Aubin Soonhwan K., Sandra Smolski Win Takao Tanabe Prize

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Paintings by Aubin Soonhwan K. (left) and Sandra Smolski. (Courtesy the artists)

By Perrin Grauer

Posted on April 11, 2024

The artists and ECU alums were awarded the prestigious prize for mid-career and emerging artist, respectively.

Artists Aubin Soonhwan K. (BFA 2018) and Sandra Smolski (BFA 2024) are the 2024 recipients of the prestigious Takao Tanabe Prize for BC Painters.

Sandra, an ECU undergraduate student, was awarded as 2024’s emerging artist. Aubin was selected as this year’s mid-career artist. Both report a few long moments of disbelief upon receiving the news.

“I thought it had to be a scam email,” Aubin says. “And then I saw the signature. I realized it’s real, and it felt great. It was a huge surprise.”

Sandra likewise “didn’t think it was real,” only truly coming to terms with it a few days later.

“I just feel really honoured and grateful,” she says. “It feels so validating.”

The prize is named in honour of Vancouver Island artist Takao Tanabe, whose was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1999 and won the Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts in 2013.

Winners are selected by contemporary art curators connected to museums and galleries in BC. Selection is based on “exceptional creativity coupled with a promise of future achievements,” according to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, which administers the prize. Names of the selectors are kept confidential and there is no application process for either the curators or artists.

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Aubin takes a moment for silliness at the ECU Library in March, 2024. (Photo by Perrin Grauer)


Aubin Soonhwan K., y. (Photo courtesy Aubin Soonhwan K.)

The selection committee writes that the strength of Aubin’s paintings comes partly from “their ability to feel intimate and personal, while at the same time relevant and meaningful to the way many of us navigate the contemporary world … Viewers are drawn in, in subtle ways, and then have the space to think about larger concerns around identity and place.”

Sandra, meanwhile, impressed the committee with her “commitment to her painting practice and to large-scale abstraction … She brings a level of maturity to her painting that is exceptional for an undergraduate student and we are thrilled to support her career through the Tanabe Prize.”

Both the emerging and mid-career artist prizes come with a no-strings-attached $15,000 cash prize, which is administered by the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

“It relieves so much pressure,” Aubin (he/they) says of the prize. Aubin, who currently lives in Vancouver, notes the relief is particularly timely as they plan a move to Ontario to attend grad school. He also notes the recognition brings its own reward.

“I tell myself it’s not about validation, but it’s nice when there’s a little bit of it,” they say. Though they add they won’t let it go to their head.

“When you’re painting abstract, it’s like saying, ‘I’m going to liberate myself from worldly things.’ That’s why I started intentionally reducing representation in 2024. I started wanting to feel liberated. And what’s nice is you become less judgmental of your work.”

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Sandra in her studio in East Vancouver. (Photo by Perrin Grauer)

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A painting by Sandra Smolski, completed during her residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture. (Photo by / courtesy Sandra Smolski)

Sandra notes that winning the prize feels “transformative. Both financially and also in terms of critical exposure, being validated by your community.”

In particular, she feels honoured at the association with a prize named for Tanabe, whom she views as an extraordinary artist.

“His leaning toward abstraction and landscape and his navigation of space and light in his work really resonates for me.”

She says the prize has helped her renew her commitment to her studio, where she intends to “just really focus on painting.”

Follow Sandra on Instagram to learn more about her work.

Visit ECU online to learn more about studying Painting at Emily Carr.

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