For the first September in 17 years, Nora Lagerwey Faber ’98 did not enter a school classroom to teach art. She had decided to try her hand at being a full-time creative artist.

As many artists can attest, this is a daunting endeavor—to follow your artistic calling and to earn enough income to continue following that call.

One month into her “new career,” Faber was contacted by Calvin art and art history department chairperson Lisa Van Arragon that Faber’s painting “Heavenly Choir” had been chosen as the first Alumni ArtPrize Award winner.

“For me to win this prize is affirmation that I am on the right path, to enter ArtPrize and to take a year off to paint,” said Faber.

ArtPrize is an annual public art competition held each fall in Grand Rapids, now in its seventh year. The event draws about 1,500 works of art to the city, and the works are displayed throughout downtown. Each year, major prizes are given for both popular vote winners and a critic’s list.

Around 30 to 40 Calvin alumni display their work in ArtPrize every year.

“The alumni association had been struggling to find some way to encourage our alumni artists at ArtPrize,” said Charles Ash ’95, a member of the Calvin alumni board. “We want to promote all of the artists equally, and the prize concept sends that message from Calvin to its artists.”

In conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the art department at Calvin, the alumni association partnered with art and art history faculty to post a list of alumni artists with work in ArtPrize and a voting site, open only to Calvin alumni who could vote for one piece.

Faber’s reaction to receiving the award reflects exactly what the association was intending: encouragement and appreciation.

“I noticed the new award,” said Faber, “and perhaps I was internally pleading to get it—well, maybe not pleading—but maybe close.”

“Heavenly Choir” was inspired by wanting to paint a conductor and the need for a choir to lead—and then an image of Christ behind the conductor. During ArtPrize an onlooker told Faber she imagined her recently deceased friend singing in such a choir.

And the painting was completed in a most unusual way.

“I broke my hand in two places playing softball, so I had a cast on that hand,” said Faber. “When I decided to do this painting, I still had a cast on and yet I felt the need to start it. That shows how badly I wanted to do this work.”

She completed the black figures and designs in the painting with an improvised process due to the cast. She added the color months later post-cast.

She has used the piece as a kind of Rorschach inkblot test for kids, asking them what they see before revealing the title of the painting. She delights in the responses of children, both before they know the name and afterward.

“Creating comes from the heart of worship for me,” said Faber. “My work is very spiritual.”

Faber has her work displayed at the Richard App Gallery in Grand Rapids, the C2C Gallery in Grand Haven, Mich., and on her website,

The alumni association leadership has committed to two more years of an Alumni ArtPrize award and then hopes other donors continue the tradition. Alumni artists who enter the competition must let the alumni office know so their work can be added to the voting site.

“It costs a lot and takes a lot for artists to be in ArtPrize,” said Faber. “It is so helpful for artists to be supported in this tangible way.”