The Pittsburgh Foundation

Announcing the latest Demarest Fund prize awardees

For the first time, three artists will benefit simultaneously from the award

PITTSBURGH, Aug. 31, 2021 – Three artists will receive awards of $18,000 each from the Eben Demarest Fund. The awards were announced by The Pittsburgh Foundation, which has overseen the Demarest awards since 2010. Typically, one awardee is selected every other year but last year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the selection committee was unable to meet. Funds unawarded last year carried forward and grew, making awards possible for three artists this cycle. The awardees are Pittsburgh-based visual artist Gavin Benjamin, Evanston, Illinois-based figurative realist painter Daniela Kovačić, and Brooklyn-based sculptor Kennedy Yanko. Images of their work are available for media use.

The awards come at a crucial time for artists, many of whom were unable to present or sell their work for over a year due to COVID-19-related shutdowns.

The Demarest Fund supports the work of independent creative artists and archeologists from across the United States. Established in 1939 by Pittsburgh professor Elizabeth B. Demarest in her father’s name, the award program is one of the premier national honors for artists and archeologists. She taught “The History of Civilization” at Carnegie Mellon University, then known as Carnegie Institute of Technology.

About this year’s awardees:

Gavin Benjamin combines original analog photography and appropriated images with collage, paint and varnish to create rich, luxurious works that call back to baroque traditions. He uses elements of current culture to provoke, critique and explore. Benjamin was born in Guyana, South America and raised in Brooklyn, New York. His heritage and experience as an immigrant are focal points of his practice. The Demarest Award is the first major art prize that Benjamin has received and will provide him with time and freedom to develop new, potentially more challenging, work.

For the past two years Benjamin has been working on his series, “Heads of State,” which takes inspiration from his family and friends, honoring their lives and ancestry while marrying today’s culture with the past. It’s a colorful world, conjuring an intersection of media, fashion, politics, pop culture and design. While this series continues to be a cornerstone of his oeuvre, his new work will take a more overtly political tone as Benjamin grapples with the events of the past four years. 

With the funds from the Demarest Award, Benjamin also plans to expand on his residency at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art. For that project he will be producing a new body of work for a fall 2022 solo exhibition at the museum, which will feature photographs shot in the museum’s galleries of the African American and immigrant community members in Westmoreland County. This new work aims to resituate these historically marginalized groups into the discourse of American art. 

This fall Benjamin is presenting new work for “Food Justice,” an exhibition at the Society for Contemporary Craft in collaboration with Jason Forck from the Pittsburgh Glass Center, and for “Home,” an exhibition at the Mattress Factory’s Monterey Annex of work by African American artists based in Pittsburgh. Both exhibitions open in September. He also plans to purchase equipment and hire a part-time assistant.

 Daniela Kovačićs passion for figurative painting stems from her belief in the power of representation, transforming sensitivities and psychology into permanent forms through the canvas. Mining her own experiences with pregnancy and motherhood, Kovačić plans to create a project consisting of approximately 10 large oil paintings depicting different mothers and children, with a focus on the experiences of children with disabilities. She plans to use funds from the Demarest Award to send her son to preschool, allowing her the time to work consistently and to build new relationships with families who could participate in this project.

“Before I had my son, Roman, I would spend 12 hours a day painting,” said Kovacic, who loves being a mother and found it almost impossible to paint while also taking care of her son at home. “I was feeling very lost because I did not have the time to paint. Sending him to preschool will allow me to work three days a week so I can be who I am-- a painter--and be my son’s mother too.”

She will also purchase materials needed for the creation of her art.

Kennedy Yanko creates sculptural works using found objects, salvaged metal, bronze and heavy acrylic poured “paint skins” to explore ambiguity within perception and emphasize the importance of abstraction in critical observation of art. She describes herself as “making art like an archaeologist,” excavating scrap metal from junk yards, a process she refers to as “extracting fossils, relics and phenomena from rubble, and recognizing their ontological value.” Yanko plans to use funding from the Demarest Award to fund the incorporation of marble, another excavated material, into her artwork, combining the natural and surreal to “push her viewers to look inward.”

It is rare, Yanko says, for women artists, who are notoriously underpaid for their work as compared to men, to be able to create large, three-dimensional outdoor sculpture particularly in a material as expensive as marble. The Demarest funds will help her ideas come to full fruition.

“It’s really wonderful when funders give us what we need rather than what they think we need,” said Yanko about the Demarest Award process. “That asking is a great practice in humility, not just optics, because it acknowledges how (artists) are contributing to the world.”

Demarest Fund awardees must have produced significant work in their fields and demonstrate special promise for future achievement. Since its establishment, at least 50 individuals have received the award. Past winners include painter Jackson Pollock (1948), poet Robert Duncan (1975), sculptor Carol Rubenstein (1979), painter Brendan O’Connell (2003), singer/poet Latasha Nevada Diggs (2008), and dancer/choreographer Kyle Abraham (2012). From 1923 to 2009, the awards were overseen by a committee at a private foundation. In 2010, the fund came to The Pittsburgh Foundation. Awardees are now selected by a Pittsburgh-based committee.

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