot in the room, and it all plays a role. My hands were visibly shaking when I started, and I was trembling for easily the first five minutes."

He confessed he would not have signed up for Art Battle had he not been lobbied into it by Community Arts Council officials. Now they look like prophets.

"Our Artist In Residence is two for two, which is pretty exciting for us, and I think it definitely creates an indication that having that program gives a positive edge to the person in that position," said Community Arts Council executive director Wendy Young. "We are so proud of Corey and Cliff, and we hope this helps artists look forward to one day being our Artist In Residence themselves."

The medium for all sanctioned Art Battle competitions is acrylics whereas Mann is almost exclusively a watercolours painter, so part of his reluctance was the change of tools. He now considers that part of the growth experience.

"I know that's part of why the organizers are so eager to promote this as an annual event, because it can really expand the public's awareness about art and the artists in the community, but it is also an opportunity for the artists themselves to become better at what they do," Mann said. "What a turnout. The public really has gotten excited. Did you feel that buzz in the room, the whole night? I can only see this getting bigger and better, and I know from the artists' perspective it has definitely caused us to step up our game."

Following the event, all paintings were auctioned off with half the price of each piece going to the respective artist and half going to fund the travel costs and other expenses of sending the winner to Vancouver for the next round. Mann will now set to work practicing up another couple of images for the provincials. The date of the B.C. showdown has not yet been determined.