Young artists from CHS show their work in SOPAC gallery

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The second and third floors of the South Orange Performing Arts Center are decorated with the artwork of students from 17 Essex County high schools as part of the “Inspired Minds Young Artist Exhibition.” The 66 works of art were unveiled at an opening reception at SOPAC on May 17, and will remain on display until Aug. 17. A celebration of young artists, students who are accepted into the exhibit are encouraged to sell their work, and many are planning to continue their art education after high school.

“Inspired Minds” is open to all high school students at every high school in Essex County. Now in its fifth year, the exhibit has grown from 60 initial submissions to more than 900. According to Linda Beard, SOPAC’s director of community engagement and education, the quality of the work has risen each year.

“The quality of the work is increasing because more and more schools are participating,” Beard said in an interview at the May 17 reception. “Every year I say this is our best show. For me it’s about the kids and the opportunity. Seeing their art on a wall in a gallery and selling it sometimes is life-changing for them.”

Whether or not to sell their artwork is up to the student, but Jeremy Moss, the executive director of Valley Arts in Orange and the curator of the SOPAC show, encourages students to put a price tag on their work.

“I recommend it,” Moss said in an interview at the event. “When you’re making a portfolio for college and can put a photo of work in it and say the original sold, there’s nothing better.”

To be accepted into the exhibit, students submitted to SOPAC, and then Moss pared the 900 applicants down to about 250 before passing them along to a jury that chose the final pieces. Moss then put the show together, lining SOPAC’s walls with the young artists’ work. The South Orange Frame Shop donated the frames.

“This is my favorite event of the year,” Beard said, adding that she wants to keep expanding the show. “A lot of teachers come in order to celebrate the amazing work that these kids do. There are 25 schools that submitted; I want to get all 52 in Essex County submitting. It’s a real community event; we all pitch in to give these kids an opportunity.”

Leonel Soares has two pieces featured in the show — one is an acrylic painting of stairs called “Escada,” and the other is a digital art piece called “Sapatos.” The Columbia High School senior made the painting for a school art class, and the digital art was done on his own for fun.

“The stairs was a school assignment,” Soares said in an interview at the event. “We were supposed to show what stairs mean to you. It’s about how life is a journey and takes you from one place to another.”

Soares’ other piece, a monochromatic picture of a pair of sneakers, was created on the computer. He took a photo of the sneakers and then manipulated it in Photoshop.

“I did that for fun, I took a photo and then drew it in Photoshop,” he said. “Last year I had a digital illustration class and I think it’s easier.”

Soares is not the only CHS student in the show; he is joined by junior Maya Ferrandiz and senior Lily Sickles. Soares plans to study animation at Montclair State University in the fall.

“I really like to draw,” he said. “Since I was a kid I’ve had a fascination with it, I think it’s interesting how you can create a concept and then make it live.”

David Fernandez is another aspiring animator who is featured in the “Inspired Minds” exhibit. A senior at West Orange High School, his piece “Threshold” is another work of digital art. The SOPAC show is not the first in which “Threshold” has been featured. Fernandez’s work was also a part of the West Orange Arts Council AP Art Show in March, and was displayed at the Morris Museum in April as a finalist in the Congressional Arts Competition. In a phone interview on May 20, Fernandez discussed his inspiration for the piece.

“It was around the time I was applying to college,” he said. “It’s about the application process and highlights my anxiety during all of that. It was kind of cathartic for me to do.”

Now that Fernandez’s high school career is coming to an end, his stressful college search is over. When September comes around he’ll be studying animation and illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design.

“I like cartoons and video games, so I’ve wanted to create them ever since I was a kid,” he said.

Fernandez said the piece hanging in a gallery has been a positive experience.

“It was nice having people view my work,” he said. “It’s humbling to have that because I think not a lot of artists get that.”

Seton Hall Prep senior Yongjia Hou is also pleased to display his work in the show. He has two pieces on display at SOPAC, both paintings on canvas. One is an image of three young children on a beach called “Light and Color Experimentation” and the other is called “Lights and Shadows — Michelle’s Grin,” and is a painting of the artist’s friend.

The people in “Light and Color Experimentation” are the children of Hou’s history teacher. With the painting, Hou wanted to use light and pastel colors in a different way than he usually does.

“I wanted to try something new,” he said in an interview at the event. “It’s a light-colored theme and I wanted to do a color study.”

For the other painting, Hou used darker, more monochromatic colors to show the facial expression of his friend. The shadows in the painting are meant to strike a balance between happiness and sadness.

Hou is relatively new to art, having only started about two years ago. He taught himself by watching others work and watching videos to learn technique. He said he wants to find a way to combine art with math in college.

“I started without knowing anything,” Hou said. “It’s for fun. It’s something I value, so it’s a good feeling to feel appreciated. I think other people are much better so I’m open seeing other people’s work and taking things from them.”

Moss said that students who were not accepted into the “Inspired Minds” exhibit should not hesitate to try again next year.

“If you don’t get in, don’t give up trying,” he said. “You can get used to it and learn from it. I’m impressed with these kids because if they can do things like this now, what will they be able to do when they’re 30? There are people who are 17 and 18 years old who are taking chances, and that really impresses me. If you’ve got the talent, it doesn’t matter what age you are.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic, and Courtesy of SOPAC and WOSD