When Tom Gifford was 13 years old, he broke his lower back in an accident—after which he was in a brace for months and faced chronic pain for years.
It was, to say the least, a trying time, but Gifford, now 26 years old, in many ways credits his successful career as a photographer and videographer with those deeply painful months, and years, as a teenager.
“When I was 13, I was up north at my parents’ cabin and was going on a trail on a four wheeler,” said Gifford, who grew up in Muskegon and continues to reside here. “ There was a dead tree limb, and that limb happened to fall when I was going by. It was one of those freak accidents.”
Afterwards, Gifford began to fill his days by teaching himself videography and photography—he even built himself a green screen studio.
“You’re stuck inside and can’t go hiking, and it’s like, what can I do?” Gifford said. “So I started learning everything about lighting and photography. I read the whole manual for my camera from cover to cover many times. Since then, I’ve been a photographer and videographer; it’s one of those things I can’t imagine myself not doing.”
Fast forward 13 years, and Gifford is on a serious roll: not only is he able to make a living doing what he loves (in addition to selling his photography, he travels around the country for his videography work and routinely makes 3-D videos that receive millions of views), he also just landed as a top 20 public vote finalist in ArtPrize for his piece, “Michigan Effect.” An international art competition that draws more than 500,000 visitors to Grand Rapids for 19 days each fall, ArtPrize features 1,260 works created by about 1,400 artists from 41 states and 40 countries at this year’s contest.
The first round of public voting ended at midnight on Sunday, with 27,913 voters casting 222,786 votes for their favorite art. As a top 20 finalist, Gifford has the chance of winning a $200,000 prize awarded entirely by public vote. More than $500,000 in prizes are awarded each year during ArtPrize.
Gifford spent about four months creating his 12-foot-tall piece, which weighs around 100 pounds, is almost entirely made up of fiberglass, and is broken into two sections, with one shaped as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the other as the Lower Peninsula. Atop the fiberglass are two metallic photo prints: one that Gifford took of the northern lights a couple years ago and another of a beach and sunset scene he photographed this past July.
“I want people to see it and realize the beauty we have around us,” said Gifford, who spent about four months creating the piece. “We live in an amazing state. You can see the northern lights and an amazing sunset all in the same state. As soon as you’re in the UP, it’s like a whole new world.”
While the artist knew he wanted to feature the northern lights for the Upper Peninsula portion of “Michigan Effect,” Gifford said he had to go through hundreds of photos to finally land on the image he used for the Lower Peninsula.
“What two images define Michigan?” he asked. “For the Upper Peninsula, I knew I definitely wanted the northern lights. I’ll never forget that experience. But with the Lower Peninsula, I went through 400 or 500 pictures and kept thinking, ‘That’s not right; that’s not right.’ When I hit this picture of the clouds pointing up to the UP, I knew that’s the one. You think of the Lower Peninsula as being a place of sunsets and beaches.”
This is Gifford’s third time entering ArtPrize, and he said the response he’s gotten has been overwhelming—in a good way. Each day, he’s flooded with visitors from both near and far, and his fans love talking to him about Michigan and the lives they’ve led here.
“That’s the best part, talking with people and seeing what they think of [the artwork],” said Gifford, whose ArtPrize entry is stationed outside of the Biggby Coffee at 146 Monroe Center NW, across from Rosa Parks Circle, in downtown Grand Rapids. “I’ve seen a jogger run by, and he stopped and said, ‘I have to see this.’ You meet people from everywhere—I even met someone who lives a couple roads away from me at home.”
No matter what ends up happening with the final vote, Gifford said he’s thrilled to have made it into the top 20.
“It’s been incredible,” Gifford said. “Just being a finalist made me feel this sense of completion.”