A digital artwork blending social justice and magical realism, a personal essay about the American Dream, and a poem about cultural alienation — winners of this year’s Massachusetts Scholastic Art and Writing Awards grappled with the personal, cultural, and political in thoughtful ways.
The annual Scholastic competition, founded in 1923, awards students grades 7-12 regional and national honors for their creativity in 28 art and writing categories. Students submitted more than 10,000 entries to the 2022-23 Massachusetts competition, which is sponsored by the Boston Globe Foundation in partnership with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University.
Erin Kim, a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, submitted a portfolio of digital artwork that reflects on her monthlong 2017 trip to Myanmar. Kim traveled with her father, who is Buddhist like many of the country’s residents. When news of the coup d’état in Myanmar broke in 2021, she found it difficult to see the country in turmoil and sought to make art representing what she felt for the people.
“I aimed to center my artworks around conveying my message of loving support for Myanmar, really hoping for the reclamation of joy,” Kim said.
The portfolio won a Gold Key, the highest regional award, and a specific piece, “Frames,” was nominated for the American Visions Award. The American Visions and American Voices awards are national honors for artwork and writing, respectively, that have “an original, authentic voice or vision,” according to Scholastic’s website. Massachusetts nominates five Gold Key recipients for each award.
In “Frames,” Kim used magical realism, combining scenes and people from the trip into imagined compositions. She drew a young boy she met on the trip, with his eye peeking through his fingers, suggesting a lens through which to see a different world, she said. Beside him is a cat, a persistent symbol in the portfolio that she said represents herself and her solidarity with the people of Myanmar.
The other Massachusetts American Visions nominees are Heyon Choi, Daniel Ha, Soleil Vailes, and Lillian Verhagen. The American Voices nominees are Pauline McAndrew, Tallulah Stallvik, Bianca Morales, Jessica Fan, and Hyewon Suh.
Another Phillips Academy student, junior Bianca Morales, looked to her immediate environment for her winning work. Morales wrote a personal essay about growing up in a Puerto Rican household in Harlem and the racial and cultural differences she encountered when she started going to school in Andover. “On West 149th Street” describes specifics of her life in Harlem, such as visiting her aunt, who lives in the building Morales grew up in, and watching Fourth of July fireworks.
The piece is a “love letter” to her neighborhood, Morales said. “I wanted to just explore very niche things,” she said.
Other entries also focused on the communal. Soleil Vailes, a junior at Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, photographed her friends in a series called “Melanin” that focuses on people of color and addresses mainstream beauty standards. She submitted several of the pieces, including “GB,” a film photo of her friend by the same name, that was taken on the school basketball court. Vailes wanted her photo series to show people in casual, natural states, and the location for “GB” was intentional, she said.
“That’s where you meet random strangers and you play games with them and you build community there,” Vailes said. “It was a full circle moment, if you will, of just taking photos of empowerment there on the basketball court.”
Hyewon Suh, a junior at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, said she wrote about a recent experience to find a sense of resolution about it. Her personal essay “Our Banana House” examines her family’s new experience of suburban homeownership after years of living in apartments and condos. Buying a home carried implications about the American dream for her immigrant family, said Suh.
“In school, we learned that [the American dream] really doesn’t really exist for many people, but also, here we are buying this house and choosing to remain in this country,” Suh said.
Some students paid homage to other artists. Phillips Academy sophomore Heyon Choi created a piece called “My Four Seasons” inspired by 16th-century artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s portraits, which created facial features out of vegetation. Choi’s digital artwork is a collage of four self-portraits, each representing one of the seasons. Choi added a modern spin, mixing natural elements like flowers and fruit with human-made ones including a ruler, pencils, a highlighter, a rubber duck, and Christmas ornaments.
“It started with taking a photo of my side profile and then starting to cover up each part of my face and my hair and my body with flowers and plants and animals,” Choi said.
Tallulah Stallvik, a junior at The Cambridge School of Weston, used poetry to look at the little things affecting their day-to-day life. Their poem, “Passport Entry to the Dining Table,” explores what it’s like to be part Norwegian and to be sitting at a dining table and not understand the language being spoken.
“It’s both a celebration of family and also talking about how sometimes language barriers or feeling disconnected from my heritage can be really difficult,” Stallvik said.
Stallvik has been writing from a young age, and said Scholastic’s recognition of their work makes them feel grateful. “It’s definitely motivation to continue pushing myself.”
“Massachusetts Scholastic Art and Writing Awards Gold Key Exhibit,” on display March 18-26, Breed Memorial Hall, 51 Winthrop St., Medford. artandwriting.org/regions/MA001A
Abigail Lee can be reached at email@example.com.