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The loud chirp of crickets may have replaced drums, guitars and wild vocals at the Iowa State Fair Grandstand, but the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t canceled all fair-related arts events and competitions.

Some of the only blue ribbons given out in 2020 were awarded — digitally, of course — to winners in the fine arts showcase, which features a dozen mediums including glass, jewelry, oil painting and sculpture.   

Unlike many other State Fair departments, the fine arts contest takes submissions digitally, which allowed them to move forward despite the presence of COVID-19, said Dollie Bothwell, the Iowa State Fair fine arts superintendent. 

About 700 pieces are normally entered for the competition, but this year's entries were lower due to the pandemic, Bothwell said. Three judges juried in 199 artworks this year and selected the winners. During a typical year, some 30 people work on the exhibition's curation, production, and promotion.

Although the digital-only show looked and felt completely different than the version normally held at the cultural center, Bothwell said continuing with the competition despite the fair cancellation gave artists — already hit hard by the pandemic — just a bit of normalcy.  

Even with the challenges placed in front of staff and artists, the department was able to implement a "grand show for our State Fair,” Bothwell said.

"We were able to uphold and advocate for artists," she said. 

The digital exhibit didn’t dampen the joy of winning for West Des Moines’ Kathleen Simmons, who took home the Best of Show prize for her work “Lace,” a black-and-white charcoal drawing of a woman wearing a lace collar and hauntingly staring straight out at the viewer.  

"To get the Best in Show, I was just floored,” she said. “So unexpected, so thankful. It feels awesome.”

Paul Marlow of Cedar Rapids was also delighted to take first place in both the acrylic and oil painting categories for his pieces "Zoey's Pizzeria" — a homage to his favorite Chicago slice joint — and "Fanfare for the Mailman” — which, inspired by a recent trip to New York, depicts a delivery man pushing a cart overflowing with boxes.

"The quality of the work overall keeps getting better and better every year from everybody,” said Marlow, who has submitted to the contest for the past six years. “To get in is fantastic."

It’s just a "wonderful showcase for Iowa artists,” he said.

The win for “Fanfare for the Mailman" was especially moving, given the coronavirus age we are living in, he said. After the pandemic hit, he looked at the man in the painting as an essential worker — a hero, really.

"It was my way of lifting up these people who work hard every day, and we count on them," Marlow said.

Although both Marlow and Simmons were happy the department was able to host some kind of show this year, they were disappointed (as you'd expect) they wouldn’t see her work hang at the fair.

But, don’t worry, the pair already have plans to enter again next year.  

Sierra Porter covers entertainment for the Des Moines Register. You can reach her at sporter@registermedia.com or via Twitter @SierraAPorter95.

Correction: In a normal year, about 700 art pieces are entered for the art contest, but those numbers were lower this year due to the ongoing pandemic. The three judges usually select 400 pieces for the competition, but this year only ​​​199 were chosen. This has been updated in the text. 

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