As he prepared for the SAT, Kiha Ahn, a junior at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, had to put other things on the back burner — including his passion for filmmaking.
“I thought if doing art is really something that makes me who I am, I could put it in my pocket for a moment and then take it out once I’m done with all the busy things in my life,” said Ahn.
But when he finally had the time to return to art-making, something was different. “It wasn’t totally natural, which it was before,” he said. “It felt smudged.”
This discomfort inspired Ahn’s short film, “Pastel Slough,” a mix of 2-D and 3-D animation that shows a teenager adorning his face with pastels before smudging most of it off with water from a bathroom sink. The film clinched Ahn the top art prize from the national Scholastic Art and Writing Awards: The American Visions medal.
The national Scholastic awards, which began in 1923, is open to students grades 7–12. This year, the Massachusetts Scholastic Art and Writing Awards — sponsored by the Boston Globe Foundation in collaboration with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University — received more than 10,000 artwork and writing submissions.
Besides Ahn, American Visions nominees from Massachusetts this year included Tvisha Devireddy, Felicia Selbst, Xincheng Shi, and Dahyun Ryu. American Voices nominees included Adya Chatterjee, Kevin Gu, Kevin Wang, Sylvia Woodbury, and Ashley Xu.
Though the creators are teens, much of the winning work this year dealt with weighty, adult topics. Ashley Xu, took home the national American Voices medal (the top writing award) for her short story “Three Body Problem,” about a family coping with domestic abuse. The title references a problem in orbital mechanics that Xu learned about from the sci-fi novel “The Three-Body Problem,” by Cixin Liu.
“The whole thing is actually an extended metaphor for this physics concept,” explained Xu, a junior at the Winsor School in Boston. “Something in my head just clicked, where I was like, ‘Wow, people kind of behave like that, too.’”
Xu wasn’t the only writer to draw upon existing material. Adya Chatterjee incorporated legal text into her poem, “animus possidendi: Intention to Possess.” In it, she cites a Minnesota case from last year that overturned a criminal sexual conduct conviction because the victim had willingly consumed alcohol.
The poem, Chatterjee said, explores how feelings of first love intersect with “feeling like you owe yourself, your body, your sexuality to other people and the dangers of that,” said the senior at the Phillips Academy in Andover. “It’s talking about the over-sexualization of women, and generally the pressure but also the guilt of being feminine and being sexual.”
Written in the shape of a speech bubble, the poem is “this question of the things we don’t say,” she said.
Kevin Gu, a Hopkinton High School senior, was also influenced by current events. He wrote his poem, “georgia, atlanta [ululation],” the night of the Atlanta spa shootings that left eight people dead, six of whom were women of East Asian descent. Gu, whose parents are Chinese immigrants, said he felt the act of violence wasn’t something he “could just stay silent about.”
“It really was just a point in which everything broke loose. It reached its boiling point,” said Gu, who won a national Silver Medal for his poem. “I had never really written an angry poem before, but this was very much so an angry poem.”
Written from the perspective of a woman in the middle of the shooting, Gu’s poem includes several uses of the word “long”; in Mandarin, the word has multiple meanings, like “lanterns” or “deaf.” Long was also the surname of the Atlanta shooter.
“I wanted a way to reclaim this syllable, to reclaim this word,” said Gu.
Some of the winning artworks veered toward the lighthearted. Unable to make sculptures out of wood or clay during remote learning last year, Felicia Selbst opted to put her candy-making skills to use. For her sculpture, “Full English Breakfast,” the junior at Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill concocted a rendering of the hearty meal entirely out of boiled sugar that she molded and dyed.
“It all had to be done basically in the same sitting,” Selbst recalled. “It was basically just being in the kitchen for like, six or eight hours straight.”
Tvisha Devireddy, a junior at the Brooks School in North Andover, won a national Silver Medal for her photo, “Mollette.” The photo is part of Devireddy’s photo collection, “Blooming Blue,” which she completed for photography class at school. Each of the photos is a portrait of a teenager with a piece of blue satin, reminiscent of the dress Devireddy wore on her 16th birthday.
“I was really interested in exploring the female coming-of-age experience,” she said. “This pose is halfway between being vulnerable and emerging into the world.”
Though she isn’t yet sure what she will study in college, Devireddy said she will be a lifelong photographer.
“It’s how I feel like people can understand me,” she said, “and how I can truly and completely express myself.”
American Voices Nominees: https://omeka.library.tufts.edu/exhibits/show/2022scholasticgoldkeywriting/american-voices-nominees
American Visions Nominees: https://omeka.library.tufts.edu/exhibits/show/2022scholasticgoldkeyart/american-visions-nominee
Regional Gold Key Art: https://omeka.library.tufts.edu/exhibits/show/2022scholasticgoldkeyart
Regional Gold Key Writing: https://omeka.library.tufts.edu/exhibits/show/2022scholasticgoldkeywriting
Regional Silver Key Art: https://omeka.library.tufts.edu/exhibits/show/2022scholasticsilverkeyart
Regional Silver Key Writing: https://omeka.library.tufts.edu/exhibits/show/2022scholasticsilverkeywriting