WEST ORANGE, NJ — The students in West Orange High School’s advanced placement art class refused to let the coronavirus pandemic silence their creative voices; they channeled their anxiety and frustration into powerful works that helped them cope during the turmoil of the past 12 months. And now the world has the chance to see their efforts through a new virtual exhibit from the West Orange Arts Council.
The exhibit — which can be viewed at www.woarts.org — features polished pieces from 17 AP art students working in a wide variety of media, from acrylics to digital charcoal. WOHS art teacher Heather Young said viewers will be amazed to think the displayed pieces were created by artists still honing their craft.
“Their work looks professional to me — it looks like they could be qualified artists already selling their work and showing it at other galleries,” Young said. “I don’t know if it’s just because I’m their teacher and I love them so much, but I’m just so impressed that at 17, 18 years old they’re able to accomplish this.”
Equally impressive is the fact the students were able to produce such magnificent art without receiving traditional classroom instruction. Due to the coronavirus, WOHS has had to eliminate in-person learning for the majority of the school year thus far, which means Young has had to teach her students virtually. This is obviously not an ideal way to learn a technical craft, and many of Young’s pupils admitted that staying motivated while working at home has been a challenge.
Yet the AP students made the best of a bad situation — some even created art influenced by the pandemic. Ilayda Vural, for instance, said she thinks her desire to recreate famous paintings with her loved ones as subjects was a response to the fact that COVID-19 has prevented her from visiting the museums she loves. Likewise, Adriana Garcia said the pandemic forced her to experiment with new materials after she ran out of her usual art supplies.
For Miguel Intal, painting the portraits displayed in the show was a way of connecting with people after the coronavirus lockdown made making new friends impossible. At the same time, Intal said getting the chance to create art helped him handle the stresses of being cooped up inside with a large family.
“I have four siblings and then my parents, so it’s always hectic in my house,” Intal said. “So every time I got the chance I would do art, mostly at night. That became my time to release stress, and it was a lot of fun. And because of the quarantine, I was able to hone my skills even more.”
Not every student was influenced by the pandemic — many focused their art on deeply personal themes. Finnley Lewis’ pieces explore their experiences as a queer transgender person, often drawing on the work of other queer artists and using symbolism to impart messages. For example, Lewis said their painting of a wolf head on a human body juxtaposes the idea of a cornered animal with the defensiveness Lewis feels when perceived as something other than what they truly are.
Some artists would feel uncomfortable baring their souls so openly, but Lewis welcomes the opportunity to spark discussions about what it’s like to be a non-binary person.
“This is a way of people being able to observe my existence and have a better understanding of my life without having to have an awkward conversation,” Lewis said. “This is a way of providing a window into one singular trans person, one accurate representation that hasn’t been twisted by the media.”
When it came time to decide on what themes to explore in his own art, Dylan Wimberly also focused on what’s important to him — putting the spotlight on the black community and its experiences.
“My pieces are an accumulation of the pain, the struggle and the success of black Americans in their history,” Wimberly said. “In school I do a lot of social justice work and activism and talking about social justice issues in the black community. So I wanted to translate those aspects of myself into my artwork so I could make it more seamless.”
Wimberly accomplished that by creating images reflecting the trials and triumphs black people have faced. For instance, one of his paintings features maple syrup bottles with the Aunt Jemima logos removed. Another captures the tear-filled eyes of black actor Daniel Kaluuya from a scene in the 2017 film “Get Out.”
Then there’s Jordan Roberts, who pursued an entirely different approach to his art. Rather than exploring social issues, Roberts said he took inspiration from mythical creatures and religious iconography to create his own fantastical deities. By doing so, he embraced his connection to art as a form of escapism.
“It’s sort of healing for me because I don’t have to deal with the real world constantly,” Roberts said, explaining that he separates his work from the rest of his life. “It’s like freedom.”
Regardless of their subjects and motivations, all the students featured in the exhibit are poised for bright futures in art. Young said more than 80 percent of her class is planning to pursue higher education with an artistic focus. And several of the students mentioned their desire to become art teachers, hoping to instill a passion for art in young people just as their own educators did for them.
Only time will tell what the future holds, but WOAC board member Lisa Suss knows the artists featured in the show have the talent to be successful. Suss, who curated the exhibit along with Young and WOAC Chairperson Patricia Mitrano, said she was greatly impressed by all the students’ work. She also feels fortunate she was able to continue the arts council’s tradition of displaying WOHS artwork, pointing out that supporting the West Orange community is part of the arts council’s mission.
And Suss hopes art lovers will support this exhibit, too. The participating artists are truly talented beyond their years, she said.
“I think the students’ work is phenomenal,” Suss said. “I am so proud of them.”