You're kidding! That amazes me!" responded Cliff Gekko when he was notified by phone that he won this year's purchase award in the Deseret News Art Show.

"Winning this award is the best thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life," he said.His glazed-tile painting "Templescape West" was selected as one of the six top artworks. Then the Deseret News management chose it to add to their permanent collection.

A newcomer to the visual arts, Gekko became interested in art in 1984 while attending a ceramic tile class at Taylorsville High instructed by Lark Lucas and Bill Granizo.

Last year, his tile paintings were seen in the Deseret News Art Show, an exhibit by LDS artists at the Museum of Church History and Art, and the Christmas Lamb Exhibit in Springville.

Not a full-time artist, Gekko works on his tile paintings in the evenings and on weekends. Although he has received little formal art training, he says he comes from an artistic family. In fact, two of his sisters are art teachers.

* "I'm thrilled to hear that!" were the Diana Gardiner's first words when she learned that her watercolor "Afternoon at the Arboretum" was selected as a merit award winner.

She added, "I've been rejected in more shows than I've been accepted in, so winning something like this is really exciting for me."

Although she received a degree in drawing and painting from the University of Utah in 1974, she's spent most of the years since then raising a family. Her three children, ages 12, 10, and 6, are all in school now.

"This is the first year I've had to paint, and I'm spending from four to six hours a day at it," she said.

Some of the art teachers who have influenced her are Ed Maryon, Harold Petersen, George Dibble, Alvin Gittins and Paul Davis.

Gardiner paints at home and in studio space at the Salt Lake Art Center, where she occasionally teaches classes.

* "How very nice! That pleases me very much," said Cynthia Fehr when she learned of her merit award.

Her watercolor "Monday Wash" caught the eye of the judges. Fehr painted it this summer while spending two weeks in and around Pacific Grove, Calif.

Fehr sketches on location and finishes her work in her studio. In her carefully designed compositions, she eliminates unnecessary shapes and details.

No newcomer to the art scene in Utah, she has participated in many local shows over the years, including the Deseret News Art Show. In fact, she was a merit award winner 11 years ago for a painting titled "Shoppers."

She plans a one-woman show in January at the Phillips Gallery. She has just returned from a tour of Scandinavian countries and hopes to have close to 36 paintings of this trip for the new show.

* Betsy Campbell's first words were "Oh, my gosh! I'm so excited." Her watercolor "Woodland Meadow" was also a merit award winner.

She said she paints slowly and this large painting took many, many hours.

"I went up to Woodland and spent a day and a half out in the pastures with the cows."

While on location, Campbell concentrated on light and values. "When a piece holds together well, it's because the values are right," she said.

She then returned to her studio to add the colors. "The colors are my own," she pointed out.

Some of the art teachers who have influenced her most are Ed Maryon, Harrison Groutage, Earl Jones, Osral Allred and Carl Purcell.

Not only does she paint seven or eight hours a day, but she reads extensively about art and teaches two painting classes.

* "Wonderful," Graydon Foulger said excitedly when he heard the news that his oil painting of a boat won a merit award.

"The title of the painting is `Evinrude,' and it's also a make of a motor," he said. "I don't think they make it anymore."

Foulger spotted this old boat deteriorating by the side of a rundown building. Through the manipulation of color, value and and subject matter, he tried to recapture the somber mood.

The day he painted it, Foulger was sick.

"And it turned out to be one of my better paintings," he said. "Maybe I should get sick more often!"

Six years have passed since Foulger left his job as manager of the Tivoli Gallery and started painting full time.

* The sixth winner, Richard Boyer, was not available for comment. But his work is familiar to those who frequent Utah galleries. He graduated from the U. in 1981.

While at the U., he studied under portrait painter Alvin Gittins. And since that time, human figures have played a prominent role in his works - whether they are seen in the beauty of dance, in the horror of death, or in the performance of common, everyday tasks.

His prize-winning painting is titled "The Wife's Cooking."

* Jurying this year's show were two previous Deseret News purchase-award winners, Ken Baxter and Earl Jones. Baxter captured top honors in 1974 for an oil painting "White's Place." Jones won in 1978 for his oil "Tailings Bridge."

Both jurors worked together compatibly and quickly whittled the 220 entries to 73. They then chose six merit award winners.

Baxter was impressed with the variety, style and technique of the entries.

"It was more than I expected," he said.

Jones also commented on the excellence of a number of the entries.

But he remarked, "If they didn't spark something in us, and if the concept was not frank and energetic, we eliminated them."

Art lovers will have a chance to experience for themselves the spark and energy of the winning works. They are now on display in the Grand Court of the ZCMI Mall and will continue there through Oct. 24.