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With original art, teen Scholastic Awards winners tune into suffering and uncertainty

A still from Scarlet Liu's short film "Brave," which picked up both state and national Scholastic honors.
A still from Scarlet Liu's short film "Brave," which picked up both state and national Scholastic honors.Scarlet Liu/Courtesy of the artist and School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University

A cat, frozen mid-jump, turns toward a medical mask suspended with it in the air.

The hyper-realistic drawing by Wayland Middle School eighth-grader Alyssa Ao earned an American Visions nomination in this year’s Massachusetts Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Titled “Schrödinger’s Cat,” the piece encapsulates the uncertainty that defined the year 2020 for people young and old.

The drawing was inspired when Ao’s art teacher, Yuanan Cheng, showed her a photo of a friend’s cat. Ao began drawing it in December 2019, originally planning nothing more than a portrait of the feline. When the threat of COVID-19 became apparent, however, she started pondering ways to represent the crisis in her work.


She decided to incorporate the mask in late February. At the time, the United States hadn’t gone into lockdown or even advised protective measures. So Ao’s aunt in China sent a photo of a medical mask to reference while drawing.

“This drawing was created out of the beginning of the pandemic and all of the uncertainty that came out of 2020,” Ao said by phone recently. “There were a lot of things I didn’t understand. So the title, ‘Schrödinger’s Cat,’ represents uncertainty and vague possibilities.”

“Schrödinger’s Cat” by Alyssa Ao, an eighth-grader at Wayland Middle School.
“Schrödinger’s Cat” by Alyssa Ao, an eighth-grader at Wayland Middle School.Alyssa Ao/Courtesy of the artist and School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University

Ao’s sister, who is five years older, was also a student of Cheng’s. Ao said that watching her sibling draw and paint instilled an early love of art. As soon as she reached middle school, she registered for electives to start practicing her craft in the classroom.

As a teacher, Cheng encourages submissions to student art competitions, according to Ao. And “Schrödinger’s Cat,” created using Prismacolor graphite colored pencils, was specifically developed for that purpose. Ao sent it off to Scholastic, her first submission to the organization.

“I submitted a few things I had worked on over the past few years,” Ao said.

Since 1923, Scholastic’s national awards have recognized top talent in grades 7 through 12. The Massachusetts Scholastic Art and Writing Awards are sponsored by the Boston Globe Foundation in collaboration with School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. In addition to Ao, the state’s other American Visions nominees this year include Emily Boon, Harding Eville, Christina Wong, and Scarlet Liu.


Recipients of these regional recognitions were automatically placed in the running for Scholastic’s national awards and scholarships. Boon and Wong both received Silver Medals at the national level this month, with Liu picking up a national Gold Medal.

Liu’s submission was a two-minute short film titled “Brave.” It opens with a decked out nightclub-goer, dressed in drag with a blond wig and sparkly dress. The character exits a bar and walks through a parking garage to his parked car. As soon as he sits down, he removes the wig and sobs into the steering wheel. That’s when a young boy, sitting with his mother in the adjacent car, reaches out in a surprising way.

“I wanted to display how people are often unaware of the pain others are going through,” Liu said via phone from China. “Frequently, we find ourselves too self-obsessed to worry about those around us, which leads to us growing isolated from the world.”

A still from Scarlet Liu's "Brave."
A still from Scarlet Liu's "Brave."Scarlet Liu/Courtesy of the artist and School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University

Liu, a Walnut Hill School senior, also grew up drawn to art. Her interests include everything from dancing and playing guitar to song composition, creative writing, and doodling.

“I feel like all these different art forms help me to create a voice when I’m making a film or creating a narrative,” Liu said.


Liu based “Brave” on an original short story inspired by her extended family. When it came time to shoot the project, she enlisted a cousin to play the main character. She had already created a draft of the film when she decided to submit it to the Scholastic competition, making minor edits to prepare it for judging. This year marked the first time Liu submitted to Scholastic.

The project touches on the differing communication styles between children and adults, Liu added. The child of a friend played the young boy’s character.

“As we grow older, we tend to believe we are more mature and understand more than young children,” she said. “In the end, sometimes children have the clearest mind and empathy that I personally really admire. They say what they think instead of hiding what they actually feel.”

Walnut Hill School is an arts-focused institution, and Liu said she misses in-person collaborating with her classmates. Because of the pandemic, Liu has been attending school remotely from China for nearly a year.

“I feel like I lost connections with friends and classmates,” she said. “But, these times have given me a chance to be reflective and focus on how I feel through the writing aspect of my process.”

As a senior, Liu is still waiting to hear back from colleges. But whatever happens, she said, she plans to further her studies of film and television production.



Regional Gold Key Art: http://omeka.library.tufts.edu/exhibits/show/2021scholasticgoldkeyart

Regional Gold Key Writing: http://omeka.library.tufts.edu/exhibits/show/2021scholasticgoldkeywriting

Regional Silver Key Art: http://omeka.library.tufts.edu/exhibits/show/2021scholasticsilverkeyart

Regional Silver Key Writing: http://omeka.library.tufts.edu/exhibits/show/2021scholasticsilverkeywriting

Grace Griffin can be reached at grace.griffin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GraceMGriffin.