– A school art project combining repetition, symmetry and
various art mediums served as the inspiration behind Ruth Johnson
Irving’s winning Garlic Festival poster.
GILROY – A school art project combining repetition, symmetry and various art mediums served as the inspiration behind Ruth Johnson Irving’s winning Garlic Festival poster.

An art teacher at Martin Murphy Middle School in Morgan Hill, Irving used watercolors, colored pencils and pastel chalk to create nine boxes representing various garlic bulbs in striking colors.

“Over 20 years and 10 attempts, I’ve entered the garlic contest. Nowadays, it’s kind of like my assignment every year to kind of keep going,” the 20-year Gilroyan said. “I almost didn’t enter this year and I remember what I tell my art students which is you have to enter to win.”

Irving has been interested in art ever since she could remember. She started her formal training at Gavilan Community College in 1982 under the guidance of art teacher John Porter to whom she says she owes a lot.

“He was really my inspiration, my motivator to get my degree and teach one day,” she said.

While raising two sons who attended Gilroy public schools, she graduated from Gavilan College in 1988 and went on to San Jose State University to earn a degree in studio art in 1991.

In the early ’80s, Irving worked in advertising as a writer and graphic artist, pre- and post-computers, and designed newspaper pages and wrote copy. In school, she said she experimented with every medium she could get her hands on, from lithography, watercolors and oils to pastel chalks and clay.

Her home teems with her creations, including paintings, posters and sculptures. In fact, a version of her winning poster has been framed in her home for years. She entered a larger version of the poster in 1992.

“One of my girlfriends saw it one day and asked, ‘Why didn’t this one ever win?’ I said I had never entered it. And she said, ‘Well, you ought to.'”

With her busy teaching schedule, Irving had an idea for this year’s contest, but didn’t have time to pursue it. The day before the contest deadline, she removed the poster from its frame and poured eight hours of work into brightening up the pastel chalk and reworking the poster.

“Over 10 years time, I know more about color today than I did 10 years ago especially after teaching. The more I teach, the better my understanding of color,” Irving said.

Irving, 50, plans to celebrate her win with family and a close network of friends she has made through the Gilroy tennis community on July 27 using her $500 prize money.

She said she jokes with her students that she could never be a professional artist.

“I’ve told my students I like to play tennis and golf too much,” she laughs.

The Garlic Festival poster committee selected Irving’s submission in February after carefully poring over the 22 entries for this year’s contest. The principal of Martin Murphy Middle School announced on the public address system that Irving had won.

Jodi Heinzen, chairwoman of retail for the Garlic Festival, said the poster selecting committee thought the colors and composition of Irving’s poster would look attractive on aprons, coffee mugs, tote bags and other festival souvenirs.

“It’s just a really pretty print,” Heinzen said. “It was just striking, the nine garlics and the different colors and it looked like it would look great on anyone’s wall and on any of our merchandise.”

Catherine Stuart and Sequoia Chappellet Volpinis, both students at Stevenson High School in Monterey, won second and third place awards in the contest. Stuart won $200 and Volpinis won $100.

Many of the posters came from Stevenson High School in Monterey, which used the contest for a class project.

Heinzen said she encourages other school art classes to submit designs for the contest next year.

The deadline for next year’s contest is in January.

Entry forms can be obtained at the festival’s Web site at Any medium can be used, but the format must be 16 by 20 inches.

Irving is scheduled to autograph the posters at the festival. Sales of the posters are very popular.

“Some people really look forward to buying the posters,” Heinzen said.

Irving’s poster will be available for $15 at the festival and at the Garlic Festival Association’s gift shop in downtown Gilroy. The Garlic Festival will be held July 26, 27 and 28.

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