Dunedin UNESCO City of Literature teen writing prize: winners announced

Dunedin UNESCO City of Literature in partnership with Dunedin Public Libraries and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery invited participation in a teen writing competition, timed to coincide with the Dunedin Public Art Gallery Colin McCahon exhibition A Land of Granite: McCahon and Otago

The competition

The writing competition was open to high school students and called for fictional writing in response to McCahon’s paintings, limited to 750 words. The competition coincided with lockdown in New Zealand to reduce the spread of COVID-19 during April through May 2020.

Colin McCahon is one of New Zealand’s most important 20th Century painters. His work over forty-five years consisted of various styles including landscape, figuration, abstraction and the overlay of painted text. Dunedin Public Art Gallery curators Lucy Hammonds and Lauren Gutsell referenced the theme of a walking tour for this exhibition, following in the artist’s footsteps and displaying 14 locations McCahon had connections to in Dunedin.

Judging the competition was well-known Dunedin writer Robyn Maree Pickens. As well as her writing career Robyn has an MA in Art History and has worked in galleries and art project spaces in Auckland and Dunedin. Robyn’s art writing has appeared in ArtAsiaPacific online, ANZJA, Art + Australia online, The Pantograph Punch, and Art New Zealand.

Entries were of a particularly high standard despite participants being unable to view McCahon’s works in the flesh, because of the competition taking place during lockdown. Robyn was particularly impressed by the perseverance and quality of the responses among those who took part. She said she was “thoroughly impressed with the quality of the work submitted making the process of selecting the eventual prize winners a very difficult job indeed”. Because of this, two joint fourth place students were awarded a prize because of the overall high standard of these entries.

The winners

Joint Fourth Place winners:

Angela Fu for Requiem for my Dreams, “a passionate piece of writing that strongly evokes the protagonist’s longing to move beyond a traumatic event.”

Oshadha Perera for The Human, “enigmatically covering a vast span of time from the origins of the earth to the appearance of a human being and the impact he has on a village’s animal inhabitants.”

Third Place winner:

Sophie Woodham for The Hills, the only poem among the entries. “Deftly combining poetic, philosophical and art historical commentary, The Hills swerves about in stanzas that ultimately enables the reader to simultaneously consider what is taking place within the paintings and what it might be like to make decisions in the act of painting.”

Second Place winner:

Caitlin O’Brien for Flight, inspired by McCahon’s painting Otago Peninsula (1946-1949) and “sensitively tuned to the vertical viewpoint of this painting, describing the day in the life of a harrier hawk, as the story’s protagonist. Viewing the peninsula scene through the hawk’s eyes, by getting into the character of the hawk is thoroughly impressive. Caitlin’s ability to make plausible the consciousness of another being (a hawk) is remarkable.”

First Place winner:

J A Thea for Hills. “Initially this work appears like a narrative about a girl getting out of a bath! The success of Hills lies in its ability to make compelling correspondences between things that are considered significant, such as distilling the land to its essence, and things that can be treated as less important, such as a young girl’s experience of family life, and her mother’s fourth pregnancy. The story’s opening line ‘My knees poke out of the bath like islands, godlike heads lifted from the sea’, begins an entire chain of associations or transpositions, where the bodies of the girl and her mother are mapped onto Otago Peninsula and reciprocally, the landforms onto the girl’s domestic world.”

J A Thea - First Prize Winner

The official prizegiving ceremony took place at Dunedin Public Art Gallery with good self-distancing practice adhered to. The small gathering were extremely appreciative to hear the winning entries read aloud by their authors.

*Judges comments courtesy of Robyn Maree Pickens

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