Bristling with newness

From self-portraits on velour to burnt-newspaper collages, an almost bristling originality marks the works chosen for this year’s Regional Scholastic Arts Award Show, now on display at the Asheville Art Museum.

Appalachian State University Art Professor James Toub, one of the judges for the show, believes that, “Technical ability alone does not make for quality work … there’s a degree of imaginative interpretation that must be integrated with [it].”

That sentiment seems to have been shared by the middle- and high-school art teachers of western North Carolina, who appear to have given their students an indulgent rein in preparing for this year’s show — which features student art from 17 counties across the region.

Museum volunteer and exhibit co-organizer Lynn Dawson points out that half of the country’s certified art teachers come from North Carolina. And whatever it is about our fair state that produces those artsy teachers seems to be affecting our local students, too. Asheville High employs 11 art teachers, who cover everything from ceramics to printmaking to video arts. Mary Gilley is one of them, and because she doesn’t specialize — opting instead to teach a broad range of media — she’s witness to an ever-changing palette of young talent.

Gilley says she keeps her assignments “as open-ended as possible,” in hopes of ensuring fresh approaches:

“Students take a lot of pride in their work … You put out an assignment to 20 kids, and you get 20 different interpretations,” she declares with a certainty gained from experience.

Muriel Ring, a senior at Clyde A. Erwin High School, snared the Asheville Art Museum’s first prize this year with “Carousel,” a gorgeous papier-mache creature with the head and wings of an eagle and the lower body of a lion.

Ring says she modeled her piece after the mythical Greek gryphon partly because her grandmother’s maiden name was Griffin. But the sculpture’s smug, sphinx-like pose displays the artist’s interest in another ancient culture: “I really like Egyptian artwork,” says the senior, who intends to study forensic art in college (despite its high-sounding name, forensic art is simply the anthropological study of art aimed at enhancing our understanding of ancient cultures).

Ring used simple colors to enchanting effect in decorating her creature. Its gypsy-blue hide is banded with dizzying black and white stars; its eyes are a disarming pink.

Asheville High ninth-grader Lincoln Centers calls his newspaper collage “The Power of Thought & Ideas” — a title that seems almost unnecessary, since the piece is dominated by a sentence (cut, letter by letter, from large newsprint) that proclaims, “Printed Words Can Be Destroyed and Forgotten, But Thoughts and Ideas Will Always Exist.” Snatches of actual headlines, such as “The world is just as full of good as bad” and “It’s all lies,” complete the forceful work.

“The [headlines] all went along with the theme of big stories that would be remembered long after the text was forgotten,” explains the second-place winner. Centers sealed his vision by singeing the edges of the newsprint to produce an antique look. He admits that playing with fire was necessary for his project.

“I have a big pile of newspapers that were too burnt to use,” he confesses.

Polk County High junior Phil Feagan also tortured his medium with prize-winning results: His three-paneled work “Beech Forest” — a nighttime-woods scene done in black paint and bleach — received the museum’s Docents’ Choice Award.

Portraiture proved popular with middle and high-school students this year. Ben Betsalel and Justin Morgan imbue their painted subjects with deep emotion, while Elizabeth Trautman’s pastel-and-ebony-pencil drawing “Past” — a humorously Gothic rendering of one man’s two personas — recalls an Edward Gorey cartoon.

Beth Bailey chose to depict an earlier version of herself for a class assignment in self-portraiture. “When I Was Young” is an amazingly nuanced craypas-on-velour rendition of a photograph taken when she was 3 years old.

“I tried to pick a photograph that had really good focus and lighting,” reports Bailey, who reveals that she poured most of her effort into the portrait’s eyes.

Anais Adair, another Asheville High senior, received a “gold key” nomination for her work, which means the entry will be judged at the national level. Adair’s black-and-white photographs, which she developed and printed herself, were taken during a visit to Germany. Pieces like “Downtown” — in which a pale boy leans pensively against a graffiti-scarred wall — and “What a Drag,” a study of two drag queens, show a precocious determination of vision.

“Photographing objects is fun, but it’s more difficult to photograph people, and I like that challenge,” she enthuses. “Being able to capture someone at just the right point, with the right emotion — there’s a certain feeling you get, and I can’t even describe it.” Adair, who numbers fire-dancing (with local acrobatics group Circus Smirkus, formerly the Surreal Cirkus) among her other hobbies, plans to move to Germany after graduation to study photography in earnest.

Mary Gilley says she’s proud of the amount of award-winning art that comes out of Asheville High each year. “I like being able to inspire a student to [realize] talent they didn’t know they had,” she says. “I’ve even had parents come in and say, ‘I had no idea my child had this kind of ability.'”

@boxtext: The 14th Annual Regional Scholastic Arts Award Show is co-sponsored by the Asheville chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and organized by Asheville Art Museum volunteers Lynn Dawson, Linda Wilson, Connie Hammontree, and Beverly Lee. Several prestigious honors are awarded during the course of the judging: The five students whose works are designated as Hallmark Nominations receive monetary prizes; other honors include the North Carolina Art Education Award, the Metromont Award, and the Asheville Art Museum awards.

The show runs through Feb. 21 in the Asheville Art Museum’s front gallery: Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and 10 a.m.-8 p.m. on Fridays. Admission is free.

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