Contestants fall down the rabbit hole

It’s a good thing Alice got lost in Wonderland.

In 1865, British author Lewis Carroll debuted a world beneath a rabbit hole in which caterpillars smoke, flamingos serve as sporting equipment and nonsense is the norm. More than a century later, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland remains a literary staple with a far-reaching influence that has touched the worlds of art, fashion and, of course, filmmaking.

Looking glass · Students showcased Lewis Carroll-inspired creative works, including multimedia assemblages like the one above. - Carlo Acenas | Daily Trojan

To celebrate the uniqueness of Carroll’s whimsical stories and their continued impact on readers and writers from all walks of life, USC Libraries hosted an annual contest to generate original work inspired by the Carrollian canon. The sixth-annual Wonderland Award reception was held Wednesday in Doheny Memorial Library.

Contestants, eager to win one of the cash prizes offered, immersed themselves in Carroll’s whimsical writings and used the inspiration they gained to create works that included visual art, videos, board games and poetry.

Entries were due April 1, but it wasn’t until Wednesday that contestants, interested students and staff gathered to learn the outcome of the competition at the official awards ceremony. The event showcased the different talents of USC students from the undergraduate freshman level to the graduate student tier. Contestants’ majors ran the gamut from biological anthropology to electrical engineering.

Light classical music floated through the air, and tables with beige tablecloths were used to display the student submissions. Artist statements accompanying each submission described the creator’s inspiration.

“This is a special treat for the library and all of USC,” said Dean of USC Libraries Catherine Quinlan in her opening remarks at the awards ceremony.

The original idea behind the competition was to spur student interest in the assortment of rare Carroll-related items donated by USC alumnus George Cassady to Doheny library’s special collections.

The G. Edward Cassady, M.D. and Margaret Elizabeth Cassady, R.N. Lewis Carroll Collection contains more than 1,500 items including books and letters. In its six years, the competition has been remarkably successful in encouraging students to use the rare resources to come up with their own unique, artistic works.

Judges for this year’s contest included Linda Cassady, the award’s sponsor; Jim Kincaid, the Aerol Arnold Professor of English; last year’s winner Ghia Godfree; Carolyn Kellogg, a Los Angeles Times “jacket copy” blog editor; and Linda Woolverton and Suzanne Todd, screenwriter and producer, respectively, for Tim Burton’s 2010 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

To make the experience all the more fantastical, the prizes weren’t too shabby.

The first place submission received a cool $2,000 while the second place contestant left with $1,500.

The criteria for judgment included the use of the collection, the originality and overall quality of the work and the extent to which the submission captured the Carrollian spirit. For contestant Meagan Chin, a freshman majoring in fine arts, the competition involved no small amount of time and effort.

“It was my entire spring break,” Chin said with a laugh. She recalled that while her friends were knee-deep in partying, she was listening to National Public Radio while she painted.

At one point, she even gave up on her first painting and started a new one.

“You know halfway through when something doesn’t feel right,” Chin said.

The judges said it was the entrants’ close relationships with their craft that made their end products so interesting, unique and pleasing to behold.

“Hats off to all you for all your hard work,” Todd said in her address to the contestants. “Linda’s not kidding when she said we wanted to award everyone.”

Myra Yepez, a senior majoring in fine arts, took the White Knight Award for her large painting of Carroll while Genevieve Kaplan, a graduate student studying literature and creative writing, took second place for her small book entitled “Alice’s Alphabet: An Explanation,” which contained two long poems. It was her first time submitting work to the contest.

“I’ve thought of entering before,” Kaplan said. “I started on something for last year but didn’t enter.”

With her high qualifications — Kaplan holds a bachelor’s degree in creative writing as well as an MFA in poetry — it’s no wonder she took home a prize

Brandon Reynolds, a graduate student in the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, received the coveted first prize for his piece of short fiction, “Wonderland at Sunset: A Case of Vanishing.”

“The inspiration was definitely living in Los Angeles since August,” he said. Reynolds said he remembers seeing wildfires raging while people continued to go about their routine lives, something he called a “setting for absurdity.”

As for winning top honors, Reynolds was just as surprised as anyone.

“I’m totally shocked. People did things I never thought to do,” he said, pointing out a creative cutout standing only a few feet behind him.

The competition not only shed light on the breadth of talent at USC but also gave a new perspective on the power of literature to inspire and transport readers to completely different realms. Meandering about the room, visitors got a glimpse of students’ talents and the full range of Carroll’s influence on readers. In fact, not all the contestants were particularly familiar with his work. The unencountered ideas that stemmed from Carroll’s work can still be appreciated today.

“People think libraries are stuffed mausoleums of books,” Quinlan said.

But the dean believes there’s more to the university’s reserves than one might expect.

“Working with a library collection can be a lot of fun.”